Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter present two very intimate visions of the apocalypse. In Take Shelter, Curtis (Michael Shannon) struggles to keep sane as he wonders whether the hellishly tremendous storms he sees are figments of his decaying mind or omens of a coming destruction. In Melancholia,Justine’s (Kirsten Dunst) menacing unpredictability is matched by the approaching planet for with the film is named.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is that Take Shelter asks you to imagine an apocalypse, and Melancholia asks you to imagine an apocalypse and a world exactly like ours, except that it periodically lacks the gravity of relationships, the emotional physics by which we live. Without this gravity, this push and pull that we use to calculate our movement and calibrate our expectations, Melancholia offers a story that can only be witnessed, rather than understood.
The visuals of Melancholia are exquisite, and the elements for grand cinematic devastation, emotional and physical, are there- the spellbinding beauty of Kirsten Dunst, a fantastical setting, and a stimulating hint of relation between Melancholia, the planet, and Justine’s erratic behavior. But Melancholia resigns its potentialby not being true to its characters- Justine’s radically destructive behavior is unwarranted and unbelievable considering the film’s upstanding bourgeois setting.
I don’t expect a filmmaker as original and inventive as Lars von Trier to follow all the rules of everyday social reality, but Melancholia asks one toimagine that too many rules, rules central to social experience, don’t apply. For one thing, which happens to be one of the main issues of the film, it is unfathomable that such a marriage at that between Michael and Justine would end merely hours after the reception… “Things could have been different,” says Michael (Alexander Skarsgaard), the groom. “You knew what to expect,” says Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the unpredictable bride. Is this something that an upstanding groom would say to his bride as they end their nascent marriage? No, this is something that is said after a girl invites a guy to a party and he leaves early because she is too busy talking to other people.
The problem with Melancholia is that it necessitates imagining conflicting circumstances: one, for example, where marriage, the weighty Western conception of marriage just as we’re familiar with it, is honored, and another where a groom and wife call off their marriage with all of the consideration of a middle or high school relationship. This is an imagining I couldn’t do, and because I couldn’t do it, I saw the characters as pretty objects whose fates I didn’t much care about.
Although Curtis, in Take Shelter, becomes as mentally impenetrable as Justine in Melancholia, he’s not nearly as incomprehensible. For one, his transformation from a respectable family man to a shelled and dysfunctional person is witnessed. As he questions the cause of his visions and terrors, the potential of his developing schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder, which his mother has, is revealed. We are able to understand, rather than just observe, as he takes seemingly irrational actions to protect his daughter and wife, as he is fired from his job, as he finds himself an outcast in his own social circle… Where Melancholia asks that the viewer observe and accept radical and ill-proportioned character developments without explanation, Take Shelter provides circumstances illuminating the story’s equally bizarre developments. Because of this, although Melancholia and Take Shelter are both dazzling films, Melancholia most assuredly the more beautiful of the two, Take Shelter is a more successful and satisfying film.