In a May 2011 interview during the Cannes Film Festival, a few days after he’d been declared persona non grata for making some criminally misjudged wisecracks about Jews and the nascent Hitler lurking inside all of us, filmmaker Lars von Trier told me he considered his latest project, Melancholia—in which an elaborate wedding party serves as prelude to the extinction of the planet—to be “too beautiful,” as well as “too easy.”
He may be an exasperating dolt, but he is also an inspired filmmaker, and I think he’s being a little hard on his work this time.
True, little in writer-director von Trier’s film matches the twisted cinematic intensity of the first half of Antichrist, a psychodrama (made when von Trier was hacking his way through a deep depression) whose second half depicts such outlandish, self-mutilating horrors, they nearly erase the dark glories of the first hour.
Yet the pictorially exquisite Melancholia, shot in English (as was Antichrist) with a cast led by a pitch-perfect Kirsten Dunst, is a grand piece of cinema. Six months after the Cannes premiere—marked by the sound of metaphoric gunfire as Trier kept shooting himself in the foot—it’s easier to appreciate the achievement.
No one creates richer overtures onscreen than von Trier. As Melancholia begins, music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde floods a series of discrete, striking images. Lifeless birds fall from the sky, in aching slow motion. Lightning shoots from Dunst’s fingertips. Ophelia-like, Dunst in her wedding dress floats downstream in a brook, her unblinking gaze suggesting the wedding wasn’t such a good idea.
Much of Melancholia plays, effectively, like a slice of late 20th-century Dogme-style realism, in the vein of the film The Celebration by von Trier’s fellow Dane, Thomas Vinterberg. Dunst is Justine, whose paralyzing, melancholic state of mind has happily if temporarily lifted for her marriage to pleasant, bland Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). The wedding is a crushingly elaborate affair, arranged by Justine’s sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is steeling herself for Justine’s relapse.
Also there’s the matter of a heretofore undiscovered planet, handily named Melancholia, which the top scientific minds predict will pass by Earth in five days. Kiefer Sutherland plays Justine’s dour brother-in-law, thrilled initially with the astronomical phenomenon at hand. But as he and other family members come to the grim realization of what’s really going down, it’s Justine who shows the way, the way to bid farewell to the mortal coil and the planet with stoic grace.
There is a limiting dramatic payoff in the way Melancholia pits Justine (seen in the prologue, memorably, tangled by tree roots as she tries to flee in extreme slo-mo) against all the insensitive, intolerant, uncomprehending forces surrounding her. Von Trier, his cinematographer and his designers sometimes indulge themselves in painterly (as opposed to cinematic) flourishes that announce themselves as German Romantic landscapes in the style of Caspar David Friedrich. At one point Dunst reclines naked in the light reflected by the looming planet, like a maiden in a Wagner opera. Such images in Melancholia arrive inside a set of brackets and quotation marks.
These are not substantial limitations, however. Dunst rises to the occasion with her most assured performance, fully invested and alive even when her eyes are at their most fatalistic. The project was conceived with Penélope Cruz in mind, but Dunst’s heavy-lidded air of simultaneous engagement and disengagement couldn’t be more apt for what Trier is up to here.
The movie has been available for a while now on demand, which is how I saw it a second time—in our rec room early one morning, surrounded by bins of Legos. This is not a film that easily integrates itself into the rest of anyone’s ordinary day. It’s a film made to confront and to be confronted.
Melancholia (R) ★★★☆☆