Dunst conducts in Lars von Trier's Melancholia.
*** 1/2 (out of five stars) Melancholia. Written and directed by Lars von Trier.
Danish director Lars von Trier got himself into trouble at the Cannes Film Festival last spring with some rambling, intemperate remarks about Nazis (“I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi…I understand Hitler. He did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting there in his bunker at the end ... I sympathize with him…I am of course, very much for Jews. No, not too much, because Israel is a pain in the ass. But still, how can I get out of this sentence? No, I just want to say about the art, I'm very much for Speer...”). Trier’s bold foray into no-go territory got him personally banned from the festival. It also led many to wonder if the maker of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville was being a sly provocateur, or just a fool who, if entrusted with a shovel, couldn’t resist digging himself deeper and deeper.
In fact, the answer to this question is right where it should be, in the very film he was presenting at the festival. The elegiac and utterly crackpot Melancholia once again shows von Trier to be a visionary AND a fool, for it is — if nothing else — a meditation on why being “exceptional” and “an exceptional pain in the ass” must often correlate in art.
Melancholia is a boutique end-of-the-world movie, far from the routine apocalypses offered up by Hollywood. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is an advertising executive who is getting married to what seems like a decent guy (Alexander Skarsgård) at the palatial abode of her future brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). The latter is the kind of rich guy who regularly reminds her that the splendor of his generosity comes at a high cost. But despite the top-flight wedding planner and convenient golf links, Justine is perversely determined to be unhappy, smiling what everyone can see is a threadbare smile and spurning her groom’s advances in favor of some random guy in the sand trap of the 18th hole. “Sometimes I hate you!” cries her faithful, exasperated sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), to which her sister replies, “What did you expect?”
The wedding is a disaster, but is only an appetizer for ensuing, radical shift in the film’s tone. The existential cause for Justine’s misery, you see, is a rogue planet that has left its hiding place on the far side of the sun and may or may not be on a collision course with Earth. Sutherland’s John, who stands in for the kind of cocksure rationality von Trier despises, is thrilled by the passage of the planet “Melancholia”. Justine expects the worst, and more seriously, thinks a collision may be for the best. “The earth is evil,” she declares. “No one will miss it.” No credit for guessing which character — the technocrat or the lissome Cassandra — turns out to be right.
The juxtaposition of tragedy of manners and sci-fi spectacle, with the orb of Melancholia gradually filling the sky over John’s empty estate, seems awfully contrived. Yet the mood von Trier builds here wins you over with its power and utter lack of compromise. Justine is von Trier himself, a depressive barely able to function under normal circumstances, as when she weeps with despair at the prospect of climbing into a bathtub. Yet when it comes to facing universal mortality she, the archetypal artist, is unflinching. The edge of the knife is where she lives, after all, and the sense that something is indeterminately “wrong” is her accustomed mode. Von Trier perpetuates the metaphor with a long sequence at the opening of the film, depicting a series of static tableaux of Justine waterlogged, Ophelia-like, and Justine with spikes of electricity leaping from her fingertips—not unlike the filmmaker with his bag of special effects tricks. Meanwhile, planet Melancolia stalks the earth, promising the ultimate rolling of the credits.
While von Trier seems ferociously anti-commercial in his choice of subjects, he has a way of patiently building suspense that is compelling from even the most conventional perspective. Similarly, though he seems to identity most with Justine, the heart of his film is given to Charlotte Gainbourg as the rock-solid but increasingly desperate Claire. Gainbourg—who was spookily good in von Trier’s Antichrist—plays the emotional anchor this time, although anchored in ground that is itself losing solidity.
It is tempting to dismiss both this film and its maker as completely nuts, but there are rewards for sticking with both. Afflicted as we all are by forebodings of melting ice caps and the next, inevitable pandemic, it would be a lie to for any of us to claim we can’t understand the disquiet of someone like Justine—or the despair of artists like von Trier, whose circle of compassion seems to include, yes, even Hitler. Somehow, in a medium where our collective imaginations are straitjacketed by the bounds of PG-13, his flaws don’t look so dangerous after all.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro