Sunday, October 9, 2011

Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)

Melancholia is so honest, so bereft of its maker's seeming inability not to burden his films with at least one huge, garish, self-consciously edgy flaw, that Lars von Trier's disastrous press conference for it at Cannes now makes sense. That was just the cosmic balance reasserting itself, spilling out the usual tacky, ill-thought-out, offensive nonsense that weighs down so many of the director's half-baked screeds and cruel character studies. Here at last is a film that displays von Trier's genuine attempts to come to terms with emotions and thoughts, most of them at the darker end of the human spectrum, but without the, to cut to the chase, usual bullshit.

Few artists make openings as striking, gripping, or aesthetically distinct (not just from everyone else but the rest of the films in question) as von Trier, and his super-slow-motion montage here is one of his finest. Melancholia tantalizes with its apocalyptic, despairing imagery even as it clearly plays the film's finale up-front. This will not be a mystery of whether the Earth will die, something its title makes equally obvious. The apocalypse is coming, but neither von Trier nor his on-screen proxy can seem to care. As Justine (Kirsten Dunst) coldly asserts, "Life is only on Earth, and not for very long."

Following the oneiric opening montage, Melancholia begins properly with the absurd sight of a stretch limo trying in vain to navigate the narrow, twisting road up hilly terrain as newlywed couple (Dunst's Justine and Alexander Skarsgård's Michael) laugh and laugh. This scene is not the only funny moment of the film, but it's certainly the most cheerful one. When they arrive to their reception two hours late, the couple is met by Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her countenance so sharp and jagged it seems as if Gainsbourg's own angular frame sprung out of Claire's bourgeois outrage.

Within the castle Claire's husband, John (Keifer Sutherland), rented for the occasion, Manuel Alberto Claro's cinematography turns a jaundiced yellow, suggesting a sickly, nauseating quality that slowly comes to play out over Justine's face as she deals with the reception. Justine cannot bear her divorced parents' bickering, the cynical rudeness of her mother (Charlotte Rampling, playing a funhouse-mirror inverse of a hippie in her inappropriate garb as she spouts misanthropic condemnations for her toast), the condescending and almost predatory nature of her boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and the sheer discomfort of having everyone's eyes on her at all times.

Dunst times the fading of her smile across the whole of this first half, constantly trying to rally herself and failing as whispers of mental troubles start to swirl around her like an evening mist. As much an embodiment of the titular condition as the planet coming to destroy Earth, she moves her limbs with the speed of glacial shifts, swift only when she sees the opportunity to dart out of view until someone drags her back into the party. Dunst's face communicates a desperate attempt to put a look of cheer on her face, but everyone sees through it, especially Michael, whose kindness belies a mounting frustration that pushes his understanding to the breaking point.

Justine also notes the brightness of the star Antares as she sneaks occasional glimpses at the night sky outside the stuffy castle, and the disappearance of the light marks the end of the first half. Von Trier shifts focus in the aftermath of this ceremony to focus on Claire as she deals with Justine, now nearly catatonic, and silently frets over the reason for Antares' disappearance, the emergence of the hidden planet Melancholia. The diseased yellows of the first half morph into muted, even pallid tones of desaturated grays, browns and dim greens, the opposite of the verdant, exuberant views of nature in this year's other noteworthy attempt to dig into humanity via psychological types and universal staging, The Tree of Life.

Malick's film reveled in the spiritual and, though few seemed to recognize it, the scientific. It posited a notion of spiritual unity by way of evolution, which ties together the universe physically. But von Trier already had his fill of both religion and science in Antichrist, which crafted its "villain" out of warped dogma and provided no offsetting balance in the condescending, even patriarchal intervention of psychiatry. God is absent from Melancholia, and science exists only to miscalculate. John's assurances that the planet will pass by Earth conflict with our pre-spoiled ending, exposing his predictions, however informed, as just that.

Melancholia's approach seems to draw Justine's complete surrender out of her with its gravitational pull (or is it she who draws the planet here?). If Dunst played the woman with lethargy in the first half, here she reaches zero Kelvin. Though obviously an exaggeration, Justine's physical shutdown and eerie calm, even vaguely eager acceptance of the apocalypse piercingly captures the titular feeling. She does not sob or moan or scream; as we see in Claire, who eventually does these things, that is the result of anxiety. But Dunst portrays only the melancholy, the sense of hollow sorrow that does not even produce tears, that seems to collapse the body's systems until even going outside feels like an arduous trek. Those of us who have felt these bouts of defeat will recognize both the honesty of Dunst's endothermic performance and the absurdity of the film's scale; that kind of sadness really does feel cosmic, and one who feels it overloads emotionally and resets to zero.

Filled with beautiful imagery, Melancholia cannot strictly be called "pretty." Its symbolic framing—Melancholia hanging over Justine, the planet and the cold moon arranged above the two condition-personifying actresses—speaks only to sadness, the empty shell of woe left by Antichrist's fury. For von Trier, the only universal is death, and that knowledge leads him to neither panic nor live his last moments with joy. It only sucks the wind out of him, as Melancholia steals the Earth's atmosphere when it nears. Melancholia certainly won't tell anyone suffering from its affliction how to recover, but seeing even at grandiose, metaphorical exhibition of it with such deeply felt empathy is therapy in itself. Who knows, after screaming bloody murder with Antichrist and sighing with resignation here, maybe von Trier will cinematically dose himself into some modicum of happiness. Who am I kidding?


  1. Awesome, Jake! We are on the same page with this one. It's going to be a tough call at the end of the year between this and The Tree of Life - I mean honestly, I can imagine both competing for my best of the decade nine years from now. I loved everything about both of these films – and they really are “joined” by their polarizing themes and artistry. I think you are spot on when you say Von Trier was just putting the universe back in balance with his Cannes tirade.

  2. I was amazed. I have never, NEVER, been able to embrace a von Trier film without trepidation, and usually I just hate them altogether. But Antichrist had some honesty buried among its ludicrous add-ons and this is where those seeds bore fruit. I've been hoping LvT would deliver for me one day; he's always had such talent that I've kept watching since I knew he had a great movie within him. This is it.

  3. I'm so glad to find this review, which totally resonates with my experience of the film. I think Cannes was pure self-sabotage. It must be difficult to live with having made such a (refreshingly) non-ironic and heartbreakingly honest portrayal of his own loneliness. I'm not surprised he keeps trying to shrug off any emotional attachment he has for it in interviews.

    Dunst had me from the first moment. She completely nailed the resilience of the profoundly disappointed. Apparently the clever Paul Thomas Anderson suggested her for the role.

  4. By the way this is the best LvT interview I've seen since the Cannes debacle. Lots of talk, in English: