In the eyes of the press, Lars von Trier is a misogynist, Nazi-sympathetic lunatic. In my eyes, he’s one of the most inventive, profoundly moving directors we have today. When premiering his latest film at Cannes, he started a joking tangent of “offensive remarks”. His intent was to screw with the press. In return, the press has screwed him over, to an extent overshadowing the film he was there to promote in the first place. And man, is it a beauty.
The title is “Melancholia”, referring to both the gloomy state of mind of the lead character, Kirsten Dunst’s Justine, and the red planet that is slowly but surely hurtling towards Earth. While everyone else is frantically running about, providing scientific “proof” that the two will not come into contact, Justine serenely sits, waits. Knows.
She’s not incorrect in her assumption either — “Melancholia”s very first scene is the ultra-slow-motion destruction of the Earth, a sequence set to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” prelude that mesmerizes and shocks. von Trier has always had an utter grip on visual style and form, but here he manages to make the very destruction of our world a poem, playing to the senses and the mind.
After this sequence, von Trier rolls it back a few months to Justine’s wedding — here we meet her dysfunctional family. Here we meet her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg in her second von Trier, and first without clitoral mutilation), Claire’s husband, a very convenient astrologist (Kiefer Sutherland, playing well outside his “24” origins), their charming drunkard of a father (John Hurt), and Justine’s slime-ball of a boss. (Stellan Skarsgard, who else?)
Here is a charming little mini-movie in which things fall apart rather quickly. Justine experiences a wave of sudden, paralyzing depression. Watching the looks on her groom-to-be (Alexander Skarsgard of “True Blood”) slowly become less and less hopeful is heartbreaking. Justine’s are even harder to watch. The film here enters a second segment, more centered on Claire’s home-life and her grappling with the forthcoming end of the world.
“Melancholia” is an immensely personal statement for von Trier, whose crippling depression has well-publicized over the years. von Trier here offers a full-fledged exploration of it, both as a force that can destroy and build, immobilize and empower.
All of this is done with an equal emphasis on character and visual. Both are important to the message being conveyed, but von Trier’s true accomplishments lie in his techniques, in his form. In what other film would an Oscar-worthy performance go almost entirely overlooked in my praises? And although Kirsten Dunst may not go home with even the nomination she deserves for her work here, it still marks a wonderful revitalization in talents and form in, ironically, a performance embodying depression.
“Melancholia” is a film both sluggish and brief, natural and fantastical, heartbreaking and magical. Lars von Trier has, through his career, has excelled in finding universal truths through focused portraits. Here, von Trier has expanded his ambitions to the stars, and the result is less a film than it is a dream. The only bad part is waking up. A