Review: Surveying the Wreckage of a Personal Apocalypse in Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia”



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Far from the Palais in Cannes where Lars von Trier may well have tarnished his international standing by joking about being a Nazi sympathizer, I sat in a worse-for-wear theater deep in the San Fernando Valley to see "Melancholia" months before it hits American theaters, thanks to the vagaries of Oscar qualification rules. And yet I would suspect he might agree the unpretentious multiplex in the West Hills was a better place to witness his take on end times.


For someone that's never been a von Trier admirer, put off by the attention grabbing and the dehumanization of his characters that has often left me cold, "Melancholia" felt as though it was the first in quite some time to drop the pretense and engage with its audience by presenting people onscreen instead of polemics. Still, its two leads do represent completely opposite perspectives – Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the ostensible von Trier stand-in and soon-to-be bride whose freedom has come at the cost of cynicism and depression as she's excelled at a copywriting job and nabbed a fiance, while her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has enjoyed life in a gilded cage, married to the owner of a palatial estate (Kiefer Sutherland) and become a mother to a young son as her dependence on others has robbed her of agency. Wounded long ago by parents (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) whose spite for each other oozes from their skin, the sisters join each other for the wedding of Justine at Claire's home, unaware they're really coming together for the end of the world.


MelancholiaKirstenDunstCharlotteGainsbourg You, however, know apocalypse is nigh from the opening prologue (similar to the one in “Antichrist” with a touch more restraint), a series of shots that begin with a static profile of Justine as dead birds fall from the sky behind her and culminating with a collision of the earth with a much smaller red planet. It is the lead-up to a single title card reading “Lars Von Trier Melancholia”, scrawled out as a child would on white sand on the beach and a reminder that Von Trier is as crude as he's always been. (Half an hour later, a scene of Justine relieving herself on a golf course is another.) But I'd argue this is the film where von Trier finally connects on a mature level, a pinnacle of the technical skill that made him impossible to dismiss even as he wasted his considerable talent on an inconsistent string of putrid provocations while retaining the daring that's made him a cult favorite.


The contempt that von Trier has held for the world at large – its societal hierarchy, its cultural hegemony, its stringency when maintaining civility – is crystallized and controlled in “Melancholia,” not just scattered bits of rage that overwhelm the narrative. Though he has once again assembled characters each representing his personal beliefs and traumas, here presented around the banquet hall holding Justine’s wedding, they feel human individually, and collectively the reason why Justine, a seemingly happy bride, falls into a deeper and deeper depression as the post-nuptial celebration wears on during the first half of the film.


Her guests all exhibit anti-social behavior bubbling beneath the surface — the caterer (Udo Kier) shields himself from the bride after a two-hour delay, her mother uses her time for toasting to pointedly attack the notion of weddings while her boss (Stellan Skarsgard) uses his to commandeer the attention to announce Justine’s promotion to art director, later assigning an assistant (Brady Corbet) to pester her during the evening for the tagline for an ad campaign. Even with the threat of a colliding planet overhead, it’s obvious there is far more danger here on earth for Justine, something she’s at peace with when she tells her sister, “If you think I’m afraid of planets, then you’re too stupid.”


MelancholiaKirstenDunst3 The simplicity of nearly everything in “Melancholia” may drive some up the wall. As if the metaphor isn’t obvious enough, a stolen glance at Claire’s computer as she searches for the mystery planet reveals its name to be Melancholia, with the second search result just below noting the same term for a mental disorder brought on by severe depression. Meanwhile, the behavior of each of the characters seems to have little effect on one another, except for the broadest strokes or as it relates to the degradation of spirit for film’s two central sisters.


However, if “chaos reigned” in “Antichrist,” elegance reigns here. The extraordinary cinematography of Manuel Alberto Claro or the film’s use of the haunting overture to Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” for its score undoubtedly make the film easy on the eyes and ears, but it is how “Melancholia” conveys ideas that is most soulful. Ignoring the bloated explanations of most science-fiction, the impending disaster is signified organically with a stick affixed to a wire formed like a ring at the tip to demonstrate whether Melancholia is coming or going, something anyone could make at home.


The film is also the beneficiary of one of Dunst’s finest performances, expressive and delicate enough to break at first and growing coarser throughout as Justine grows more erratic before conveying a knowing that’s genuinely earned. Of course, she bears no resemblance at all to her onscreen sib Gainsbourg, but it’s a testament to both their performances the two are inextricably connected psychologically, clearly challenging each other even when they don’t share the same scene together. (For her part, Gainsbourg deserves credit for taking the much less showy role of Claire and still not overplaying the part of concerned sister and mother.)


MelancholiaKirstenDunst2 Nothing overtly ties the film to a specific time period, but still I couldn’t help but think “Melancholia” is a movie of the moment, one that has joined a series of others this year where personal well-being isn’t only prioritized into events of epic magnitude, but it is an event of epic magnitude. Whereas protagonists often would represent (usually the best of) humanity as a whole as they rose to the occasion to defeat the asteroids, outsmart the natural disaster or destroy the robots, it’s suddenly become about the individual (representing him or herself) whose fortunes dictate the fate of the universe.


This year, we have seen the upbringing of one family in Texas by way of nature or the way of grace is a referendum on evolution in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” and an apocalypse obsessive parallels a destructive breakup with societal breakdown in Evan Glodell's "Bellflower." Now, von Trier has turned his well-known bout with depression into a film where the weight of sorrow could be greater than the planet careening towards earth.

At a time when worldwide panic always lurks around the corner, if not here already, “Melancholia”’s prescience is in how it delivers an apocalypse built by a thousand capitulations, attacking the individual for not being selfish enough in giving into the demands of modern society while upset at the greater world for not taking note. But “Melancholia” isn’t an angry film, just one that doesn’t offer anything in the way of comfort, except for the satisfaction that can be taken away from great art and appreciation of von Trier as the rare filmmaker not to compromise.

"Melancholia" will be available on VOD on October 7th and in theaters on November 11th. It will play Toronto on September 10th and 17th at the Ryerson.

Care to agree or disagree? We still have some time before this one comes out, but we'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

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