“Melancholia,” Lars von Trier’s latest monster, may forever be remembered for the wrong reasons. Jaws dropped when the notorious Danish provocateur joked that he understands Hitler; that he sympathizes with him, that he’s “a Nazi.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Von Trier was expelled from the festival shortly afterwards, having been named a persona non grata. An Argentinean distributer terminated his contract with the film in the wake of the scandal and its future appeared to be on the line.
The impact of von Trier’s remarks on the commercial prospects of the film proved to be null. The film has already opened in numerous territories across the world, taking in more than double the revenues grossed by his last film, “Antichrist” (2009).
As with every von Trier release, “Melancholia” received radically mixed reviews. Long-time admirers were left cold, heralding the film as a sign of his creative bankruptcy. His fiercest critics, meanwhile, were ecstatic, calling the film his best in years (“A von Trier film for those who hate von Trier Films,” one critic declared).
My opinion falls somewhere in the middle. “Melancholia” is one of von Trier’s most beautifully photographed films to date, boasting breathtaking visuals and highly inventive techniques. It features an astonishing turn from Kristin Dunst that ranks among the great performances of recent years, and it’s through her character that von Trier delivers one of the most honest, most brutal portraits of depression ever put on screen. And as a disaster movie, it audaciously subverts genre conventions, focusing primarily on human relations.
At the same time, the domestic drama framing his themes and ideas in the first half of the film is clunky and wearisome; the dialogue is blatantly crude and occasionally bland in parts while a number of characters come off as caricatures, a first in von Trier’s career.
The first eight minutes of the film features the most stunning opening of any film seen this year. Various images set in different stages of the story are relayed in ultra slow-mo against the swelling overture of Wagner’s “Adobe and Isolde” — dead birds falling gently from up above, a horse collapsing on dark lawn, white flames emanating from Dunst’s fingertips, a fire ravaging a bush glimpsed from a window lane, a bright blue planet swiftly colliding with Earth. The film’s prologue is identical in execution to “Antichrist’s” and the impact is no less powerful.
This is the end of the world. A planet named Melancholia is steadily moving closer to earth and, as we discover early on, it will collide with earth and everyone will die. But this not your average disaster movie; there are no heads of states trying to save the planet, no astronomers flying over to stop the crash from happening; no religious figures providing any prophecies or elucidations. The Danish provocateur does the apocalypse by way of Strindberg, imbuing his intimate family drama with an eerie sense of doom.
The film is divided into two parts. The first, titled “Justine” after Dunst’s character; opens with a wedding ceremony shot via hand-held camera in mostly natural lights, recalling von Trier’s Dogma films. Justine is an art director at an advertising agency with a long history of depression. Her family has been assembled in a lavish country estate owned by her portentous brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland).
This is supposed to be the happiest day of her life, yet Justine cannot shake off her heavy wretchedness, much to the chagrin of her uptight, fastidious sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She tries to put on a straight face, but eventually fails. Her attempts to overcome this anxiety is translated into wayward behavior: She pays a visit to her stallion before the reception, pees in the middle of a golf course and obsessively stacks a collection of art books in an order known only to her.
The family circus isn’t making it any easier for her. Her jovial, flaky father (John Hurt) abandons her when she needs him the most for a mere ride home. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling), in a dinner scene cloned from Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration,” throws a tantrum at her ex-husband, denouncing the institution of marriage and encouraging her to “enjoy it while it lasts.”
Her detestable boss (von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgård) deploys his young hand Tim (Brady Corbet) to press her over a tagline for a new campaign. Her hapless groom Michael (Alexander Skarsgård, Stellan’s son) is baffled by her desolation, incapable of alleviating her pain.
Following “Antichrist’s” footsteps, men continue to play a periphery role; their presence is unfelt, their authority is diminished.
Part two, named after Claire, puts the apocalypse scenario in focus. Depression has wrecked Justine to the bone, transforming her into a scarecrow. Justine grows more dependent on Claire, unable to perform the most basic functions. Meanwhile, Melancholia ominously sails closer towards the earth as John and Claire begin to lose their composure.
“Antichrist” was notoriously conceived during an intense depression episode von Trier suffered. The quasi-religious parable was direct, almost instinctive, expression of this angst, despair and helplessness; a cry for help from a man descending down the abyss. Arriving two years later, “Melancholia” is a more sober, clear-eyed portrayal of that condition. It’s more refined, more articulate in themes and aesthetics than “Antichrist,” yet, at the same time, somewhat less powerful, less immediate.
A significant shortcoming in the first half is the family drama. The relationship between the bitter mother and the careless father is predictable and thin. Same goes with Justine and her boss who seems intent on niggling her for no palpable reason. None of the supporting characters are fleshed out, emerging as mere props to intensify Justine’s anguish.
Here, von Trier tries hard to shock, struggling to create a Bergman-like situation without the underlying rawness or conviction. The moment, for instance, when Justine finally tells her sister that she hates her thus feels weak, with no impact. The intended comedic effect is also too acerbic, too calculated, to come into fruition.
In the midst of these misgivings, Dunst surfaces unscathed, carrying von Trier’s sorrow valiantly on her shoulders. Dunst — who also suffered from a much-publicized depression in recent years — walks, talks and behaves like a ghost searching for a lost soul. An aura of crushing defenselessness, defeat and desperation radiates from Dunst’s face. Her performance is so emotionally naked, so confrontational in its frankness that, at times, it’s painful to watch.
Justine is so sad not even the habitual tranquilizers of sex and alcohol can grant her the temporary relief she craves. There’s no redemption for her; the promise of marriage, of a blissful life, proves to be unrealistic, unreachable.
The second half improves drastically on the first as the stage clears up for Justine, Claire and John to deal with the end of the world. The mood darkens, repressed emotions explode and masks fall; only Justine, through her depression, manages to accept and cope with this catastrophe. In constructing an apocalyptic scenario, von Trier attempts to vindicate his depression. The end of days comes off as a cathartic conclusion to the mendacity, aloofness and heartlessness of this world of ours, a desired resolution to a sullen, contaminated and pointless existence. “The Earth is evil,” Justine tells Claire, “We shouldn’t grief for it. No one will miss it.”
The most striking feat of “Melancholia” is its use of metaphor. On one level, planet Melancholia represents death; that foreboding destiny each and every human must face. Claire and John know that the end is near, that in span of days, they will no longer exist, yet they can’t bring themselves to accept it, nor can they find a meaning behind it all. Like most people, we live our lives, day to day, knowing that no matter what we do, no matter hard we fight time; we’ll ultimately cease to exist. In this lost battle, the Grim Reaper will always come out victorious.
On another level, “Melancholia” embodies the daunting state of depression; an unconquerable fiend you can’t escape. Melancholia, the mental condition, is, in the context of the film, an uncontrollable cancer with no cure. Like the blue, mysterious titular planet, there are no solid explanations to trace the origins of Justine’s depression.
Over the course of two films, Lars von Trier has turned his illness into art, producing two stark portraits of a vile, valueless world heading towards an unavoidable destruction. “Melancholia” ends with a bang, a sweeping destruction that is both epic and beautiful. Only at the very end do we experience relief, only then do we understand why Justine has been craving for this end all along.
“Melancholia” is screening as part of the fourth Panorama of the European Film on Nov.25 and Nov.27 at Stars cinema.
Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier.