Lars von Trier’s new film ‘Melancholia’ is out of this world Friday, December 09, 2011 By Tom Storch
Lars von Trier is probably not a Nazi, despite his claim earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival (where he somehow managed to get banned from an event that still welcomes Roman Polanski). While promoting his new movie, “Melancholia,” he made a series of comments about how he understood Hitler and had plans to make an unpleasant, four-hour long pornographic movie before finally letting out, “Okay, I’m a Nazi.” The reason I do not think von Trier was being entirely honest is because he has a long history of confusing shock with profundity, as best exemplified by his previous film, “Antichrist,” where he threw graphic depictions of infant death, genital mutilation and talking foxes at the audience as if to say, “Look at how controversial I’m being. It must be brilliant!” The problem with “Antichrist” is that behind the grisly images, the themes were ultimately uninteresting. If that is von Trier at his worst, then “Melancholia” is von Trier at his best. It is a big, poignant and devastatingly personal exploration of depression, family and the end of the world, which makes it all the more discouraging that the director has eclipsed the film itself. Maybe he feels it is necessary to do so, since he is one of the few contemporary filmmakers who can actually overshadow their own films. This is shown by how he so prominently places his name above the sole title credit of “Melancholia” after a ten-minute montage of the world being destroyed. Appropriately, the destruction of the Earth is the only time when steady compositions are used as opposed to the chaotic hand-held, cinema verite style that the rest of the film is shot in. This sequence, played over Richard Wagner’s song “Prelude to Tristan and Isolde,” recreates several paintings using the cast, including John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia” and Pieter Bruegel’s “The Hunters in the Snow,” which is also physically shown within the first few moments of the film, serving as a nod to Andrey Tarkovskiy’s brooding science fiction epic “Solaris,” no doubt a major influence on this film. They both utilize a looming alien planet as an allegory for human emotions, in this case the destructive nature of depression. In the first chapter of the film, except for a brief mention and a few fleeting cut-aways, the turquoise planet, named Melancholia, is entirely absent. Instead, it focuses on the wedding reception of Justine, an attractive and successful advertising executive with a history of depression, played by Kirsten Dunst. The reception, and the rest of the film, takes place on the massive country estate owned by her sister Claire and brother-in-law John, where they live with their young son. Their expansive front lawn and manicured hedges suggest the post-apocalyptic resort of Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad.” Charlotte Gainsbourg ably plays Claire (acting much more restrained here than in her volatile performance that was the best thing about “Antichrist”) alongside Kiefer Sutherland, who gives a very Kiefer-Sutherland-like performance as John. The rest of the guests at the reception are frustratingly one-dimensional, among them are the typical archetypes of the cold mother (Charlotte Rampling), the carefree father (John Hurt), the over-abrasive boss (Stellan Skarsgard) and the depthless groom (Alexander Skarsgard, Stellan’s son). The groom is a character who is so vague he does not even have one dimension. The most notable features about him are his height and blondeness. However, none of these background characters serve more as props to surround Justine and her deep medical depression. It is not until the second chapter of the film that the planet begins to play a more prominent role. Justine, unable to complete the simplest tasks like eating and bathing, moves in with Claire and John. The film reaches a level of intimacy that most closely resembles an Ingmar Bergman chamber drama in the vein of “Through a Glass Darkly” or “Cries and Whispers.” This section is by far the most mature of von Trier’s career, stripping away the clichés he has too often relied on while retaining a rough, experimental edge. Following in the steps of what Nicole Kidman and Björk did in other von Trier films, Dunst loses nearly all her inhibitions (and seemingly the pigmentation in her skin) to aggressively tear into the Freudian nightmare of a role and to deliver an assured performance that swings in between hysteria and eerie calmness. As the planet Melancholia moves closer to the Earth, the focus is not on the mass panic usually explored in end-of-the-world movies, but rather on the individual ways of dealing with a crisis. John takes an analytical approach, studying and charting its progression, Claire endlessly worries about the possibility of a collision and Justine, lacking any worry, literally basks in the planet’s glow. In one particularly effective scene, all of the principals lounge out on the mansion’s patio to watch the planet gradually move on the horizon during the middle of the night, where darkness has been replaced by a haunting blue glow. Even in the face of the opening sequence clearly laying out how the film will end, there is a fleeting belief that Melancholia will be something that hovers above, but then ultimately passes over earth. “Melancholia” bookends the other major release at Cannes, “Tree of Life,” which examines grief through the beginning of the world. Von Trier tells of grief through the end of the world. In “Tree of Life” God is everywhere, whereas in “Melancholia” God is nowhere and man is completely alone. “Life is only on Earth. And not for long,” says Justine at one point, but through the relationship between the sisters and the arresting final image, genuine humanity leaks into “Melancholia,” maybe in spite of itself, and affirms that cosmic isolation is not necessarily a hopeless matter.