Lars, my old nemesis, here we are. At the end of our last encounter, 2009’s Antichrist, I wasn't sure if I’d ever see any of your movies again. The review’s subhead (as subheads will do) overstates the case: I didn’t say, “I’ll never watch another Lars von Trier movie” but rather that “I feel no need to keep accompanying von Trier's career at all.” Reader, I knew that von Trier's next movie was likely to override that resistance, to make me want to watch it, which is exactly what happened when Melancholia (Magnolia Pictures) made a splash at Cannes. (In all the uproar about von Trier’s weird Nazi-referencing speech during an ill-fated Q-and-A, it’s easy to forget how many critics adored his film, for which Dunst won the festival’s best actress award.)
When I stop to think about it, my relationship with Lars von Trier may be more conflicted than with any other filmmaker now working (a fact that in itself is annoying—it accords him so much power!). I hated Antichrist so much that I don’t even enjoy explaining why I hated it (and for me, that’s saying something). And when the video clip of that controversial Cannes speech was going around, I went out of my way not to watch it. You’d think I’d enjoy the public flogging of someone whose work often fills me with rage, but seeing von Trier taken to task as a monster for those remarks held no satisfaction—if he’s a monster to me, it’s for entirely different reasons.
Now that I’ve finally seen the Cannes clip—Lars delivers a long, rambling monologue about his genuine sympathy for Hitler, while Kirsten Dunst squirms in nervous anguish at his side—there’s nothing that it brings to mind so much as Melancholia. Both are overlong von Trier productions featuring lots of hot air about ostensibly provocative ideas, and both seem to exist primarily in order to make us watch Kirsten Dunst suffer.
And yet—and yet—there’s something about the solemn, gloomy, often overwhelmingly powerful experience of watching Melancholia. I’ll give it this much: This is a hard movie to forget. For days after seeing it, I could call up the sense memory of its sickly green color palette and histrionic Wagner score. (Von Trier may not be a Nazi, but he sure embraces Wagner like one.)
Melancholia begins with the end, both of its own story and of the world. We see, in a series of shots so slowed down they almost appear to be stills, people witnessing strange light and weather phenomena that seem to indicate some imminent apocalypse. Visible energy fields stream from a woman’s fingertips; another woman, carrying a child, runs through a field whose ground has gone spongy, as if dissolving. Finally these super-slo-mo images give way to a long shot—a very long shot, taken from space, where we see a tiny planet Earth crash into, and be destroyed by, a much larger planet. (Spoiler for the Western Hemisphere: We go in last! Boo-yah!)
So that’s the first five minutes. In the next 130, we learn who these people are, and what happened between them in the days before the world ended. The movie is divided into three chapters, the first of which is named for Justine (Kirsten Dunst), an advertising copywriter who’s about to have a lavish wedding at a magnificent estate owned by her rich brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland). John is married to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine’s fussy, maternal older sister. Justine is a clinical depressive who’s too low-functioning to get through her own wedding; when it’s time to cut the cake, she disappears for a long bath. The girls’ mother (Charlotte Rampling) is an almost comically horrific human being, a heartless narcissist who uses her wedding toast as a chance to insult the bride, the groom, and the institution of marriage itself.
Throughout this hectic first chapter, shot in Dogme-95 style on handheld digital video, we keep hearing references to a strange reddish light in the sky, which Justine notices as she’s arriving at the mansion. It must be Jupiter, says her brother-in-law, an amateur astronomer. But then why is the planet appearing at a time of year when it’s usually invisible? And why does it seem to keep getting brighter?