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?
Chapter 2, “Claire,” skips ahead some months in time. Justine has sunk into an even deeper depression, barely able to get out of bed and bathe without her sister’s help. She comes to stay with Claire, John, and their little boy, Leo (Cameron Spurr). Meanwhile, the light in the sky has been identified as a rogue planet called Melancholia that’s on a path that will take it perilously close to Earth’s orbit, though most scientists agree that it will clear our planet by a hair. (In an eerie coincidence, this film opens the same week an asteroid zoomed by Earth in a similarly close call.)
The few scientists insisting otherwise are just doomsaying cranks, John assures Claire, his nervous wreck of a wife, as she Googles for evidence of the end of days. But Justine remains calm in the face of possible annihilation. She even seems strangely exalted by the prospect; in one of many brutal conversations with her sister, she coldly observes that the end of life on Earth would probably be all for the better—sweet-faced young nephew notwithstanding. Later Claire outlines a plan for how she imagines the end: the family gathered on the terrace, glasses of wine, a shared song. Asked for her thoughts on this plan, Justine enunciates her response syllable by syllable: “I . . . think . . . it’s . . . a . . . piece … of … shit.”
Most of Melancholia is about these two very different women confronting the possible end of their world, with the two male characters (and the horses the sisters take out for rides at key points of the story) standing in for the rest of creation. The contrast between the sisters is clear, sometimes (like the name of the title planet) a bit ham-handedly so. Claire is the part of the life force that wants to conserve itself, to keep going; she’s a mother, a wife, someone bound to the Earth and to making sure life goes on. Justine, on the other hand, embodies the death drive in its purest form. Though she messed up her wedding night but good, this girl is an incurable romantic of a sort, bathing nude in the light of this weird new planet (which by Chapter 2 rises huge and green in the sky every night) like a lovestruck maiden under the moon.
Melancholia contains many unforgettable images, including that shot of Dunst lying naked on a Melancholia-lit riverbank, a stark painterly composition that harkens back to the Bosch-like tableaux of Antichrist. Dunst and Gainsbourg both do superb work, even if I found myself wishing their roles had been reversed, with Dunst as the anxious, nurturing sister and Gainsbourg as the fiercely bleak one. And though its ideas about death, life, and the purpose of the cosmos struck me as somewhat grandiose and overschematic—subtlety never having been a von Trier trademark—the film does establish a powerful mood of uneasy, sick foreboding. But von Trier shows that he's also not above using the coarsest of aesthetic means to keep that mood from flagging. The Wagner cue that blasted over the soundtrack every time the planet appeared—the prelude from Tristan und Isolde—struck me as a little much the first time it was used; by the fourth, fifth, sixth time it was bordering on risible. When you forget to react to this movie with the correct degree of dread and awe—when you stop for a moment to ask what it’s trying to say—von Trier is waiting right there to goose you back into submission, whether with a leitmotif or a naked lady.
Maybe this gets at the heart of what creeps me out in von Trier’s work, even as I admire much of its artistry: There’s something bullying and cruel about the violence his films inflict on the viewer. I’m not talking about the literal depiction of violent acts on screen, though they often happen in von Trier too, as in the genital mutilation horror show that ends Antichrist. (By now, that movie requires a “spoiler alert” about as much as the story of the actual Christ.) I’m talking about the violence that takes place between filmmaker and audience, the way von Trier seems to relish making his doomed heroines, and those asked to identify with them, writhe on the end of a pin. That von Trier’s films return obsessively to the scene of one or more tortured women—and that the director himself is very hard on the actresses he works with—isn’t a matter of dispute; he acknowledges it himself, often hastening to add that the female figures he puts through such hell are stand-ins for himself. It may feel that way to him, but the audience are the ultimate lab animals for these experiments, and I’m not sure what we’re being sacrificed to prove.
Von Trier went through a major depression just before making Antichrist, and has said that both that film and this one were attempts to exorcise the demons of that period. After imagining Charlotte Gainsbourg’s bodily self-destruction in Antichrist, he ups the stakes here, essentially acting out his own suicidal fantasy on a global scale. Though he gestures at staging a dialogue between the two sisters—the humanist who grieves for the end of life versus the nihilist who gleefully welcomes it—von Trier seem to side in the end with Dunst’s Justine, as the film draws to an ecstatic (and deafeningly Wagnerian) close. Maybe he’s right, and all human hopes for the future (or for a movie that would help us to live, rather than destroy us in effigy) are nothing but a piece of shit. If you need me when the world ends, I’ll be out on the terrace with a glass of wine.
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