(Lars Von Trier, 2011, Denmark)
Setting aside director Lars von Trier’s debatably unconscious slip of the tongue at this years Cannes film festival, which rendered his usual slot banished to the ‘persona non grata’ wastebasket, Melancholia, his latest handsomely hysterical project, is ostensibly billed as a “beautiful film about the end of the world”, though its depiction is not to be associated with the works of cinema’s chief prognosticator Roland Emmerich, who uses scientifically dubious natural disasters as means to a pro-USA end. Melancholia is indeed undoubtedly beautiful, if a little tedious at times, but through von Trier’s uncharacteristic restraint for provocation and his examination of a ceremony gone sour, it is perhaps his most accessible work in quite some time.
It is no spoiler that the world does indeed end at the film’s conclusion, as the arresting, balletic opening ten minutes or so depicts it doing just that. Employing the same Polish effects company that helped sculpt the striking imagery in Antichrist (2009), Platige Image- experts at mixing horror with subtlety- von Trier presents us with a mélange of lavish and intriguing visuals that are as much a depiction of the manifestations of a looming cataclysm as they are of one of the protagonist’s damaged mentality. Such extraordinary dreamlike images as bolts of lightning emitting from the fingers of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) sinking into the ground beneath her and a large blue planet threateningly approaching, and penetrating, Earth are cut to Richard Wagner’s overture for Tristan und Isolde; a majestic composition that swells and booms both in the prelude and throughout the rest of the film, continuously sounding a foreboding alarm.
Split into two halves, the ensuing events aren’t nearly as physically catastrophic, instead opting for purposefully unnerving and prickly. Part One, attributed and named after Justine, depicts the plush reception taking place after her marriage to the goofy, naively smitten Michael (Alexander Skarsgård, son of Stellan, who also appears), an after party that disregards all-smiles convention in favour of deep seated anxieties and bitter underlying feuds, most notably embodied by warring estranged parents John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling, infantile and vindictive respectively. Part Two, Claire’s section, focuses on Gainsbourg’s increasing anxiety as the taunting planet, also referred to as ‘Melancholia’, draws ever closer, taking its toll on her marriage to moneyed braggart John (Kiefer Sutherland) and her relationship with physically and mentally broken sister Justine, who has succumbed to zombie-like manic depression. Her smashed, resigned interior outwardly welcoming the oncoming exodus as a way of purging the evils of humanity. “Life is only on earth. And not for long”, she concludes.
As her Cannes win suggests, the performance from Dunst is exceptional, evoking previous members of von Trier’s band of troubled females, including the likes of Nicole Kidman and Björk, and delivers a somewhat startling departure from her usually one note roles such as Mary Jane in the Spiderman franchise or a handful of throwaway teen comedies. Equally impressive, though not so unexpectedly, is Gainsbourg in her second film with the director who put her through the ringer in Antichrist, fully conveying a fear no one around her is expressing whilst demonstrating a warmth no one respects.
If the narrative particulars don’t immediately gel together, then that could be due in part to a director who likes to mystify first and rationalize later, much like his opening with a beautifully crafted, interplanetary smorgasbord followed by a padded, slow moving waltz between sparring characters with a foresight-induced anticlimax of sorts. Yet, if the material is as tightly sculpted and expertly handled as it is here, then one can forgive von Trier for instantaneously laying his cards on the table.