Oct 9, 2011
NYFF 2011: Melancholia
My original review of this latest film by Lars Von Trier went like this:
But I owe it to my readers to provide slightly more illumination, so here goes:
My theory about Von Trier is that he is a madman with creative visions and what we have been getting from him lately are personal working outs of his inner demons on film. His first features were not about him, but about selfless love and Christian-like sacrifice, but lately he is using imagery to express a state of mind. Antichrist struck me as a petulant tantrum of self-indulgent excess: the artist in the midst of a nervous breakdown; whereas Melancholia, an exploration into the depths of depression, feels like the gift of an artist who has made peace, of sorts, with his demons. I don't think there is or will ever be a movie that depicts depression so accurately, so sensually and with such understanding as this one.
The movie starts with a stunning sequence of astonishingly beautiful images, accompanied by Wagner's Prelude to the Liebestod of Tristan and Isolde (in a nutshell, love and death, a major theme of the movie). Like Terrence Malick with The Tree Of Life, Von Trier proves that digital imaging can be used to extraordinary artistic effect in movies, not just for chases and explosions. Here, there are gorgeous shots of planets in the sky, strange visions of more than two moons, an orb coming towards Earth, as we see Kirsten Dunst dressed as a bride running in the mud, Charlotte Gainsbourg holding a small child across a sinking golf course, a horse falling in the forest, all in extreme slow motion. The extraordinary cinematography with the digital Alexia and Phantom cameras is by Manuel Alberto Claro.
Then the title comes in: not plain Melancholia, but Lars Von Trier's Melancholia.
Enter at your own risk.
I have a feeling that if Von Trier had not opened his big, idiotic mouth at Cannes, the Palme D'Or would have been his. Melancholia makes The Tree Of Life look like a Hallmark card. In the end, both movies are about grace, but Malick has a much more luminous, new-agey, faith-based view of life. Von Trier's film is about apocalyptic depression. No religion involved.
Opening scene: a ridiculously long white limousine gets stuck in one of the bends of a narrow country path. Inside are a beautiful bride, Justine (Dunst) and an even more beautiful groom (Alexander Skarsgard). It is a funny scene, as the bride and the groom, stressed out at being late to their own wedding, realize the humor of the situation and sweetly help the driver steer the wheel. Finally, they arrive at a gorgeous manor in what must be Vontrierland, because it sounds like it could be the US, except half the people are from Europe. Wherever it is, it looks like a fairy tale, a semi-castle with manicured grounds and an 18-hole golf course, property of John (Kiefer Sutherland, excellent) and his wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Claire is Justine's sister, even if they don't look anything alike and have completely different accents. Their parents are played by John Hurt, an old rascal who brings two women called Betty to the wedding; and a brittle, monstrous Charlotte Rampling as the mother of the bride from hell. So hellish is she, that she wears a tie dye shirt to the wedding, no makeup. John and Claire are furious because this extravagantly expensive wedding is going down the tubes fast. Udo Kier, almost having a nervous breakdown himself, plays the wedding planner. Fun!
Justine, having arrived at her own wedding two hours late, first has to go to the barn to say hi to her favorite horse. This is not the most auspicious beginning for a bright future (these people are loaded, they have not a care in the world). But the bride is dreamy and distracted, almost narcoleptic. She regularly abandons key moments in the meticulously planned ritual, like the cutting of the cake or the throwing of the bridal bouquet, to jump onto a golf cart or take a bath, saintly groom and wedding party be damned. Something is not right with this lovely young woman, and the way Von Trier depicts the superhuman effort she makes to make it seem like she's there, like she is happy, like she appreciates what people do for her, is harrowing and heartbreaking. Justine cannot get away from the pull of Melancholia. She is awash in depression. This makes her act erratically, and she can be sweet and unfathomably sad and fragile, but also irrational, inconsiderate and bratty. The only note that struck me as false in Justine's story was her relationship with her boss (Stellan Skarsgard). Apparently, she is a genius copywriter and right at the wedding he gives her a promotion, turning her instantly into an art director (as if!), as long as she comes up with "a tagline" that very night. He sics a young man (a good Brady Corbet) to pry the tagline out of her, apparently knowing that her precarious state of mind is conducive to bursts of brilliance. This is fake and absurd, but I assume it is meant to signify that Justine is a creative being, like the film's director.
The second half of the film is devoted to Claire and deals with the anguish she has at the prospect of the world ending tomorrow. As it happens, Melancholia is also a planet that is orbiting Earth and is predicted to come extremely close to it. Claire is afraid Melancholia is going to crash against Earth, and the scientific assurances of her husband do little to assuage her, for Claire has a young son and she fears for his future. Justine appears at Claire's home one day, barely capable to get in and out of a cab, sans husband. Claire takes care of her, with the help of her majordomo, a character improbably named Little Father and played with surly aplomb by Jesper Christensen (the Nazi from The Debt). Ridiculous in a classic Von Trierish way.
Since we are in high symbolism territory, the two sisters are opposites in looks and outlooks alike. Claire is a doer, a planner, a homemaker (perhaps she represents the practical side of Von Trier that allows him to direct films). Justine is in love with death. Paradoxically, Justine's half of the movie is rooted in reality and Claire's in science fiction. Justine, the madwoman, has to deal with the petty exigencies of earthly life; whereas Claire is concerned about the possible end of civilization, not something that surfaces as an actual possibility any given Monday. As Claire fears the collision of the beautiful planet, Justine actually bathes naked in its glow: the twin human impulses of life-giving and self-destruction.
Dunst's and Von Trier's interpretation of Justine's descent into the depths of depression is extremely powerful and utterly realistic. So even as there are planets hurling towards Earth, unlikely majordomos or ridiculous characters (Von Trier seems to have no interest in what goes on in day to day life), Justine's depression and Claire's anguish are totally emotionally true.
I would not want to give the end away, but Justine, having been nurtured with devoted patience by her sister, emerges from the depth of her despair to perform a final act of grace and redemption. In the end, love is the only bond that can heal fear and pain. With Wagner's music booming, I was overcome with emotion by Von Trier's audacity as an artist. He may be insane, but he is undeniably, enormously talented.
Melancholia is a visually rapturous movie. Like The Tree of Life, it is a cinematic experience best enjoyed in a theater with a big screen and an excellent sound system. Though I can imagine legions of moviegoers scratching their heads at this one, I urge them to surrender to its astonishing power and beauty.
Think about it as the artiest disaster movie ever.