PRINT October 2011


Lars von Trier’s Melancholia

Lars von Trier, Melancholia, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 130 minutes. Justine (Kirsten Dunst), Leo (Cameron Spurr), and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

COMBINING DELIRIOUS HUMOR and unabashed pathos, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is a tremendously affecting movie. It is a tale of two temperamentally opposite sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who bond under the direst circumstances—the imminent annihilation of the planet. Absent are the usual von Trier double crosses, slippery send-ups and self-satire, empty “Brechtian” distancing devices, and rampant misogyny. Women have almost always played a central role in his narratives, which typically fall into one of two categories: those in which the female protagonist is tortured nonstop and achieves beatitude through suffering (Breaking the Waves [1996], Dancer in the Dark [2000]) and those that end with her taking bloody revenge on her torturers (Dogville [2003], Antichrist [2009]). Melancholia breaks both molds—and as a result it is the first movie by the director that I haven’t loathed. It is nevertheless certifiably von Trier in its formal strategies, primarily the subversion of popular movie genres (here, the wacky wedding comedy and the disaster-from-outer-space flick) through the blatant imposition of an aesthetic that at once heightens and decimates the conventions of realism on which those genres depend. As Pop art was to Godard’s mid-’60s movies, German Romanticism (including its devolution into Nazi kitsch) is to Melancholia.

The director’s infamous attempt to explain his current aesthetic penchant in a press conference at Cannes this past May caused the festival to declare him persona non grata, while nevertheless allowing Melancholia to remain in competition. (Dunst won the prize for best actress.) Given that von Trier at one point announced to the assembled journalists, “OK, I’m a Nazi,” the festival had no choice but to expel him, anti-Semitic speech being illegal in France. And though no one believed him guilty of anything more than confused moral relativism, he was forced to apologize endlessly, each time perversely digging the hole deeper. I cherish an e-mail in which one of von Trier’s partners in his production company, Zentropa, tries to account for the director’s boorishly provocative comments as being caused by a “light [case of] Tourette’s syndrome.” This might explain the compulsive épater le bourgeois streak in his movies as well.

Melancholia excepted. The movie begins with a vision of cosmic amour fou. Two planets kiss, and all life is consumed in the fire of their embrace. This prologue, its images revisited in the movie’s apocalyptic finale, is couched as a prophetic dream and scored to the “Liebestod” section of the overture to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. The film’s first image is of Justine’s stricken face in close-up, her eyes heavy with unshed tears, as small dead birds fall past her head from an unseen sky. Three shots later, another rounded shape nearly fills the frame. It is the errant planet Melancholia, looming on the horizon, moving implacably toward Earth. As the music builds, the images become more disturbing: A horse falls in extreme slow motion. Electricity streams upward from Justine’s raised hands. Three heavenly bodies—the sun, the moon, and the rogue planet—breaking through ominous storm clouds, backlight three figures in wedding attire (Justine, Claire, and Claire’s young son) arranged equidistant from one another across the lush green lawn of a huge château. (Eat your heart out, Gregory Crewdson.)

The prologue is Justine’s vision; indeed, the entire narrative proper—despite its being broken into two acts, the first titled “Justine,” the second, “Claire”—is filtered through Justine’s clinically manic-depressive subjectivity. Thus Melancholia is at once a planet and a condition of the psyche. What’s most brilliant about the movie is that it can be read in its entirety as a metaphoric depiction of the experience of an individual being slowly engulfed by depression but also as a fable about an interplanetary smash-up and the final days of life on Earth. Yet von Trier, not content merely to weave two registers of meaning, also doubles his depiction of disaster, rehearsing it first as comedy and then as tragedy. Act 1 of Melancholia is Justine’s wedding reception, a lavish affair thrown by Claire and her husband. The bride, already suffering buyer’s remorse, nearly absents herself from the festivities, lolling in the bathtub, wandering into the stables to lavish her affection on her horse, refusing her husband’s embraces, and finally hiking up her wedding dress and having sex on the front lawn with one of the guests. Meanwhile, the bride’s mother (a brutally cynical Charlotte Rampling) tells the newlyweds to “enjoy it while it lasts. I myself hate marriages.” The wedding planner (a hilarious Udo Kier) not only refuses to look at the bride but makes a show of shielding his eyes with his arm every time he passes her. The best that can be said about such a social catastrophe is that it isn’t the end of the world. And then, of course, it is. In the second act, with Melancholia bearing down on Earth, Justine returns to Claire’s nearly empty house to await the end. At one point, she lies naked on the rocks above a stream, luxuriating in the light reflected by the death star. It is an amazing image, at once banal (like a near-pornographic version of the 1940s White Rock ad) and transcendent in its hopelessness. The same could be said about the finale, which has Justine and Claire together, trying to shield Claire’s son, as worlds collide and the conflagration begins. The anxiety of waiting for the end, and the pity one feels for the characters facing the extinction of all life, creates a classical catharsis. One has to marvel when this inexorably grim vision turns release into pure joy.

Melancholia makes its US premiere this month at the New York Film Festival and opens in select cities on November 11.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.