Film Reviews


Published December 17, 2011
Film Still, Melancholia

Many would agree that Lars Von Trier is the perfect director to make a film about the end of the world. Anybody who has sat through Dogville (2003) might feel they have already experienced a cinematic catastrophe courtesy of the sadistic Dane.
Neither is Von Trier a stranger to disaster in his private life, having been ejected from this year’s Cannes Film Festival for some ill-considered remarks about the Nazis. In the process, he may have ruined his chances of taking away an award for Melancholia, which is – despite all trepidations – a strange, striking, very beautiful piece of cinema. Kirsten Dunst, who suffered the embarrassment of sitting next to Von Trier during his fatal press conference, still managed to take out the award for best actress.
Dunst plays Justine, a bride who succumbs to a depressive episode at her own wedding reception, held at her brother-in-law’s stately mansion. She leaves the festivities to take a long bath, ride around on a golf buggy, pee on the sporting facilities and indulge in a bit of mindless infidelity to her husband of a few hours. While all this is going on she has to look thoroughly miserable.
In the second part of the film the debacle of the reception is forgotten, but Justine is now so infected with “malignant sadness”, to use Lewis Wolpert’s memorable term, she is virtually catatonic. She returns to the scene of the botched reception not as a bride but as an invalid in the care of her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsborough), who is her opposite in every way. Little by little, a subplot rises in the sky, in the shape of Melancholia, a rogue planet that may or may not be about to crash into the earth.
As the end of the world looms, Justine seems calmer and more composed than anyone else. She even displays a kind of sixth sense. Life is evil, she announces. There is no life anywhere else in the universe, only on earth. And not for much longer. By this stage, Melancholia is the only game in town, looming gigantically in the sky, exerting its influence on the light and the weather.
The cinematography in this film is sumptuous, the special effects atmospheric and convincing. The prospective end of the world is made to seem hardly more significant than Justine’s depression. The wedding reception, where grotesque roles are played out by many welknown actors, including Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt as Justine’s estranged parents, is unsettling and bleakly comic. By comparison, the approach of Armageddon is a serene, almost spiritual event.
It is this balancing of the public and the private, the inner world of one unhappy individual and the disaster that will engulf the entire planet that makes Melancholia such a unique experience. Only a depressive like Von Trier could pull off such a feat. His self-destructive behaviour at Cannes was on a par with Justine’s efforts at the wedding reception. He also made a bad taste joke that his next movie would be a porno with Kirsten Dunst. This was one of those jokes, as Freud might have said, that reveals the truth, because there are a couple of scenes in Melancholia where Von Trier shows that he is well aware of the sex appeal of his leading actress. She stands shivering and naked before a bathtub, and later lies nude in the moonlight, as if to commune with Melancholia’s aura.
Neither scene is exactly gratuitous, but this could be said about almost every bit of this film. Von Trier is never conventional or predictable. The man who gave us the Dogme school of film-making in 1995, with its inflexible set of rules, is now happy to break them all. Music, for instance, was prohibited among the small group of filmmakers that subscribed to Dogme methods, but at the beginning of Melancholia, Von Trier gives us nothing less than the overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde!
This is partly ironic because Justine’s marriage hardly qualifies as one of the great love stories, but it also provides a suitably grand backdrop for the end of the world. The opening sequence is a match for the music, a surreal, eight minute tour-de-force that introduces the themes and motifs we will be absorbing for the next two hours.
When one thinks of the way the Apocalypse has been handled in Hollywood over the years, Von Trier’s version is muted, poetic, tragic in the true sense: a submission to implacable destiny rather than a blind panic. There are no crowd scenes, no shots of mighty cities crumbling, no frantic radio announcements. Claire is inclined to weep and run in all directions, but Justine is a model of placid resignation. Not only does she accept this is the end, she seems to welcome it. Looking back on the first half of the film, with its cast of flawed characters, one can understand how humanity might well appear to be nothing more than a blot on the cosmos.
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Published by the Australian Financial Review, December 17, 2011
Denmark, Sweden, France & Germany. Rated M, 135 minutes.