Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of Lars von Trier, our destruction will at least be queer.
If there was anyone on this planet properly suited to make a film about the apocalypse, it might very well be von Trier. The controversial Dane has made a career out of nihilism, trauma and violence, a trend that seemed to reach its peak with in 2009 with “Antichrist,” a horror film alternately hailed as a masterpiece and decried as the most misogynist film ever made. “Melancholia” should be far less divisive, considering the general lack of such extreme, graphic material compared to what von Trier has dealt with in the past.In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more lyrical, expressive film from any director (other than Terrence Malick, of course, but we’ll get to that). While von Trier gained fame as one of the founding members of the ultra-realist Dogme 95 movement, “Melancholia” has traded in the stripped-down production of his earlier films for the grand, emotional swagger of German romanticism.
Right off the bat, von Trier sets the mood with an audacious prologue set to the prelude from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde;” in a series of stunning, super-slow-motion shots, the audience is presented with a sort of tableaux vivant, surreal images that I’m told make all kinds of artistic allusions. But even if the specific references are lost on you (as they were me), this first sequence is bound to take your breath away simply from the overwhelming expressiveness of it all. The images grow more and more outlandish, more uneasy… the music swells, the tension builds, and just like that – the world ends. And we’re ready to start the movie.
Considering such a moody opening, what von Trier does next is astounding: he cuts from celestial apocalypse to a moment of unexpectedly simple, human humor. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) are on their way to their wedding reception at the palatial estate of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). No expense has been spared for this affair, so Justine and Michael are riding in a fancy stretch limo – a stretch limo that’s too big to make one of the turns up the winding road to Claire’s mansion. Is it possible to describe anything that von Trier does as “amusing?” There it is.
The knowledge of imminent doom makes the absurdity of the party all the more pronounced. The reception is populated by a motley assortment of eccentric figures: Justine and Claire’s bitter, caustic mother (the magnificent Charlotte Rampling), their peculiar, diffident father (John Hurt), the put-off wedding planner, Justine’s demanding boss from her advertising agency (Stellan Skarsgard). Justine herself, who apparently suffers from crippling depression, periodically abandons the festivities, whether to mope in a bathtub, feed her favorite horse, or have rather unappealing sex with a young co-worker on the mansion’s golf course. The wedding drama is nothing new – but from “Rachel Getting Married” to “Father of the Bride” and “The Quiet Man,” we’ve never seen a train crash of a party like this before. It’s like a reality show only, obviously, not real in the slightest. A surreality show?
As Justine submarines her own party, the pragmatic, no-nonsense Claire tries desperately to keep everything on track. These are sisters in name only, and not just because Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg have the least convincing sibling resemblance ever: the intimate family drama of “Melancholia” ultimately stands for something far greater. The world is ending, but you will see no Bruce Willis heroism here. Justine and Claire are perfect foils, the embodiment of opposing attitudes toward humanity: Claire believes that everything can go according to plan, that there is meaning in planning and structure; Justine bears the fatalist’s burden, doubtful that any particular action has real significance in the grand scheme of the cosmos.
For the first half of the film, our sympathies lie mostly with Claire – Justine’s behavior is too radical (even in the face of surrounding weirdness) to elicit much of a reaction beyond wanting to slap her, hard. But things shift dramatically in the second part of the film. The wedding is already a distant memory – Justine’s condition has left her barely able to function. And all the time, the rogue planet Melancholia, which has mysteriously appeared in the night sky, draws closer and closer. John, an astrophysicist or astronomer of some sort, insists that Melancholia will pass by Earth with no ill effects; but we already know otherwise. Armed with that knowledge, Claire’s attempts at control suddenly appear pathetically futile. Justine, having already rejected humanity, is the only person who accepts the end with grace and poise.
But we must stop and consider what we are admiring. Justine meets her fate calmly and rationally because she has decided that human life has no value. Amidst all the beautiful sights and sounds, that is what “Melancholia” boils down to: this is not just accepting mankind’s destruction, it’s actively advocating it. Von Trier’s mise-en-scene may be less explicitly disturbing than it has been in the past, but the heart of this film is just as bleakly nihilistic as ever.
Lars von Trier may be a man of questionable social skills and provocative opinions, but there can be no doubt that he is a filmmaker of tremendous ability. The technical aspects of “Melancholia” are impeccable. Manuel Alberto Claro’s cinematography is entrancing yet off-putting; the camera floats through the proceedings as if in a dream, but permanently stuck in that uneasy moment when you’re not sure whether or not you’re in a nightmare. The decision to pair these images with the Wagner was nothing short of brilliant – the soaring strings add an ethereal quality to the apocalypse that is far more haunting than the bombastic visions of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. And once again von Trier has coaxed exceptional performances out of his female leads; we can add Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg to the list of Björk, Nicole Kidman and Emily Watson in that regard.
Like with “The Tree of Life,” another film featuring celestial meditation, it is difficult to judge “Melancholia” simply because it seems to exist on such an entirely different plane of filmmaking than your ordinary cineplex or even indie film. It’s like comparing Emily Dickinson poetry to John Grisham. Whether you favor von Trier’s particularly grim outlook on the world or not, “Melancholia” will stick with you in a way most end-of-the-world films haven’t. I do not hold with those who favor a frosty attitude toward mankind, but one can’t shake the feeling that it’ll all turn out the same in the end anyway.
Probably not playing in theaters anymore. Sorry.
Verdict: 3 1/2 stars out of spoon.