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There’s a typically indictful moment late on in Melancholia in which Kiefer Sutherland’s glib Republican sets the camera up for a shot of him and his son on a lush, expansive lawn. Behind them, Melancholia, a planet set for a collision with Earth which will destroy all life, is approaching and vies with the moon for starry-skied attention. He sets the timer and rushes back into the frame, hovering proprietarily behind his son. They both smile, clearly delighted. If there’s one scene that encapsulates Melancholia, possibly Von Trier’s best film, it’s this: self-regarding notions of ‘timelessness’, self-preservation and the accumulation of objects in the face of annihilation is still irresistible. Marital partners, photos of nearing planets, houses. Unless, that is, you’re Kirsten Dunst’s recently disastrously wed depressive.

The film begins with a beguiling, disorienting opening montage, in which we have Dunst looking beyond us as birds plummet to the earth behind her and sister Charlotte Gainsbourg, son clasped to her, falls to sodden golf course turf, her Munch expression slowly worsening. There are a series of colour-saturated, surreal images, such as Dunst straining from right to left, in full wedding garb, seemingly rooted to the turf, effecting a gloriously futile and beautifully staged metaphoric exit – from what we are yet to understand. A carefully-framed horse slowly falls, redolent of Kubrick for some reason (Barry Lyndon?). Dunst is perplexed and catatonically bewitched as wisps of electricity plume from her fingertips. Then, shots of space, constellations and the abyss of unreciprocal chaos. All this in slow-mo to the heady, unequìvocally rousing strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. These are impressionistic stabs at grandiloquence, and provide an extravagant, impressively daring and epic foregrounding that immediately prompt comparison with Malick’s recent Tree of Life.

We’re soon inside the wedding limo with Alexander Skarsgård and Dunst, giddy with conspirational jocularity, despite their driver failing to negotiate tight country-road corners. Upon arrival at a remote chateau (at which a lavish wedding ceremony in their name is already underway), where we will remain thereafter as the slow thrum of impending disaster builds, Dunst is initially unassailably amused but dutiful at the pained recriminations as to her giddy tardiness from sister Charlotte Gainsbourg and bounderish brother-in-law Kiefer Sutherland. Dunst is a hyper, distant presence in the opening throes, an oblìvious lightning rod to the internecìne grumblings in her midst. Best man Stellan Skarsgård makes a self-gratified speech as Von Trier’s camera work expertly conveys mid-drunk swagger. Thereafter, Sutherland distractedly chomps on food whilst fairly obvious nemesis and mother-in-law Charlotte Rampling expounds, in rebuttal to father-in-law Hurt’s goading, on her hatred of marriage.

As planet Melancholia becomes more prevalent in the darkening sky, we have the groom’s speech: Alexander Skarsgård perfectly capturing the nervy delusions of the smitten man with dire skills of perception. His vulnerability is his ego, and his jitters are aptly countered by Dunst, who wills on the creaking fantasy as an inevitable doom lingers in her gaze. She wanders in and out of proceedings whenever the façade slips and turmoil holds increasingly fervent sway. There is a sense that her unpredictability has been factored in, and this is a ceremony at which she is, unusually, not always the focal point. Von Trier constructs the film skillfully to place you firmly within her perspective, which is one of assuming a series of guises and postures that belie her inner state, until the inevitable crash. So you never feel part of the unfolding jamboree, as she doesn’t. You vicariously take in the distant theatrics of your own wedding. ‘You’d better be goddam happy’, as Sutherland says at one point. ‘You got any idea how much this wedding cost?’ He also demands, ‘How many holes are there on this golf course?’ of Dunst, who says ‘18’, which is enough to provide a moment of grim approval (all the more potent later on as we encounter the ‘19’th…).

Skarsgård can’t, or doesn’t want to, see behind the wedding veil. He bounds on with the happy delusion, at one point producing a photograph of a plot of land he’s bought for Dunst, which awaits an impossible future. ‘Maybe we can have a swing hanging from a tree?’ he confirms, rather than suggests. Dunst’s response is a non-commital placation: ‘I’ll keep the photo with me at all times’, just prior to leaving it behind as she slips out of the room, a painful, compressed seal of marital doom. She is soon re-arranging books on display, a simple compulsive act of control to quell the downswing, a desperate, rushed, trivial intervention indicating a change in psychological equilibrium, and she’s inexorably on the way to over-aware capitulation, confiding as she does in Gainsbourg: ‘I smile and I smile and I smile,’ to which the latter rejoinders unhelpfully with ‘You’re lying to us!’ Mother Rampling is somewhat more sympathetic. ‘We’re all scared. Get the hell out of here.’ Dunst is soon aborting the consummation of her marriage before forcibly having sex with someone else on the golf course, and in an incredibly seductive moment, basking in the glow of the ‘flyby’ planet, stretched out naked on an embankment, a parallel prelude to the imminent inter-planetary ‘dance of death’, as Gainsbourg looks on, spellbound, a realisation of something lacking in herself beautifully suggested by the disappointed-child-faced actress. This marks the point at which Gainsbourg’s air of grim stewardship falters, and a role-reversal is soon underway, as she procures drugs to endure their shared crisis, Dunst by now emptied and assured.

It is, in particular, a brilliant, untethered-yet-controlled performance from Dunst, surely a career-best. From blank glee to silent horror, she perfectly encapsulates the behavioural cues of someone trudging through a marriage and a life beset by uncontrollable demons, never more so than frozen in torpor in a bath as the ceremony continues to unfold during another of her intermittent absences. She evokes a sense of the embattled heroine amidst an unseen maelstrom, repelling an incomprehensible everything by hiding far within herself. Melancholia represents a release for her, and as it hurtles closer, and as she goes from a kind of beatific denial through breakdown to icy equanimity, she is eventually composure’s epitome as the end nears.

(Aside: A brilliantly employed crude metal loop extended on the end of a branch which tracks the nearing planet’s proximity is surely the only Dogme-esque borrowing. This is otherwise far too honed and stylish to bear too much resemblance to ‘Festen’. There are also direct references to Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad that are welcome and relevant, death being the real protagonist of both, spectral humans no match for the onslaught of time. And horses tensely clopping around stables (before appropriating an eerily calmdisposition) is maybe a bit obvious for such a post-modernist.)

Dunst ends euphoric and baffled, beset by wonderment and perplexity, not merely at her and everyone else’s fate, but at the triviality of humanity, pedantic and parochial even at death’s advance. There is no personal sadness, just a reflective resignation. ‘A glass of wine and Beethoven’s Ninth’ is a ‘piece of shit’ way to go, which is one withering way to put it.

I read the other day that Lars Von Trier was a fraud. To many critics, adopting the correct stance in the face of unfortunate media tomfoolery seems paramount. Meanwhile, this is the best distillation of the director’s misanthropic musings yet, in what is easily the film of the year thus far. If ‘Life is only on Earth. And not for long’ then I’m delighted that Von Trier is here to help us face up to our lot with his unique and unmissable take.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. November 5, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    His best, huh? Well, you make your claim credible in this excellent review. I wasn’t really interested in this one and had a hard time imagining Von Trier doing a disaster film (knowing it really could be a “disaster film”). Now I’m very interested.

    You bring up Tree of Life, and Melancholiac sounds like an intriguing counter. Similarities too: amazing/fraudulent/pretentious directors casting their philosophies on film, this year doing it in cosmic scale by creating or destroying the earth but still keeping an intimate focus. Yet so different in the end. Obviously this is without me seeing Melancholia, but . . .

  2. November 5, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    After writing that above, I realized I couldn’t possibly be the only one comparing and contrasting these two films. If I’d been paying closer attention to Cannes I’d have seen this all the time!

    It’s tempting to pick a side here — Team Terry’s earnest theological questioning versus Team Lars’ Dogme dystopia. Despite obvious similarities between their two-hour-plus, universe-contracting, special effects–heavy emotional epics, Malick and von Trier seem to espouse polar opposite philosophies.

    This from here.

    That said, I’d love your thoughts :).

  3. November 6, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    Ha! Blimey. Where to start?!? I like the fact that both the directors in question are making these films. One a romantic nostalgic poet, the other a misanthrope. Two pieces on a huge scale and yet both focusing on individual malaise in response to catastrophe. They form the years unmissable double-bill, and surely some indie cinema has run such a double feature already!

    I don’t have conviction, in the end, as to why we – humans – are here, or how. Malick’s take is seductive and I love him, but Von Trier seems truer. Melancholia is magnificent, pessimistic and yet gloriously uplifting to me. Whereas Tree of Life, which I loved, some incredible moments in there, is the more depressing of the two, as he’s interrogating not only memories and idyllic retrospection, but the nature of beauty as fleeting and doomed. It’s an odd state of affairs but Melancholia is more feel-bad feel-good. Tree of Life is an achingly gorgeous tribute to what kind of world we might live in, but don’t.

  4. November 7, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    I watched this one on-demand (thanks Magnolia), and I’m not sure I feel entirely stable after viewing it.

    Amazing that a movie with such large and lovely shots of celestial objects and open verdant space, almost always with a light breeze blowing the characters’ hair, can feel so claustrophobic. That reminded me a bit — and perhaps this was mainly brought to mind due to the shrubbery — of Kubrick’s The Shining. The emotional weight, that almost sickening under-the-skin feeling, reminded me of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. In fact, along those lines, I should say that there haven’t been many films that enter my subconscience in such a way that through the night I have waking dreams of their visual and emotional heft. Fanny and Alexander and Winter Light both did that to me, and I was shocked to have such an experience with Melancholia. Along those lines, nice to see, though I don’t know the purpose, the channeling of some exceptional directors. The pace (or was it the Hunters in the Snow) certainly took me to Tarkovsky.

    Visually: I loved it. I know some people have a hard time with such overt stylization, but it really worked for me here. Acting: top notch. I agree that Dunst hits the right pitch again and again. I didn’t expect that from her. Gainsbourg’s more silent though to me tangible terror was also excellent in the second part. Themes: What a fascinating way to explore depression. The film felt incredibly personal, as I imagine it was. Crazy that a director who seems completely immature in public can express himself so well (controlled, patient) through a film. Glad I didn’t sit around waiting to see this one “someday.”

    • November 15, 2011 at 9:44 am

      Well, I’m delighted you’ve seen it, if only for your perspicacious thoughts. But I’m glad you found it worthwhile also, it has seriously split everyone I know that’s seen it down the middle. One friend walked out. Another was bored. Fascinating.

      Yuor point about claustrophobia is an interesting one and I don’t have the time to respond with a worthy consideration right now, but I completely agree, And it’s a wonderful juxtaposition: the looming planet on its fatal way and the vast, lush expanses which are perhaps meant to indicate some kind of bucolic freedom but, personally, I’ve always experienced the opposite sensation. That it’s another way for man to fool himself as to his plight. I feel less claustrophobic in cities; and back to Sean Penn and Tree of Life. Maybe it’s, in the end, just personal sensibilities that have me preferring the Von Trier.

      Interesting also what you aver as to Gainsbourg: another friend of mine, who confessed to loathing Gainsbourg in absolutely everything as the film got underway, suggested later that she held the film together.

      I think your wider point on Bergman is something I’ll have to ponder but I instantly find the comparison compelling. Great thoughts as ever, Trevor.

  5. November 11, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    One has to separate the art and the artist. Lars may be a bit of a dick, but it doesn’t necessarily invalidate his films.

    That said I wasn’t interested in this until I read this review, which makes a really good case for it. Dunst is I think a somewhat underrated actor able to perform at a level higher than her vehicles often require. Of course it’s also a way of her getting some indie cred.

    Was Festen a von Trier? I rather liked Festen, but had thought it was by someone else.

    The central metaphor does seem obvious. We’re all after all in exactly the position the film depicts, just without such an obvious single source of futility, but obvious doesn’t matter if the execution is good.

    Anyway, great review.

  6. November 15, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Thank you, Max, and Festen, of course, is not Von Trier’s: that was a kind of lazy Dogme extension. Thomas Vinterberg? I’d have to check (loved the film, mind).

    Max, please watch this, I look forward to your thoughts on it and Dunst’s performance. I think she’s pretty phenomenal in it; were she not the film wouldn’t work.

    Yes, the central metaphor is nothing new, which is another reason I was so shocked as to how successful the execution was. It’s all so beautifully constructed and played, and yet I did doubt whether that would be enough to carry the premise. It is! Trust me. I’ll send you a book worthy of the cinema ticket valuation as recompense should yuo hate it….:-) (that’s a promise!).

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