Waiting for the world to end in Lars von Trier’s latest
Directed by Lars von Trier
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland
What with his extensive résumé and his multiple Cannes Film Festival awards, Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has more than proved his skill behind the camera. But even longtime fans are forgiven for being hesitant when entering a von Trier movie these days. The icy auteur has demonstrated an increasing taste for heaping traumatic levels of physical and psychological abuse on his leading actresses (Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, Björk in Dancer in the Dark, Nicole Kidman in Dogville, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist). If the guy is not an unrepentant misogynist, he sure is convincing at playing one on TV.
So it is with a precautionary flinch that we greet von Trier’s newest film, the apocalyptic opus Melancholia starring Kirsten Dunst. The mind reels: How is he going to degrade poor little Mary Jane from Spider-Man? As it happens, he’s not really. The writer-director has had another change of personality, much as he did in 2006’s sly experimental comedy The Boss of It All. Turns out Melancholia is an end-of-the-world picture for the Prozac generation.
The film—no less artistically challenging and logically frustrating than his previous work—has been cleaved down the middle into two hefty chunks. In the first half, we meet Justine (Dunst), a just-married bride who’s traveling to her ancestral, mountaintop estate for her wedding reception. In tow is the handsome groom (Alexander Skarsgård). Waiting for the seemingly happy couple are Justine’s irresponsible father (John Hurt), her bile-filled mother (Charlotte Rampling), her brittle sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her money-obsessed brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) and one very persnickety wedding planner (Udo Kier). It’s an impressive lineup of actors to find at one’s wedding reception, and the early scenes have a surprisingly playful quality to them. (Kier is especially amusing, flitting about the background.)
It becomes clear, over the course of the long evening, though, that Justine is suffering from some crippling—if ill-defined—form of depression. And there’s not a lot of sympathy to be found. Dad is oblivious. Mom is busy insulting everyone who’s breathing. Brother-in-law spends all night carping about the money he’s wasting. Big sis can’t figure out what to do. And the groom? He adopts a milquetoast attitude, acquiescing to her every manic-depressive demand and still managing to get dumped cold on his wedding night.
The second half of the film switches gears and concentrates on Justine’s sister, Claire (Gainsbourg). It’s sometime after the disastrous wedding party, and Claire invites her sister back to the fancy mountaintop estate to decompress. She doesn’t, of course. Instead, Justine decides to obsess over a new planet that has suddenly appeared in our solar system (making it the second heavily metaphorical planet to pop out of nowhere this year after Mike Cahill’s Another Earth). The planet Melancholia looms large in the sky, orbiting its way closer to Earth on a daily basis and sparking much apocalyptic debate. Claire’s husband (who happens to be an astronomer) assures one and all that Melancholia will pass harmlessly by. But as we know from the film’s opening flash-forward, that ain’t what’s in store.
So in the first hour or so of the film, we’ve got a disastrous wedding party. In the second hour or so, we’ve got a rogue planet on a collision course with Earth. The connection: one mighty depressed dame whose near-suicidal pessimism is rewarded (if that’s the word for it) with the “I told you so” to end all “I told you so”s.
To be perfectly blunt, Melancholia is a brilliantly acted, luminously shot film—but I don’t understand a lick of it. A lot of critics might be inclined to call this a masterpiece, von Trier’s magnum opus. I’m not one of them. If you loved Terrence Malick’s mind-frying, sleep-inducing The Tree of Life, you’re gonna dig this languid pile of cosmic unconsciousness. It’s got a lot of scenes in which Kirsten Dunst stares up at the sky and acts depressed (occasionally while naked, it should probably be noted). When she’s not looking up at the heavens, she’s moping around the estate in a near catatonic state. Or riding horses.
Aesthetically speaking, it’s all gorgeously depressing. Shot in Trollhättan, Sweden, the film takes place entirely on the grounds of an estate so perfectly manicured it looks positively surreal. It’s like Edward Scissorhands went to work for Ingmar Bergman. Strolling about the gardens, the actors are fabulous in their wedding finery. And for the first half, von Trier achieves a palpable fly-on-the-wall rhythm. Wedding receptions are uniformly awful for people who aren’t actually getting married, and von Trier crafts a doozy of a disaster—filled with family infighting, preposterous decorations, terrible timing, drunken bad behavior and even some indiscriminate sex.
The film’s second half, however, drags interminably. The cast gets stripped down to basically Dunst and Gainsbourg, who just sit around various bourgeois patio terraces debating whether they should do something to mark the end of the world or not. Sadly, “not” pretty much wins out.
In the end, a Lars von Trier film isn’t something you watch. It’s something you endure. With Melancholia, the filmmaker has graduated from taking out his frustrations on women to destroying all life on Earth. Turns out he wasn’t a misogynist after all—just a garden variety misanthrope. Hey, at least his latest screed spares us the joys of genital mutilation.
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