Von Triers's happily never after
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Nov 11, 2011
A masterwork of grandeur, millennial angst and high romantic style, "Melancholia" takes themes that have marked the best films of 2011 and spins them into a blast of cosmic sparkle dust.
Starting with its stunning overture set to a Wagnerian score of foreboding minor chords, "Melancholia" begins in earnest with the late arrival of a bride and groom to their wedding party; navigating a winding country road in a long limousine, they're soon boxed in, the car grinding back and forth in an absurd dance of futility. Finally, they're forced to reverse, and the bride breaks into delighted giggles: She's happiest, apparently, when she's backing out.
The bride's ambivalence comes into florid expression at the reception, a lavish affair that writer-director Lars von Trier films virtually in real time, as the newly wed Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her groom, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), navigate their fragile new life as a couple.
They must also grapple with thorny family dynamics: Justine's estranged parents are played by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling (whose heavy-lidded cynic declares that she hates weddings, "especially when they involve my closest family members"). Justine's mild-mannered sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), on the other hand, keeps trying to keep the hesitant bride on track (time to cut the cake! time for the first dance!) while Claire's wealthy husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) - the begrudging host of the entire affair - stalks around grumbling about his nutso in-laws.
The setup has the makings of a bitterly funny dysfunctional-family comedy, but von Trier instead plays it for maximum nihilistic drama (this is, after all, the man whose film collective Dogma made the intensely uncomfortable Danish film "The Celebration"). Like the nuptials in "Rachel Getting Married," the "Melancholia" wedding seems to go on and on, with Justine's skepticism finally taking a shockingly subversive turn; in the movie's next chapter, the filmmaker takes an even harder metaphysical turn as a planet called Melancholia heads straight toward Earth.
While Claire and John react with panic and control-freak calm, respectively, Justine welcomes the coming apocalypse, presumably serving as the alter ego for von Trier, whose most recent depression resulted in the brutally inhumane "Antichrist."
Admittedly, there were some lyrically beautiful passages in that earlier film before it ran off the rails; with "Melancholia," von Trier composes similarly poetic passages that are often breathtaking, from the film's opening shot of Dunst's face and the natural flora and fauna on the Swedish estate where the movie was filmed to the dazzling special effects that help bring to life the looming intergalactic disaster.
When "Melancholia" made its debut at Cannes in May (and before von Trier made his thoughtless remarks about being a Nazi), the talk of the festival was how it so uncannily echoed themes found in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." But unlike Malick, there's little room for transcendence in von Trier's world, unless the total annihilation of self counts for its most supreme expression. As always, the director puts his actresses through a series of punishments, although in "Melancholia" they're less sadistic than in the past; rather, he has dialed the sensationalism back to explore the meaning of love, ritual and self-deception.
As von Trier's ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy, "Melancholia" is a broodingly downbeat self-portrait but also the inspiring work of an artist of seemingly boundless imaginative power.
He may be rotten at news conferences, but von Trier knows how to make pictures that move.
Contains some graphic nudity, sexual content and profanity.