The rapturous sound of Wagner’s “Tristan un Isolde” wraps around the audience as surreal images of the end of the world unfold in slow motion. Kirsten Dunst, gaunt and adult in a way we’ve never seen before, stands at the center of the chaos, almost bathing in it. Before we ever see the title of the film, a hand-written scrawl with the director’s name above it in equal size, Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” has already offered up a more ravishing experience than most of the films I’ve seen this year, and at that point, he’s just getting warmed up.
I have an on-again/off-again relationship with the work of Von Trier. I remember a great deal of buzz before the American release of “Zentropa,” and by the time I walked out of it, I was ready to write him off entirely. Nothing about the film appealed to me. Then someone showed me his earlier film “The Element Of Crime,” and I got interested again. His mini-series “The Kingdom” convinced me that there was a disturbingly dark wit at play in his work, and 1996’s “Breaking The Waves” absolutely pulverized me emotionally. It remains one of my favorite films of that entire decade, punishing as it is. I’m not a fan of “The Idiots” or “Manderlay,” and “Dogville” was an experiment I liked but didn’t love. “Dancer in The Dark” is one of those films that I am fairly sure I admired, but that I never ever want to sit through again. His experimental movie “The Five Obstructions” is one of the canniest films about filmmaking I’ve ever seen, a way of illustrating just how much any one thing can affect the entire outcome of a piece of collaborative art. And with “Antichrist,” it felt like he pushed shock as far as he possibly could, not to destroy his audience, but hopefully to destroy himself. Even when I don’t like something he makes, I find I am compelled to examine it, sometimes more than once.
But with “Melancholia,” there’s no ambivalence, and I don’t need to wrestle with my reaction. I loved it, pure and simple, and I cannot wait to watch it again.
In many ways, this feels like Von Trier turning a page on who he has been up till this point, taking all of his strengths and setting aside his weaknesses. It is not a movie that trades in shock, and he does not spend the entire time punishing his lead actress. There is a kindness that leavens the painful sorrow that hangs over the film, and his wicked sense of humor feels organic here, managing to create this emotional rollercoaster, sometimes whipping you from hearty laughter to the verge of tears within a few lines. That seems appropriate, too, since this really isn’t a film about the end of the world, but instead a way of expressing the bottomless horror of depression in a way that works as metaphor, as emotion, as unleashed beauty.
Make no mistake, though. The world does end. It ends right at the start of the film, and then we back up and find ourselves at the start of a celebration.
The film deals with two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and is divided into two halves, each named after one of them. In the first half, we see the wedding party of Justine, thrown at the unbelievable country estate of Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). The first scene, as Justine and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) are en route to the reception, is basically a great visual gag that allows you to see these two at their best together. They’re in a preposterously long stretch limo, but the road to the country estate is so narrow and winding that they end up stuck, the driver unable to figure out how to corner it. Instead of being frustrated or tense, Michael and Justine are entertained by the predicament, and it’s easy to immediately like the both of them. When they finally do show up, hours late, Claire and John can barely disguise their fury at the way things have been handled, and they are rushed in to begin the reception.
Von Trier’s staging of the long wedding night is masterful, and he introduces the huge ensemble with deft character touches and lovely visual flourishes. John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling are the divorced parents of the bride, and in them, we see the two sides of Justine that reveal themselves over the course of the evening. Because even though she’s initially happy and excited and beaming, the very picture of a bride, there’s a sorrow and an anxiety eating at Justine over the course of the event that threatens everything. She’s wrestling with something much bigger and much darker than just new-bride jitters, and when Rampling speaks, we get a glimpse of it in her as well. Hurt, on the other hand, is silly and loose and so charming he’s got two dates to the wedding. Over the course of the evening, we see the Justine that Michael hopes he’s married, and we also see the Justine that she’s afraid he’s married, both of them wrestling for supremacy.
This is the second film in a row where Von Trier has dealt head-on with the depression that almost drove him from filmmaking, and I find it really extraordinary the way he’s taken his own suffering and turned it into art. “Antichrist” is beyond bleak, an experience I would not recommend for casual viewers. If Gainbourg is his stand-in in that film, then he spends most of the running time trying to destroy her, even as she works to destroy her own happiness. In this film, Justine is more approachable, more invested in her own mental health, but just as powerless when the darkest moments roll in. It is an honest view of chemical depression, and the wedding party is a perfect stage for this to play out on.
And yet, much of the wedding party made me laugh out loud. There is a very natural, easy joy that Von Trier captures, and he piles on the small performance details that build into larger and larger laughs. Udo Kier, in particular, put me away with a simple hand gesture several times. The control that Von Trier exhibits in this section of the film is impressive, and so when he does finally shift and start letting the darker undercurrents move to the foreground of the film, you don’t notice at first.
Eventually, though, a sort of seeping malice begins to assert itself, and Kirsten Dunst does the best work of her career in this film, riding the tricky tonal shifts as if were the easiest thing in the world. She makes it all feel natural, credible. She is an adult now, all traces of the child we first saw in “Interview With The Vampire” long-gone, and she throws herself into the role with abandon. It is a dazzling performance. What helps is that everyone else in the film is equally strong. Skarsgard brings a sensitivity and even vulnerability to his role that I haven’t seen in his work on “True Blood,” and his father Stellan Skarsgard shows up to excellent effect as Justine’s boss, the best man at the wedding, a subtle bully determined to get some work out of Justine even in the midst of this personal event. Brady Corbet, such a menacing presence in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” makes the most of limited screen time, and Jesper Christensen plays “Little Father,” a household servant, and somehow suggests a fully developed character largely through body language and behavior.
The film’s second half, named after Claire, deals more with the discovery of a new planet previously hidden behind our sun, an idea that is also at the core of “Another Earth,” one of this year’s most buzzed-about Sundance movies. Von Trier does something totally different with the idea than that film did, of course, as his planet, which is rather overtly named Melancholia, is on a course that will bring it dangerously close to Earth. There is debate among scientists and in the media about whether it will hit the planet or pass it by, and that anxiety comes pouring into the household, dividing Claire and John. While Claire seems much more balanced than her sister in the first half of the film, the threat of losing her child Leo (Cameron Spurr) seems to push Claire into a sort of constant shaky panic that just keeps building no matter what John does to try to assuage her fear. As great as Dunst is, Gainsbourg and Sutherland match her in the second half especially, and for Sutherland, this is a wonderful reminder of the promise he had when he first appeared, and a spooky echo of his father’s darkest hours.
I’m loathe to discuss many more details of the film, but I’ll say that it is exceptionally beautiful, and Manuel Alberto Claro’s cinematography is an important part of what gives the film such a creeping sense of both dread and hope, commingled in a way that is dizzying at times. The use of Wagner is appropriately grand, and crushing in the way it builds with the imagery. Technically, the film is a marvel, with some very sophisticated effects work that always feels thematically justified and never just for the sake of showing off.
As with any film festival, you start to see ideas and themes and even imagery that plays out in interesting ways from film to film, with movies either underlining or refuting each other’s points, serving as either mirrors or arguments. Here, you can fold several of Cannes’ other films into “Melancholia,” whether it’s the end-of-the-world anxiety of Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter,” or the black-hearted depression of “Arirung” by Kim Ki-Duk, or the complicated sister dynamics of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” or even the cosmic scale and metaphorical ambition of “The Tree Of Life,” but only Von Trier would combine all these disparate ideas into a film like this. This is a Von Trier we’ve never seen before, and I am curious to see where he goes from here. It feels like he’s dealt with the darkest period of his life now, gotten it out of his system, and I can only hope we will see this growth and this control continue in his work in the future.
If “Melancholia” isn’t on my ten best of the year list this year, then we are in for an exceptional year of movies, because the bar has been set very high, indeed.
“Melancholia” will be released in the US November 4, 2011.