Lars von Trier’s Melancholia: The End of the World as He Knows It

The director, banned at Cannes for a Nazi joke, is dead serious in this ravishing, troubling, borderline-brilliant vision of life on a doomed planet—ours

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Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

This is the movie that got Lars von Trier banned from the Cannes Film Festival — not for Melancholia‘s amazing and confounding content, but for what its director said at a festival press conference. Von Trier, who learned as a young man that his father was not the Jewish man who had raised him but a German with whom his mother had had an affair, stumbled through some tortured logic and impish remarks about Israel and, feeling himself falling, concluded, “Now, how can I get out of this sentence? O.K., I’m a Nazi.” The overstatement, whose comic effect was obvious to most attendees, got von Trier declared “persona non grata” by the Festival. And his film, thought to be a front-runner for Cannes’ top-prize Palme d’Or, won only a Best Actress award for its star, Kirsten Dunst.

(MORE: Read more on von Trier and the Cannes Ban)

This week, six months after that Côte d’Azur crapstorm, Melancholia opens in New York and Los Angeles as the start of its U.S. theatrical release. (The film has been available to those at home via iTunes and other on demand services for several weeks now.) The folks at Magnolia, the film’s distributor, must be relieved that Von Trier, whose laundry list of phobias includes air travel, is not coming from Denmark to do promotion. And that’s fine: this daunting and delirious, poignant and problematic, borderline-brilliant film deserves to be approached on its own lofty terms, and not examined as a hidden code to neo-Nazi sentiments — which von Trier, in most respects a conventional Euro-socialist, doesn’t have. Besides, people looking for political subtext are likely to forget that search as the movie’s first images wash rapturously over them.

Wagner’s Overture for Tristan und Isolde thunders its ominous beauty on the soundtrack, and a blond woman (Dunst) in a bridal gown looks up anxiously as birds fall dead around her. In a farther region of the sky, a planet named Melancholia approaches the Earth. On a golf-course green, a second woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) clutches her son. A black horse collapses backward in slow motion. Now our Moon seems to have its own moon: the rogue planet nearing our planet. The blond tries running through a glade, but her feet become entangled in grasping tree roots — or, as she describes it, “woolly yarn.” She raises her arms and wisps of electricity shoot from her fingertips. The small planet reaches the Earth, makes impact and craters into it softly, deeply. The impact is less a collision than a celestial mating, a match made in the heavens.

These opening few minutes provide moviegoers with a Wow! epiphany, as imposing as the 17-min. history of the universe in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (which also premiered at Cannes and took the Palme d’Or). As The Tree of Life re-created the beginning of the cosmos, so, with similarly spectacular imagery but with a greater emotional resonance, Melancholia begins with the end of the world. It’s as if these two highly esteemed, resolutely quirky filmmakers had been assigned the complementary subjects of ontogeny and eschatology, and responded with their grand, distilled visions.

(MORE: Brad Pitt talks about The Tree of Life)

The rest of Melancholia, like the long middle section of The Tree of Life, is devoted to the little people in this hurtling universe, the ants under a microscope. Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg) are sisters: the first a depressive, or in von Trier’s preferred designation a melancholiac, and the second “normal” — though the view of this world-class eccentric is so skewed that he sees normality as a disease, perhaps an epidemic infecting the majority of the population.

Justine, an advertising copywriter, has decided to get married to the naïve Michael (Alexander Starsgård), and Claire, the practical sister, has arranged a sumptuous reception in her giant, castle-like home, with adjoining golf course. Their roguish father (John Hurt) flirts with several girls named Betty — he calls every girl Betty — while their mother (Charlotte Rampling), long withdrawn from the family, rouses herself to an Ancient Mariner wedding toast: “Enjoy it while it lasts.” Since, as we already know, the world won’t last long, her words carry more prophesy than sarcasm. In fact, Justine’s marriage doesn’t last the night. After fleeing the party for a saving bathtub soak, she can’t consummate her vows; and Michael leaves with his parents.

Justine’s premonition of the planetary catastrophe at first seems a wishful extension of her world view: “The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it.” But the runaway planet looms closer; the stuffy rationalizations of Claire’s husband Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) ring false; and Justine’s fatalism begins to seem the only sensible response to the end of days. She must agree with in the old Ukrainian proverb, “Expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed,” and with the John Maynard Keynes aphorism, “In the long run we are all dead.” Justine’s neurosis has well prepared her for the arrival of the all-dead times that surprises everyone else.

(MORE: See Melancholia on the Top 10 Movie Wedding Scenes)

Von Trier is always translating his spiritual autobiography into big-screen images, and, no question, Justine is von Trier. Nils Thorsen, author of the book The Genius: Lars von Trier’s Life, Films and Phobias, writes that the director “has been haunted by anxieties all through his life, and believed that World War III was breaking out every time he heard an airplane as a boy.” But von Trier, the modern melancholy Dane, finds solace in his affliction. As he said to Thorsen: “My analyst told me that melancholiacs will usually be more level-headed than ordinary people in a disastrous situation, because they can say, ‘What did I tell you?'”… But also because they have nothing to lose. And that was the germ of Melancholia.”

Another von Trier mot: “God may have had fun at creation, but he didn’t really think things through.” The same may be said of Melancholia. It’s a huge idea, the end of the world, and visually rewarding as anything in modern movie creation, but it falls flat in behavioral acuity. The characters often seem stick figures for the author’s views: that logic is crippling, and disability a special gift. Don’t look up to the stars for signs of life, he says. “Forget it! Look inward.”

Von Trier has often worked on the extreme edge of the permissible: interpolating hard-core sex scenes into his social satire The Idiots, positing that full-blown slavery had extended into the American 1930s in Manderlay, putting Gainsbourg through simulated ordeals of self-mutilation in Antichrist. Absent these excesses, Melancholia is almost PG von Trier (though the requisite Dunst nudity had graced many NC-17-rated websites). When the world is ending, the director suggests, one’s obsessions are more focused, urgent and chaste.

(MORE: Read Richard Corliss on von Trier’s Antichrist)

As Manuel Alberto Claro’s herky-jerky camera shadow-boxes around the participants at the wedding, they seem ill at ease — not within their characters but as actors stranded in a movie that baffles them. They reveal none of the antic wit that von Trier lets fly in his press conferences, even in his most self-destructive ones. One is tempted to blame the gaucherie of the performances on a Danish director putting English dialogue into the mouths of actors of several countries (Sweden, England, the U.S., Germany). But there’s another explanation for the flat or florid line-readings and the inarticulate body language. You’ve seen this clumsy style embodied by the Coneheads, and the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. These folks aren’t Earthlings at all. They’re inhabitants of the director’s private alternate planet: von Trieria.

For stretches of the film, von Trieria is as welcome as Siberia. You must stay to the end for a potent payoff, when the tragic magic of the opening scenes is reasserted. If you were to play a game in which you had to pick one movie to take to a desert island when the world is ending, you might well choose Melancholia — its first and last reel. For there are glimpses of a cinematic vision as grand and terrifying as Leni Riefenstahl’s apocalyptic documentary, the 1935 Triumph of the Will. Oops, sorry: the star of that film was Adolf Hitler.

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