The party’s over now
The mid-May screening of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia at Cannes a couple of days after Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life inspired many comparisons by critics. Mike D’Angelo of Onion AV Club even went so far as to imagine it was as if Von Trier had seen Tree of Life and made a feature film in 48 hours as a “rebuttal” to it. Both films have a cosmic sweep and both focus up close on troubled families. Von Trier’s beautiful prologue, with its figures floating in super-slow-motion in a dramatic dark landscape to the sound of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, as well as the much larger planet coming to splinter the earthn the second half, somehow together parallel Malick’s images of orbs and galaxies floating through space balanced against his elder son brooding over and remembering his youth. If you play one film against the other the contrast in mood is as stark as the difference between Jessica Chastain’s voiceovers about grace and affirmation in Tree of Life and Kirstun Dunst’s declarations in Melancholia that the earth is “evil” and if obliterated will not be missed. Obviously Melancholia isn’t a happy film. Dunst’s Justine “knows things” and is sure there is no companionship or redemption awaiting us out in space (the recent sci-fi indie Another Earth notwithstanding). Tree of Life has doubts and sorrows too. One of its chief playbooks is the Book of Job. But it’s also full of a sense of imminence and awe.
These are both grandly ambitious, strong, beautiful films, among the year’s best. They also differ hugely, apart from mood, in their ways of looking at time. Tree of Life gazes continually backward. Melancholia stares numbly upon the present, with only occasional quick terrifying glimpses into the future. As we wait and wait upon a bride whose growing depression slows her to a halt, the film delivers a palpable sense of drawn-out real-time present. As it ends, the future becomes now, and never.
Such comparisons aside, emotionally and artistically Melancholia initially has much in common with Von Trier’s previous film Antichristin having emerged from the same period of profound depression the director was going through. But Melancholia goes to fewer extremes as provocation and departs less from “reality.” Melancholia has provocative moments, but its horrors, however posh the staging, are closer to the everyday experiences of anger, selfishness, and recrimination. The new film has an obvious direct kinship with with Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 The Celebration, “the first dogme film.” The Celebration focuses, as does the first half ofMelancholia, on a large and festive gathering of a family whose leader is a titan of business. Vinterberg’s focus is a birthday, Von Trier’s an expensively staged wedding party: both lead to public accusations and verbal fighting and a general degeneration of what was to be a festive event. Moreover though Von Trier’s staging is infinitely more grand (and, considering the film as a whole, more beautiful), except for during the opening slo-mo sequence he uses the same constantly swinging, jittery dogme-style camerawork throughoutMelancholia, as if to link his grandiose, epic present style with his more Brechtian dogme roots. (He has said that the cinematography in Antichrist came out to be more beautiful than he originally intended.)
Melancholia is operatic in its production even to its theme music, and feels close to something like Patrice Chéreau’s last great film success, the 2005 Gabrielle – Chéreau being literally one of the great designers of European opera productions. At the same time the epic emotions have a strong physicality through the closely filmed stars, John Hurt as the frivolous but sympathetic dad, Charlotte Rampling as the cruel, blunt-spoken mother, Kiefer Sutherland as the materialistic brother-in-law, above all Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire, Justine’s “normal” sister. Gainsbourg has become a Von Trier regular. Her casting here doesn’t seem quite right at first, but the point may be to make the sisters reflective opposites who are partly interchangeable. Dunst, the depressive, seems superficially down-to-earth and strong, and becomes the solid one as the apocalypse draws near, while Gainsbourg, the more positive and sensible of the two sisters, is wispy and gray and has an air of melancholy about her, of the sad, sullen striver, and as chaos approaches she wilts. The contrasts are really not quite that easy, either, but roles do subtly reverse as doom approaches in the film’s second half. To play Michael, the groom, Von Trier has chosen the tall heartthrob (and TV vampire) Alexander Skarsgård, fresh, blooming, and cheerful. Udo Kier, in fine form, is a semi-comic wedding planner who becomes so furious with Justine for ruining the event, he refuses to look at her and averts his gaze or covers his eyes in her presence. Wedding planners the world over can doubtless relate. Despite its lugubrious pace the first half of Melancholia is full of little comic touches that signal that this is somehow one of Von Trier’s least harsh and provocative films.
The first, “Justine,” half of the film shows the bride gradually more and more obviously alienated from her sister, her new husband, her boss and her parents. At some points her negativity seems excessively schematic and Brechtian, but Kirsten Dunst, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes for this performance, is convincing and natural and awakens sympathy — as well as impatience. Justine gradually drifts away from the party and becomes increasingly sad and desperate during the night. Many of the guests and even the sisters’ father (John Hurt), whom she begs to stay, go home, the groom himself departing with astonishingly little protest — perhaps so well aware of Justine’s emotional issues he half expected this debacle all along.
The second, “Claire,” half stays at the castle where the party took place, also the home of Claire, her husband John (Sutherland) and their little boy, Leo (Cameron Spurr). The mood is more intimate but attention now shifts from individuals to the firmament. The mysterious orb in the sky is now revealed to be a planet approaching the earth. John, perhaps to maintain family order, holds to the declaration of some scientists that the planet will pass by without trouble. But Claire finds an online counter-story that describes the two planets’ approach as a “Dance of Death.” She is printing it out when the electricity dies and everything shuts down. The rest becomes a quiet, internalized allegory of the end of the world that is haunting and beautiful. Wonderful use is made of horses in the stable that Claire and Justine go out riding on (till Claire won’t or can’t), become violently troubled as the firmament is disturbed, and then grow ominously calm.
Melancholia gives one much to chew on, and chewing is possible because the material is quiet and Bergmanesque, lacking either the high-handed indictments of America, the sexual extremes, or any of the usual Von Trier provocations, but richly displaying the director’s gifts as a maker of complicated dream worlds with telling parallels to our own experience. The final sequences have something in common with that most depressing of all movies, Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, but the beauty and grandeur give one a far different sequence. Besides, these people, though the depressive, deeply pessimistic Justine may embrace it most readily, do not choose extinction as does Haneke’s little suicidal Austrian family: they merely prepare and wait for it. Von Trier’s art house strategy is so cunning that his world ends neither with a bang nor a whimper. The final shot simply explodes in our own heads. The director has given himself a hard act to follow this time. His blend of science fiction, social commentary and psychological study, presented via superb cast and striking mise-en-scène, adds up to high cinematic pleasure, despite the dark matter.
Melancholia debuted at Cannes May 18, 2011. It has been included in other festivals, including the Toronto and New York. Following VOD Oct. 7, limited US release by Magnolia Pictures begins November 11. Included in the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center and screened there for this review.
*A web page: “Malick vs. Von Trier@Cannes: http://blog.uvm.edu/aivakhiv/2011/05…-trier-cannes/