Let us take a moment to consider the career of film director Lars Von Trier. Is Von Trier a visionary? Is he a genius? Is he an artist who forces us to look at the world in a different way? Is he one of the major voices working in the world of cinema today? Or is he just full of crap? This is the debate that always seems to come up whenever one talks about Lars Von Trier and a pretty good case can be made that the man is both a genius and an idiot, an artist and a charlatan. How, we ask ourselves, do we reconcile the fact that this man who has directed so many memorable films is also the same man who goes to Cannes and hints that he might be sympathetic to Hitler. As a result, Von Trier’s films seem to act as both aesthetic statements and as evidence in the never-ending trial to determine whether or not Lars Von Trier is worth all the trouble. Melancholia — which is currently both playing at theaters and available OnDemand — is the latest exhibit in a long trial.
Melancholia is both the story of the relationship of two sisters (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst, who deservedly won best actress at Cannes for her performance here) and the story of what happens when a new planet called Melancholia appears in the sky and then promptly starts to move closer to the Earth.
The film is divided into two parts. The first part takes place over the course of one long night. Justine (Dunst) and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard who looks so amazing in a tux) attend a wedding reception at a mansion owned by Justine sister Clare (Gainsbourg) and Clare’s well-meaning but condescending husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). While Justine and Michael, at first, appear to be the perfect couple, it slowly becomes apparent that the truth is far more complex. The first part of the film takes its time establishing the characters and how they relate to each other but it never drags, largely because of the chemistry between Dunst and Skarsgard but also because Von Trier proves himself to be far more subtle director here than he’s usually given credit for being. The first half of the film is full of details — some small and some not — that make us believe that these very familiar actors actually are the characters that they are portraying. While Von Trier never explicitly show us what’s at the heart of Skarsgard and Dunst’s trouble relationship, he includes enough details that we, as the viewer, can figure it out. Under Von Trier’s skilled direction, even such little things as Dunst’s constant struggle to keep her dress up take on an added and poignant significance.
In the second half of the film, a depressed Dunst is now living in the mansion with Gainsbourgh and Sutherland. Despite the fact that Dunst is nearly catatonic, Sutherland has little sympathy for her and makes no secret of the fact that he’s not happy to have her living in his home. However, things change rather quickly once it is learned that the new planet Melancholia is on a collision course with Earth. While Sutherland insists that the two planets will not actually collide and Gainsbourgh panics, Dunst starts to find herself oddly rejuvenated by the prospect that the world might end…
If you were dismissive of Von Trier before this movie came out, I doubt watching Melancholia will change your mind. In many ways, this film epitomizes everything that people tend to hate about his movies. However, I loved Melancholia. Visually, it’s beautiful and the film student in me loved the film simply for the many homages to Last Year at Marienbad. Von Trier gets excellent performance from the entire cast but really, this is Kristen Dunst’s film and she proves that she’s capable of a lot more than just being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Speaking of someone who has battled depression all of her life, I have to say that Dunst gets it right, capturing not only the pain of permanent sadness but also the odd moments of clarity that seem to come with it. Finally, this is a unique film and it’s unique because Von Trier is a director that’s not afraid to be an egocentric asshole when it comes to telling the story that he wants to tell.
I could spend hours debating what exactly Melancholia means and I’d probably change my mind several times during the conversation. However, one thing is for sure: Melancholia is one of the best of films of 2011.