After Lars von Trier’s painfully inappropriate Cannes press conference (the one where he said he understood Hitler, and hated some, but not all, Jews), you can’t exactly fault a person for labeling von Trier as depressed scum, and that by supporting his films, you’re supporting a monster. My solution: create two different opinions, one for von Trier, the man, and another for von Trier, the filmmaker.
To be clear: Lars von Trier is an asshole, but he’s an extremely talented asshole. Von Trier – or rather, the characters in his films – smash erect penises with wood blocks, tell their wives to sleep with other men, shoot babies, rape women, hang innocent people, and so on. Yet somehow, rather miraculously, the man has asserted himself as one of the world’s premiere filmmakers. While viewers may not be able to stomach his films, it’s simply impossible to argue that they are not well made.
So now, after the brutal hell of his last, most lacerating film, Antichrist, we get one of his tamest, but no less thrilling, movies yet.
Melancholia starts much the same way Antichrist did, with an extended slow motion sequence that, at first, appears to be nothing more than pleasing sights and sounds. Whereas the prologue in Antichrist affected everything that happened after, Melancholia’s introduction plays more like a wondrous fever dream of what may, or may not, occur.
The narrative begins with freshly married couple Justine (Kirsten Dunst, effortless) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård, delightfully aloof) humorously arriving late to their reception at the estate that Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) shares with her wealthy husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). What transpires, slowly, beautifully, is the wedding reception from hell.
Immediately upon arrival, Claire warns her sister to not fall into what appears to be one of her frequent spells of manic depression. The girls’ mother, played with perfect bitterness by Charlotte Rampling, devotes her wedding toast to bashing love, marriage, and the girls’ father (John Hurt, still at it). Justine’s boss (a devilishly slimy Stellan Skarsgård) toasts to Justine’s talent as a copywriter, and warns that if work is not completed by night’s end, serious consequences will follow. Basically, Justine’s friends and family are like the cast of Modern Family stuck in purgatory. They’re busting at the seams with ego, hatred, and self-loathing.
“I tried to kick your mother out,” John says to Justine late in the evening.
“You usually do,” she calmly retorts.
I’m an incredible fan of Lars von Trier’s work. Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Antichrist, and especially Breaking the Waves, represent some of the finest films released in the past 15 years. Before, I enjoyed von Trier’s work mostly because of its audacity. It wasn’t until Melancholia that I became fully aware of how much I appreciate von Trier’s eye for craft. His tone and overall mise en scène is, more often than not, quite flawless.
In addition to Melancholia’s story (which, for the record, takes many dramatic turns that I see no point in ruining here), the film looks amazing. Its camera floats and glides and stumbles in all the right places, catching all the right action. Its editing is calm yet appropriately abrupt. Its music is soothing yet loud. Much like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Melancholia is as close to technical perfection as I’ve seen in any film so far this year.
Add a tonally seamless script and faultless acting (Dunst justly won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival) and you’ve got the makings of a unique, jaw-dropping head trip that completely justifies its massive scope.
This year has been better to us film enthusiasts than the past two. Much is to thank for this, mainly the brashness of Bridesmaids and The Trip, the bizarre wonderment of The Tree of Life and Drive, and, yes, the unique beauty Melancholia. A
Note: Melancholia will have a limited run in theaters beginning on Nov. 18. Currently, you can find it On Demand via your cable provider. Which you should do. Right now.