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Alexander Skarsgard, Kirsten Dunst, and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars von Trier's "Melancholia"

Not With a Bang, With a Whimper


Artists are not always good at explaining what they do. If they were, they’d be writers rather than painters or sculptors or musicians or filmmakers. Instead, they express ideas and feelings and perceptions by arranging paint on a canvas, or combining harmony, rhythm and instrumentation, or showing us imaginary worlds populated by imaginary people.

I say this to those who may recall the fuss that Lars von Trier caused with his press conference at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. I’m not going to repeat the whole mess; suffice to say that von Trier was speaking a language not native to him, that he’s is always uncomfortable speaking in public, and that he now knows better than to play with the word “Nazi” in France—certainly not in front of a crowd of journalists more than willing to quote celebrities out of context if it makes for a story that will get them millions of online hits.

Under the best of circumstances, von Trier may not be able to fully express what his film Melancholia is about, other than the worldview of a artist who struggles with clinical depression. It may also be that, beneath its fantastical trappings, it is far too personal for him to discuss: Von Trier’s wife told an interviewer that a scene of a woman trying to get her depressed sister into a bath resembled an incident during one of her husband’s bouts.

Don’t think it, see it. I’ve seen most of von Trier’s films and have been ambivalent about many of them, but I think Melancholia is a masterpiece, with moments of sublime visual beauty, unexpected humor, top tier acting, and unspeakable sadness.

The film opens with a prelude which by itself is worth the price of a ticket. Von Trier may be identified by some as the founder of the purist Dogma movement, but while he tends to favor handheld cameras, natural lighting, etc., he is more than capable of using all filmmaking artifice to put breathtakingly gorgeous images on screen. Melancholia opens with a series of these, tableaux featuring moments from the film we are about to see, scored with Wagner’s achingly beautiful music from Tristen und Isolde.

The film proper consists of two parts, about equal in length, each named after one of two sisters. The first takes place in one night at the wedding celebration of Justine (Kirsten Dunst, named Best Actress at Cannes). The inital tone is surprisingly light, even comical: she and her new husband Michael (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård) are late for their own reception because their ridiculously long stretch limo can’t navigate the winding path to the lavish estate where their guests are waiting.

From there it’s all downhill, with the unrelenting perversity of an unshakeable bad dream. Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) frets at the ruination of the event she has planned, egged on by her rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland, surprisingly good), who is paying for it all; her long-divorced parents (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) are indifferent to or unable to recognize her misgivings; her boss (Stellan Skarsgård, Alexander’s father) uses a promotion to berate her about unfinished work. It seems that everyone knows Justine’s history of depression and is hoping for her to pull out of it for this event, but not seriously expecting it.

The second half takes place several weeks later, at the same lavish estate. Now so depressed that she can’t care for herself, Justine returns to her sister’s care. It isn’t long before Claire becomes obsessed with a worry of her own, despite John’s efforts to keep her ignorant: A rogue planet has been discovered on an erratic path that may or may not bring it into collision with Earth. The planet’s name? Melancholia.

You have to laugh at von Trier’s willingness not only to make so substantial a physical metaphor for his theme but to top it by naming it for what it is. But there’s nothing subtle about depression, which can be every bit as overwhelming as the prospect of universal annihilation, and as irrational as a planet with an unfixed orbit. Like Wagner’s music that accompanies most of the film, Melancholia builds in emotional intensity, slowly but inexorably, with a climax that is magnificently terrifying (though not, as has been too often the case in von Trier’s films—Antichrist, Breaking the Waves—repellent).

In another unfortunate experiment in dissuading audiences from thinking of theatrical exhibition as the primary mode of film viewing, Melancholia has been available since September on some on-demand cable channels. I know I say this for a lot of films, but this is a prime example: This needs to be seen in a theater and not in your living room. I’ve seen in both ways, and the home experience is not a proper substitute.

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