Not since Mel Brook’s stormed to success with his fake faux nazi show Springtime for Hitler has the entertainment industry been in such a furor over the fuhrer, but this latest effort from Lars ‘The Crazy Dane’ Von Trier has fared less well in its controversy. Though Von Trier’s comments were caustic, careless and unjustifiably controversial his film is none of the above; the opposite in fact. Melancholia is probably his most palatable picture yet and easily the most polished, in a technical and emotional sense. The jarring, prank techniques of the Dogme movement are almost entirely gone – or at least invisible – here, but the verisimilitude that they could often create has remained; they are replaced instead by smooth, soaring and altogether serious film-making. The real shock then is not, as usual, in the way that it offends but rather in the laughs that it offers; this is by far the funniest film of his career and if that sounds like an empty compliment given what exists in his oeuvre know that it was not meant as such. Producers eat your heart out.
Once you get through the literally stunning, spoiler filled opening sequence – which boils down the film’s entire plot into a series of spectacular near still slo-mo images (a technique he has used before, though to best effect in Antichrist) – it is a hoot. Set in a modern, Marienbad-esque manor the film’s story follows the lives of two sisters in the midst of a massive wedding and then through to the end of the world. The first of these two parts is where most of the comedy lies; it is a riotous social satire that shows and then lambasts the worst sides of all the parties guests. Though, it somehow manages to do this in a very humanistic way; this isn’t just Trier poking fun in a petty, masochistic manner, it is him stopping and looking into our society and simply throwing back at us what it is he has seen.
As the plot progresses, we come to understand the many different character relationships through a rather unique technique and that is giving every guest a running gag; something that is said early on is recalled again later, and then continues to grow and grow as the night itself becomes more and more outlandish. It is a marvelous effect and one that works to seamlessly deliver both laughs and character development; without this display of institutional memory the film entire could have ended up a muddled mess but he nails every call back. More than a little of this praise should be addressed towards the amazing all-star cast, all of whom deliver phenomenal performances; from the expected brilliance of Dunst and Gainsbourg in the two lead roles through to the surprises like Keifer Sutherland’s subtle, charismatic turn as the family patriarch and benefactor or Alexander Skaarsgard’s heart-breaking male lead. I really hope that Von Trier’s recent faux-pas won’t have cost him the cred required to catch such a cast because he draws such strong work out of them.
Underneath this entertaining exterior hides a steadily growing slice of darkness and danger as Dunst’s Justine spots a strange red, alien star far in the distance. As the wedding devolves into a maudlin mess we can’t help but wonder, ‘Is this astral body to blame?’ but this is a cop-out, akin to blaming the universe for our own misfortunes; these characters are responsible for their own actions, they are all privileged people and thus they have the freedom of choice, they just happen to choose very badly. So though the star does seem to grow in correlation with the strangeness of the nights events and behaviors I’d posit that it actually goes the other way, that it is our brutish behavious that is drawing out fate upon us. The film itself is spoiled enough by that opening section -though in ambiguous ways, pieces of a puzzle that could go together in any number of ways – and so I won’t go into any details here, I’ll just say that by the end of that first half you will have had your empathy challenged, but again in an entirely natural way.
An hour in the film takes its first and only alienating step when it jumps both protagonist and period; we are no longer following Justine, her Gainsbourg’s sister Claire is the protagonist now instead, and the time-frame is somewhere in the indefinite future where the Star is now as visible as the moon and has since been labelled ‘Melancholia’. It’s a jarring jump and one that I rebelled against at first because I was so enjoying the Wedding – in so much as you can enjoy a Von Trier.The biggest of those leaps however is in genre; the second section is not another sprawling character based comedy, its not just an opportunity to reset new running gags.
No, instead we find ourselves watching an intimate, emotionally driven piece of speculative fiction that is altogether quite dark (As Melancholia has greatly neared our orbit this increase makes logistical sense). The now blue planet is set to fly-by earth in a number of days and no-one is sure what will happen -though we are, we’ve already seen the end results. For us there is no need to imagine the worst as Claire does. That’s it. There are no aliens on the planet nor do we follow the US’s bold plan to re-jig the planet’s route, we simply see this most sublime event through the eyes of one not so everyday family and do we ever see it.
Lars Von Trier is often criticized for his amateurish direction and grainy aesthetics but to my mind he is one of the best visual film-makers out there. So many of this film’s individual frames are artworks worthy of framing in their own right. I’m a narrative man at heart – being a wannabe screenwriter and all – but I’d happily watch a storyless feature shot by the man in this style; so good is his craft, so stunning are the shots. Unfortunately, in some regards he may actually have been better served by shooting this film is such a manner, because his script cannot and does not match the level of his direction.
The change between chapters is jarring though not in the usual alienating way; rather there is some tendon missing that is needed to bind the muscle to the bone. I guess that the second section is meant as a metaphorical mirror of the first but the metaphor itself is rather unclear. The same could be said of Antichrist but I would argue that film’s themes were merely ambiguous – the evidence was all there, only the conclusions were lacking – whereas here I wonder how we’re supposed to form any kind of solid analytic answers.
The only accessible assumption that we can make on the films symbolism is that it is a simple treatise on the destructive power of depression; which is a rather potent one given Von Trier’s personal psychology. I am something of a depression skeptic but even I was moved by its depiction here, because to an extent the themes are secondary: the symbolism, narrative and metaphor too. The characters are what matter in Melancholia and this is as it should be. It almost doesn’t matter that there is a massive planet moving towards the Earth because these people were already set to destroy themselves, they were already interesting enough to watch, this simply catalyses their reactions in a more cinematic way.
Von Trier films are always an experience but none more so than this. Whereas his past efforts have shown something of a tendency to focus overbearingly on a single feeling or idea this one manages to achieve a strong sense of variety; and while the ideas do suffer somewhat under this approach the feelings thrive. This film evokes them all and all in their strongest possible forms: the purest joys, the deepest terrors, the ugliest depictions and the beautifulest projections entwine upon the screen in what can only be described as a literal emotional rollercoaster. So it is a flawed film yes, but nevertheless one of the best and the most powerful of the year if not longer.