I’ve long been a believer in the sadistic genius of Lars Von Trier but after skipping his last two efforts (Antichrist, Manderlay) altogether I had forgotten just how talented and cynical he was. The opening sequence of Melancholia turned out to be the only reminder I needed. I’d been excited to see the film ever since laying eyes on the gorgeous trailer and undeterred by the Cannes fiasco, made it a point to see this in the theater. Unfortunately that ended up being the worst theater in New York City, possibly the country, Angelika Film Center. However despite their tiny screens, dated sound system and the throwback fun of trying to see around the head in front of you I was completely blown away by Von Trier’s latest masterpiece.

On the heels of two commercial and critical failures and fighting his own bout with depression, Von Trier used the film as a personal therapeutic breakthrough. Given what we already know about the dark-hearted director should we really be surprised that he chose to actually film the end of the world? Somehow I don’t have trouble believing that might be one of the few things that would genuinely make this demented mastermind smile. What did surprise me was the fact that he was suddenly spending money on special effects, name actors and overhead tracking shots to create a film that put him about as far away from his Dogme 95 philosophy imaginable.

Further discussion of the film that includes spoilers after the jump:

A lot of my thoughts about Melancholia came from a discussion I had with my wife immediately after leaving the theater and throughout the next few days as I simply couldn’t stop thinking about this film – one sign of true greatness in my book.

At first I wondered why Von Trier would choose the wedding as the setting for the first half of the film but in retrospect it gives him a perfect opportunity to establish his characters and what better way to show the trivial nature of following ceremony, creating advertising taglines or even playing out long-held grudges than by casting them in the shadow of the apocalypse? Well played Lars. The main question I had about this segment was whether Justine (Kirsten Dunst) just feels an impending sense of doom and an inability to feel happiness or if she actually has a premonition about Melancholia’s eventual path. She seems in high spirits as she approaches the castle, laughing and showing easy affection with her new husband but immediately after seeing the first evidence of the planet things start to take a downward turn. Then later in the film she reveals her knowledge of the exact number of beans in the wedding party’s counting contest, proving to her sister and the audience that she, “knows things.” I could probably be convinced either way and it wouldn’t necessarily affect my thinking about the film all that drastically but it would help explain why she chooses to actively sabotage her personal and professional life on a night where all everyone wants is for her to take a moment to enjoy herself. But depression doesn’t take a break because it’s your wedding day and that might be all the explanation for her behavior that we need. If I were building an argument the other way I would point to her approaching her father (John Hurt) several times insisting that she needs to “tell him something,” as if he might be the only person who would believe her, but that too could be explained or interpreted in many different ways.

I think the most important scene in this segment, and certainly one of the highlights of Dunst’s performance, might be the one in which Michael (Alexander Skarsgaard) presents Justine with the picture of the apple orchard – a symbol of their new home and the happiness he wishes for her. You can see in her face the desire to accept this incredibly sweet, sweeping gesture but then she is again drawn outside as if by an invisible magnet leaving the photo sitting on the seat much to Michael’s dismay. Maybe it is this realization, that the life he envisions for them is simply not possible given her mental condition, is what leads to her rampage soon after. Whatever conclusions you draw from this scene it tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Justine and the fatalistic view she shares with the film’s creator.   

Von Trier’s decision to split the film into two pieces is both brilliant and crucial to understanding Melancholia. Perhaps mirroring the two planets in perpetual orbit we see the shifting mental states of the two sisters as Melancholia draws nearer to Earth. When the segment begins it is Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who is in caretaker mode for her troubled sister, now buried so deep in post-wedding depression that she can’t even manage to eat or take a bath. It is when Claire’s son Leo first mentions the existence of Melancholia to Justine that the balance starts to shift – as Justine seemingly regains consciousness while Claire becomes increasingly unglued with her building fear of a worst case scenario.

I should also mention the strange but inspired casting of Kiefer Sutherland as John, the smug, ultra-rich asshole, whose only pleasures seem to be reminding people he owns an 18 hole golf course and witnessing the glorious vision of Melancholia’s pass-by. That John is prototypically American falls right in line with Von Trier’s frequent chastisement of this country for its greed, corruption and excess. When John and his false optimism meet their cowardly fate it might have been a surprising plot twist but also felt like one of the film’s few flaws as Von Trier can’t help himself at a rather obvious opportunity to fire yet another shot at the head of his favorite scapegoat.

As the stunningly beautiful onset of Melancholia approaches, Von Trier gives the audience and his characters a momentary reprieve before crushing any foolish hope for survival with the onset of the elegant destruction the film’s opening images revealed. As the inevitable starts to become reality, Von Trier makes a final point about privilege as we see Claire and Leo scrambling away hysterically in a golf cart searching in vain for a safety that doesn’t exist. Even this estate with its massive castle and all the money in the world won’t save you. You can’t stock up and weather the storm this time. Even the innocent will die, he seems to tell us. But it is a suddenly calm Justine, content with the fate she feels this world deserves, who calms Leo and builds the teepee structure that we know will never work but love her for all the same. There seemed to be a certain satisfaction for Von Trier in allowing these final scenes to play out so fully, building the audience’s anxiety until Earth explodes from within in a climax that leaves nothing behind. I have to say that his extreme cynicism is one of the few things I have always had trouble relating to. However there is no debating the great depth of thought this film provokes, certainly much more than the surface actions initially reveal. It also might be the richest material Von Trier has ever worked from given how closely it matches his own philosophy and experience. Any way you look at it, this is not only one of the year’s best but a lasting piece of cinema that I think (hope) people will be talking about for many years to come.

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