d. Lars von Trier / 2011 / Denmark / 130 mins
There’s something undeniably vulgar about Melancholia. It’s a film of extremes, the intensly photographed opening scene is accompanied by an oral bombardment of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde yet winds up settling into a slow paced cinema-verité style that pushes an audience’s patience to its limit. Lars von Trier has an uncanny ability to make his viewers feel vulnerable and small, he clearly delights from playing with their expectations and baiting an emotional reaction. From any other director I would consider this crass manipulation, anti-feminist and pseudo-fascist film making intolerable. But with Trier’s films there is always the every present irony. Like a master humorist he is not afraid to let you in on his game, to let you laugh as well.
Melancholia is about the end of the world. Trier shows the audience this in his opening scenes and does whatever he can to remove any suspense from the unfolding narrative. What is being claimed is that whatever happens isn’t important, it is the characters and their reactions that matter. The film isn’t as shocking as Trier’s last film, Antichrist and undeniably more accessible. Broken into two halves, each part (or act) follows one of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine is a young woman suffering from depression who openly invites the coming apocalypse, Claire is thrown into depression through her powerlessness to avert it. Trier builds up fascinating, complex characters in both his leads and in his supporting characters (Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt playing family members) but always keeps them at arms reach.The whole narrative exudes a dream like quality familiar in most of Trier’s films, his interest in creating a believable world is surpassed by his desire to destroy it. Many of the characters’ actions are illogical and prove to be emotionally distancing, none are capable of communicating their fears and anxieties effectively. This could easily prove infuriating were it not for the subject matter of depression. As it is, Trier presents a case study of multiple enclosed personalities spinning chaotically towards their demise.
No matter how spectacular its opening or finale, the bulk of the film and its true worth lies in Trier’s depiction of the alienation of the individual. His cast are wonderful, Dunst truly surprises and is worthy of the best actress award she received at Cannes whilst Gainsbourg yet again proves how adept she is at tackling exhaustingly intense performances. Melancholia is certainly not without its faults, if anything Trier seems to be playing it slightly safer following the overt sexual violence of Antichrist and whilst the film is captivating when viewed, in recollection does not manage to permeate the subconscious in perhaps the same way it ought to.
Still, for Trier’s fans it is a triumph and it will probably draw a few more into his works. His greatest work may well still yet be to come, but Melancholia stands as an accomplished detour into a world where the characters and audiences are actively invited to relinquish control and embrace not only the foreboding planet but the conjuring tricks of Trier himself.