Film Reviews

Melancholia Lars Von Trier

Rating - 8/10

It's a shame that Lars Von Trier couldn't keep his big mouth shut. If he hadn't put his foot in it with the instantly infamous "I'm a Nazi" press conference, none of the reviews for his latest misery-fest would feel the need to distance the man from his film, or use what's in it to condemn him. 

That's not to say that Von Trier's ramblings came as any great surprise; the Cannes film festival tends to bring out the worst in many of its attendees (such as Mark Kermode's Von Trier-induced breakdown during a screening of The Idiots), and Lars has been no exception in the past. In fact, the seeds of his latest outburst are there to be seen in Melancholia's first half, devoted to the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst). It's a lavish yet joyless affair that seems to go on and on, which pretty much sums up the film festival experience for many filmmakers with product to promote. (As if to make the comparison more obvious there's also Justine's boss declaring that the perfect education for a career in PR is "nothing"). If Lars' speech, and the slightly forced outrage that followed hadn't happened, perhaps reports from the festival would have instead placed it alongside fellow Danish competitor Drive, identifying that the two were linked not just by Nicholas Winding Refn's dad serving as Von Trier's regular Assistant Director, but because both come loaded with a palpable disdain of the film industry and its trappings.

To be fair, most reviewers did instantly pair the film with this year's Palme D'Or winner Tree of Life as both are big, expansive, probably even quite expensive, yet very personal films for their directors, largely made possible thanks to the involvement of Hollywood stars, even though they are philosophically opposed. In fact the spirits of the two films are very much like the sisters (who, it must be said, essentially act as ciphers) at the heart of Melancholia: Charlotte Gainsbourg's older, 'wiser', kinder and more homely Claire could be Malick's warm-hearted take on life, the universe and everything, while Von Trier's is the younger, spiteful, destructive, (and ultimately possibly right) Justine. 

It could also be said that both are intensely beautiful, challenging works that are still a bit too long for their own good. The first hour or so of Melancholia seems to exist largely to try the patience of the audience. If it's not Justine's ridiculous wedding, so big that it seems to consume many of the minor characters (including Alexander Skarsgard as her new husband), then it's the Antichrist-aping surreal slow-motion that opens the film. And while there's still plenty to enjoy here, particularly Udo Kier's furious, flouncy wedding planner or Charlotte Rampling as the sisters' grotesquely wilful mother, it's not until the excess is trimmed in the second half that the film really takes off. Just in time for the end of the world.

Melancholia has been touted as Von Trier's first foray into sci-fi, which is kind of wrong on both counts. For a start his debut The Element of Crime dabbled with the genre (presumably it's been overlooked as it was mind-numbingly dull), and Melancholia really doesn't seem that committed to selling its 'science'. In fact the expositional dialogue between Clare and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) is clumsy and only just works because of Gainsbourg and Sutherland's decision to underplay it to the point of being deadpan. It could be said that there's also as much a horror influence as there is a sci-fi one, with Justine's mood swings being related to the position of the planet Melancholia, and the scene where she bathes naked in its cool blue light, surely inspired by old werewolf movies. Mostly though, it's a Bergman-style country house drama, where the women aren't so much trying to assert their identities or struggling on in the face of disease and decay, but rather coming to terms with the end of the world.

Sounds morbid, yet, again, it isn't. Rather than being a depressing account of tragedy, it's more a tragi-comic account of depression itself; as set out in the opening wedding section there's a barely concealed autobiographical narrative detailing Von Trier's own recent struggles with the condition running through the film. Just as it's suggested that Justine possess more knowledge than anyone else about the situation (raising an interesting chicken and egg question - is she able to look at the dark heart of the everyday because she's mentally ill, or did knowing this cause her to be mentally ill?) likewise Von Trier encourages an objective distance from his characters, not least by setting out their fate at the very start. His detached eye allows the camera to pick up on some cutting moments; the first glimpse of Justine's depression is merely given away by a subtle change in Dunst's features during the wedding speeches; and it also allows for some laughs too, with every absurd detail of the wedding, from the logistics of getting a limo round a winding country road, to the bride in her massive gown escaping on a golf cart, not going unnoticed.

That doesn't mean that it's still not painful to watch in places; the catatonic state that Justine is in after the wedding is both excruciating and extraordinarily played by Dunst, proving herself to be neither afraid of some fairly confrontational nudity, nor making herself ugly (her face during a particularly low mood swing, screwed up and puffed out beyond recognition, remains one of the film's strongest images) and more than deserving of her Best Actress award from Cannes. She both earns a place in the pantheon of great female performances in Von Trier films and confirms herself as one of America's most interesting young actresses (which, as good as they were, you can't say for the Spiderman trilogy). Although it should also be noted that Gainsbourg is also pitch-perfect in a less showy role, and deserves kudos just for being the first Von Trier leading lady to come back for more. 

In some ways Melancholia is something of a mixed bag. In addition to the aforementioned bloatedness there's also the fact that none of the characters are particularly likeable, and in fact most are downright poisonous, even (or, perhaps, especially) Justine. Her unpredictable actions make her hard to warm to, and on occasions could be said to be genuinely evil, thereby throwing more fuel on the old Von Trier is a misogynist argument (although, his champions would perhaps argue that he's actually a lot more adventurous than most male filmmakers when it comes to writing roles for women).

And yet, despite any flaws, it still feels like essential filmmaking, not least because it's an incredibly beautiful film, particularly the slo-mo overture which draws on the traditional sense of the 'sublime' (just to make sure the audience 'gets it', the paintings Von Trier referenced for these tableaux vivants are on display at the wedding). More importantly though, it stands as one of the most compelling portraits of mental illness in cinema and, as such, it feels a film that only Von Trier could have made. Hopefully he'll honour his recent declaration that he's no longer going to give interviews to the press, as his caustic yet controlled films continue to contain far more insight and intelligence than any of his attention-seeking soundbites ever could.