director Lars von Trier
Lars von Trier’s films aren’t meant to be enjoyed, they’re meant to be endured. Without a doubt that was true of his last film, Antichrist (2009), a surreal horror show filled with psychic violence and female castration. Melancholia, on the other hand, is about depression and the end of the world. At least no one cuts off a clitoris in this one.
The film is parted into two segments, named for the sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Dunst is a bipolar bride in a lavish wedding reception in her honor, facing her nastily negative iconoclast mother (Charlotte Rampling) and her besotted, genial father (John Hurt) and her crassly capitalistic boss (Stellan Skarsgård). She goes through a series of increasingly odd behaviors in opposition to the festivities, eventually sinking the efforts of the event, sending everyone home miserable and unhappy.
The second part focuses on the coming of a planet that has been hiding “behind the sun,” Melancholia, which scientists and Claire’s billionaire husband (Kiefer Sutherland) think will dodge Earth in a near miss. Claire, who rationally tried to hold the wedding party together, now starts freaking out about the end of the world and the inevitable death of herself, the world, and her child. Justine is more nonplussed by the end of the world.
The whole thing takes place on Sutherland’s super fancy estate, which houses an 18-hole golf course of which he is very proud. Like so much of von Trier’s films, things take place in an isolated setting, in a microcosm rather than in the “real” world. Unlike his Dogme 95 films, which shunned artifice, von Trier employs visual effects and stages some very painterly sequences of great visual beauty. In this, it resembles Antichrist to a measure.
Supposedly, the film was conceived of as von Trier was going through therapy for a depression that he suffered. The whole thing, though, seems more metaphorical than literal, though Dunst earned a lot of (pretty well-deserved) kudos for her performance as the woman trying to keep a happy public face as her interior implodes. I mean, the simple, though perhaps too obvious metaphor of the end of the world, hiding right behind the sun, a planet named for the illness that comes out of hiding and brings people often to their own ends…it’s all right there.
The director also cites German Romanticism as an influence/concept of which the film delves, using Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” as the primary musical motif. This line of thought is perhaps what led von Trier to make some rather unfortunate statements at Cannes, where the film was debuted last year, seeing in himself something of a Germanic tradition and making a statement about “understanding Hitler”. What? Too soon? Von Trier is a provocateur for certain, probably deals with various mental issues, and is likely one of the more maverick film makers of his generation. There is always something to be said after watching one of his films. The provocation is often contemplative. The thoughts, however, are rarely, “Wow, I can’t wait to see (endure) that again!”