Build Your Own Review: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia

As with his previous film Anti-Christ, Lars von Trier’s latest, Melancholia is a divisive experience, hence the use of my Build Your Own Review template, which cunningly allows me to sit on the fence and offer up a range of opinions (see here for more examples). Choose the ones you find the most illuminating or agreeable or aggravating, and take away a self-assembly review of the film at no extra cost. And you can add your own thoughts in the comments section.

Melancholia is, on the one hand, a domestic drama about two sisters, and plays out in two halves. In the first, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) celebrates her wedding day, while her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) struggles to keep her increasingly erratic sister to the tight schedule she has prepared for the reception. The second half shows us the aftermath of the failed marriage, as Justine moves in with Claire and her wealthy husband (Kiefer Sutherland) and sinks into a benumbed, depressive state. All the while, the approaching planet Melancholia, seemingly on a cataclysmic collision course with the Earth, looms ever larger in the sky.
The Nazi Controversy

1. Let’s get this out of the way before discussing the film – Lars von Trier’s comments about sympathising with Hitler were silly things said to annoy the assembled scribblers at the Melancholia press conference, and to tease (through naughty-boy embarrassments) his two lead actresses. He seemed to enjoy watching them squirm, but quickly realised he was digging himself into a hole. It was daft and uncomfortable, perhaps a calculated shock to attract attention for the opening of a film that is uncharacteristically free from cheap shocks, but for the Cannes Film Festival to ban the director was an equally mis-judged bit of corporate protectionism and, if Cannes considers “jokes” about Hitler and the Holocaust to be singularly unacceptable at its events, this is a hypocritical position given the praise that was lavished on Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds a couple of years earlier.

2. Von Trier’s “I-understand-Hitler” is actually a pretty good indication of how desperate the man is to shock, to attract attention by any means other than the quality and depth of the work itself. Rocking up to Cannes with a film to promote, and nothing in the film that might be considered worthy of outrage or excitement in itself, he has clearly opted to engineer an unrelated controversy for promotional purposes. Whipping out a quick Hitler reference is surely the simplest way to do this. He has now promised not to talk to the press again and has thus finally found the last predictably shocking thing he can possibly say, pretending that he’s going to be able to stay away from microphones and blushing reporters when he needs to promote his next opus, The Nymphomaniac.

The Prologue

1. Building upon the extreme slow-motion photography with which he opened Antichrist, Von Trier begins Melancholia with an arresting compilation of moments from the film, like a preview of coming attractions in symphonic, pristine style. In Antichrist, the blissful, beautiful opening sequence, and its horrifying conclusion, depicted a prelapsarian, nostalgic past that marks the extreme rupture in the couple’s lives in subsequent scenes, which are shot in a completely different style. In Melancholia, its function is not quite so clear, but it seems to serve as an overture for the film, produced in the style of chic advertising, thus introducing the profession of Dunst’s character and hypnotising the audience into a receptive state for the coming drama. Von Trier has used these premonitory sequences before (see, for example, the blank screen and musical salvo that announces Dancer in the Dark) as curtain-raisers: he seems acutely aware of how an audience must be charmed, but the opening of Melancholia effectively lays out the entire structure of the film asymmetrically – these shots allude to what will happen in the film, even though they don’t precisely match them. The two parts of the movie will offer tonally and perspectivally distinct responses to the coming disaster: this beginning articulates something else that is removed from those (subjective) realities, an ideal and immaculate condensed vision of the film’s overarching themes.

2. If Von Trier likes the immediacy of intrusive, shaky-camera cinematography, he also loves the complete control he can exert over the material, to the extent that this prologue looks hideously aestheticised and sterile when it wants to be beauteous and transcendent. Instead of introducing the themes of the film in summary fashion, it ends up revealing the whole enterprise as trite and simplistic, as demonstrated no more obviously in a shot of Kirsten Dunst, in her wedding dress, tangled up in a net of vines: could there ever be a more banal “representation” of a woman’s struggle? The prologue gives Von Trier the chance to show us the end of the world as shot from space, as if he can’t resist the very Emmerichian glories offered by his apocalyptic narrative, even though the rest of the film postures as if it is above and aloof from such grandstanding confections. Most bothersome about it is the fetishistic display of technical capability, the extreme slow motion that connotes importance and weight, but actually proves nothing except that a button has been pushed on a camera.

The End of the World

1. Von Trier loves the sensational aspects of cinema, so it seems apt that he should undergird a personal drama with the backdrop of impending apocalypse. You might want to read the looming collision of worlds that plays an increasingly central role in the film as an expressionistic condensation of the story’s concern with emotional catastrophe. Gainsbourg and Dunst portray opposite reactions to imminent destruction: the first frantic, the second resigned, even dismissive, until her depressive perspective makes her uniquely able to deal effectively and proportionately with the apocalypse: while Gainsbourg’s composure breaks down, Dunst finds that a world beginning to reflect her worldview, and finds her place in it. But the film is clear that this is not necessarily to be seen as a hallucination and that, within its world, things are really coming to a complete, literally earth-shattering conclusion: the end of the world allows Von Trier to explore his characters in more depth, to learn about their differing worldviews, and he has achieved what Hollywood disasters can rarely manage; look at how Roland Emmerich’s many globe-trashings set up a bunch of stock characters just to have some human placeholders and markers of scale when the main attraction of things collapsing begins. Melancholia is not interested in the control rooms, the presidential strategies, the extended set-pieces of earthquake and flood that clearly drive other genre films forward. Aside from the prologue, it delivers only one image of mass destruction, ending on another of those Von Trier staples, the final shot that is simultaneously transcendent and ridiculously hyperbolic. See also the sudden theological volte face that concludes Breaking the Waves, or the “ghosts of the eternal feminine” in Antichrist, for examples. Viewers will either be emotionally mown down, or exasperated by it, but Von Trier refuses to accept stark divisions between tones and styles, and this is the most productive manifestation of his public improprieties – his films disarm and confound even staunch critics through their mixture of melodrama, cheap humour, sexuality, high art techniques and spectacular shock tactics.

2. If the film is, as claimed by its director, an investigation of the very serious subject of depressive illness, why does it need to be made more “spectacular” by the inclusion of an apocalyptic, Emmerich-lite backdrop with the approaching planet of Melancholia (subtle symbolism there, Lars!)? If it is about depression, what is it saying about depression? Is it that depressed people have the most realistic and insightful understanding of the world? We see Dunst strike an anti-corporate, crowd-pleasing stance against the ruthless and exploitative advertising agency that employs her, and we are obviously asked to take her side and see her depression in terms of a rebellion against conformist “society”, to ultimately to wish for the end of the world to wipe out all the whining control freaks with their rules and their hand-wringing and their attention to getting dinner ready on time. In this interpretation, manic depression is not a debilitating illness, but a more truthful assessment of the way things are, a misclassified mental enhancement that is problematic primarily because others fail to locate their inner manic depressive and break out of the strictures of social routine. If, on the other hand, it’s a realist drama about how people might actually behave when confronted with looming cataclysm, it is so packed with ludicrous scientific plot-holes that it ends up feeling rather sloppy, just as the wholly childish and inaccurate depiction of the American penal system in Dancer in the Dark derailed any statements the film might have been trying to make about capital punishment. Is Von Trier so afraid that audiences might not embrace a serious investigation of depression that he has to truss it up in the trappings of the blockbuster disaster movie?

The People

1. For all the inevitable bleatings about misogyny in his films, Lars Von Trier consistently produces roles for women that going beyond being tokenistically “empowering” tales of “strong women”; he heeds the complex inner lives of his subjects, and gives them fully dimensional expression without sentimentality. OK, maybe the occasional bout of sentimentality or idealisation, but his women are always complicated, often maddening and fascinating in equal measure. Kirsten Dunst has made a career out of rather slow and dull backup performances in the Spider-Man movies and in a bunch of other inconsequential roles, but let’s be clear about this: in Melancholia she is that old critical cliché, a revelation. Revelatory in the sense that nothing she’s done before would have lead you to expect that should could give such a daring and nuanced performance, more contained and quietened than you would predict from a film about mental illness from the director of Antichrist. Charlotte Gainsbourg gets to do all the movement, all the nervous energy, while Dunst does all the stasis – she’s constantly disappearing, or looking to disappear, working against the usual leading-lady rules that should make her seek out the camera, make her the centrifuge of attention. Instead, it’s a performance that goes through a progressive deterioration and that, for whole sections of the film, often looks in danger of melting away through the cracks.

2. Perhaps Von Trier is apologising to Charlotte Gainsbourg by giving her a more nuanced part to play than her ludicrous banshee from Antichrist, but by again casting his skinny brunette as a neurotic, frazzled control freak opposite Dunst’s curvy golden beauty (and in this instance it’s Dunst who gets to lie naked outdoors in a half-light, offering herself up to nature, making the differences between them all the more stark), he uses generic female “types” to shore up the binarised structures of his narrative – control vs chaos, science vs nature, rationalism vs. madness. It’s certainly undeniable that Von Trier gives leading roles to women, but that shouldn’t in itself be cause for celebration: he likes women, as long as they’re nervous, subjugated and paralysed. His depiction of them as victims of masculine discourses and social codes, martyrs to the cause of female empowerment, is sentimental, reductive and patronising rather than liberating or progressive: they are always the embodiments of pathologies and problems for the audience to diagnose and decide upon, to judge and explain away. If he’s good at coaxing convincing performances out of his actresses, it’s only because he pushes them into the kinds of extremes that automatically invoke empathetic responses.

What the Critics are Saying

Melancholia, like everything von Trier does, is an event. More than that, it’s his finest film for nearly a decade. A crazily bold, visually enthralling, and emotionally seismic drama about the meaning of existence. It’s also, by some way, a funnier and more visceral companion piece to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. […] Surging forward, piercing through the thickets of irony and emotional armour in which so much contemporary cinema is clad, Von Trier takes a B-movie storyline and from it creates an utterly singular work of art that leaves you stunned and winded. This – not the corny pastiche of Drive, not the semi-skimmed apocalypses of the average American disaster movie, not the sad-sack banality of most multiplex fare – yes, this is cinema.
Sukhdev Sandhu, The Telegraph

Like his oeuvre as a whole, it is, to quote the most famous, most melancholy of Danes, “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”. Indeed like Hamlet, von Trier is a depressed, attention-seeking malcontent, forever insulting and playing malevolent games with those around him and inventing dramas such as Hamlet’s “The Mousetrap”, designed to disturb and expose the audience and leave it in a state of disarray. […] There are a few striking images here, especially of the sisters out riding on fine horses, observed from a high angle through an early-morning mist. But the movie is heavy, though without weight or gravitas – a solipsistic, narcissistic, inhuman affair.
Philip French, The Observer.

Lars von Trier manages to turn the end of the world into a bit of a bore in Melancholia. A brooding cross between The Celebration (Festen) and Armageddon drenched in the tragic romanticism of Richard Wagner, this contemplation of the planet’s demise predictably provides not an ounce of comfort or redemption, nor does it offer characters or ideas with which to meaningfully engage, just ample opportunity to wallow in some rapturous images, glorious music and a foul mood. Absent the deliberate provocations of Antichrist and some of the Danish contrarian’s other works, a middling commercial career seems in store. […] In the end, then, Melancholia would seem to have two purposes: To express the state of deep depression the director has so often described his being in for the last several years, and to articulate his non-belief in anything beyond our temporal presence on this rock.
Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter.

It never gets in your heart, which is highly ironic considering the film’s major themes revolve around major emotions like happiness, depression, and anxiety.  Von Trier has so carefully crafted his picture that it never manages to breathe or create a spark of life.  The visuals are wondrous and the concepts explored are grand, but everything feels as cold as a carefully worded academic thesis.  Even Dunst’s amazing performance can’t connect to the audience, not because of her, but because it’s confined to playing precisely to Von Trier rigid design.  Von Trier allows us to feel sympathy for Justine, but never compassion.  He can make us think about intense emotions, but he can never make us feel them.  As Melancholia comes closer, Melancholia stays distant.

Matt Goldberg,

The piece might have been designed as an antidote to director Terrence Malick’s equally pompous The Tree Of Life, in which the director ordered his characters to submit cheerfully to God’s plan, whatever that was.
Von Trier’s defiantly bipolar contention is that there is no divine plan: only a malign fate that mankind thoroughly deserves, presumably for not taking von Trier’s previous movies seriously enough.
Melancholia is prettier than his last apocalyptic rant, Antichrist, but suffers from exactly the same sadistic nihilism.
When the end of the world arrives, it is indeed a relief — that, at last, after 135 minutes this pretentious, spiritually unattractive piece of grandiose self-indulgence has ground to its resoundingly meaningless conclusion.
Christopher Tookey, The Daily Mail.

In Summary
1. A powerful, thought-provoking visualisation of depressive illness, anchored by an extraordinary central performance and a peerless supporting cast; if any of it seems incongruous, inconsistent or emotionally manipulative, it is all part of the way Von Trier makes cinema, by needling all of our weak points and insecurities, rewarding us with a transcendent pay-off.

2. More insincere game-playing from Von Trier, uneven in tone and ending on a silly note of laughable simplicity; once more he humiliates and patronises his leading actresses, not to draw out the truth in their performances, but to enact his own depressive preoccupations under the pretence of investigating the condition as a whole. Don’t get caught up in the hyped controversy that always tries to make this man’s films seem more consequential than they are. It’s not the end of the world.


One thought on “Build Your Own Review: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia

  1. Pingback: papertastebuds » Blog Archive » incredible : melancholia

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