|Image: Artificial Eye|
Ever the nonconformist, Lars Von Trier caused uproar and was declared persona non grata at this year’s Cannes Festival when he declared himself a Nazi sympathiser in the press conference for his latest film. While some people found his words unforgivable, we personally felt that the enfant terrible had just pushed slightly too far in his efforts to be controversial (perhaps realising that his submission to the festival wasn’t in itself going to be as talked about as his last film, Antichrist). The sad fact is that the director’s words rather stole the limelight from the film itself. What, then, about Melancholia?
The title itself has a dual meaning, representing the unexplained depression of Kirsten Dunst’s newlywed main character, Justine, and also the name of a new planet which is hurtling towards Earth. We join the wedding party halfway through, and then watch in the aftermath as melancholia and Melancholia meet with a big bang. Von Trier wrangles the human drama and apocalyptic events with élan: in a wonderfully subversive move he begins the film with the destruction of the world, the crowning special effect on a bravura opening salvo which manages to reference silent cinema, Resnais’s L’Année Dernière à Marienbad, Millais’s Ophelia and (unintentionally, one imagines) David Tennant’s Doctor Who swansong. It’s breathtaking stuff, married perfectly to the well chosen score, Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde.
In fact, the most jarring element of the film is not the juxtaposition of family drama and planet smashing, but rather the oddly disjointed sections between the explosive bookends. The first half (‘Part One - Justine’) is by far the more successful, kicking off with brilliant incongruity after we have watched the world fizzle away. Dunst has married Alexander Skarsgaard, and they arrive at the castle home of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and filthy rich brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) for the reception. The family drama is well played, with all the actors doing a great job, but all too soon it is over, and the rest of the film (‘Part Two – Claire’) takes some time to recover the tantalising sense of inexplicable oppression which is imbued in the party scenes. Luckily it returns in spades for the touching finale, which manages to satisfy without sacrificing the complexity of the characters. It’s a very European-cinema-disaster-movie finale, and all the better for it.
Kirsten Dunst was awarded the prize for Best Actress at the Cannes Festival, which is certainly merited. Justine has a coldness and raw physicality which I haven’t seen in Dunst since her career making performance as a young vampire in Interview with a Vampire. Whether she is beating a horse or straddling an intern, caressing herself or playing with her young nephew, she is a wonderfully unreadable presence. However, my choice for Best Actress would be Charlotte Gainsbourg. She is the earth rod to Dunst’s ethereal force, a mother and sister and wife who struggles to be all three in correct proportions. Her moving performance in the finale is what stuck most in my mind once the credits had rolled.
As for the supporting cast, there is not one actor I would choose differently. They don’t all get a chance to shine as much as each other, with poor Charlotte Rampling sadly underused, but they do wonders with what they have. Alexander Skaarsgard’s performance as the new husband out of his depth is all the more enjoyable for being the polar opposite of the cocky, assured character he plays in True Blood, while John Hurt positively twinkles in his role as the sisters’ flirty, spoon-stealing dad. It’s a great pity that they couldn’t all stay around longer – it would have been a treat to see Rampling and Hurt as the divorced parents facing the end of the world together, preferably locked in a room with Von Trier regular Udo Kier’s marvellously overdramatic wedding planner.
Some people will hate Melancholia, this is certain. It can be fairly overwrought, especially in the second act, while characters occasionally spout clumsily (but I assume deliberately) pretentious dialogue. Von Trier himself has apologised for the film’s glossy sheen, probably feeling that he has betrayed his roots in the Dogme 95 movement. He really shouldn’t worry – the film is very much in keeping with his previous work: idiosyncratic in the extreme, sexy and daring with more than a soupcon of downright barmy.
Ignore what the man says in press conferences, and let yourself be beguiled by a one of a kind film from a one of a kind director.