MELANCHOLIA

Cineworld Glasgow, 04.10.11

Lars Von Trier certainly divides opinion. Love his films, or hate them, there is no middle ground. After his infamous Cannes press conference, where he was supposed to be discussing his latest major film, Melancholia, but instead got caught discussing Nazism and sympathising with Hitler (it was all a misunderstood joke), the same can be said for the man himself – you either love him or hate him.  Courting controversy seems to be Von Trier’s way, as he repeatedly says of his work – he sets out to provoke. His past films certainly provoke a reaction, and he is a darling amongst the art house audiences and critics, especially in Europe.  Personally, I have a problem with Von Trier films because he may set out to provoke a response, but my usual response to Von Trier is one of boredom.

Maybe that’s slightly unfair.  I have a soft spot for Breaking The Waves (1996), the story of a woman trapped in a marriage with a crippled husband but seeking sexual satisfaction, mainly as it is set in northern Scotland, making Von Trier one of the few big name directors to choose to set a film in my home country. The Idiots (1998) certainly courted controversy, portraying a group of able-bodied friends who decide to act as retards in order to provoke, it marked Von Trier’s founding of the Dogme 95 movement, along with fellow Danish director Tomas Vinterberg, which was a manifesto of film-making that was based on realism, acting and story and excluded the use of cinematic lighting or special effects.  Von Trier abandoned this dogma fairly quickly. Dancer In The Dark (2000) stuck to many of its principles, but had Bjork bursting into song throughout – it was, at least an interesting experiment. Dogville (2005) was another interesting experiment.  The story of a woman on the run from the mob holing up in a small town, with the twist that it was all filmed on a soundstage, where buildings were marked out with chalk outlines.  Unlike his previous efforts, though this may have been provoking to some, I found it inordinately dull. The stripping back of cinema to a theatrical medium was one step too far.  So much so, that the chance to see Charlotte Gainsbourg slice off her vagina in Antichrist (2009) wasn’t enough to tempt me to the cinema to see it.

There were enough positive reports about Melancholia to tempt me back to Von Trier.  Here, his familiar set up of a troubled female trapped amongst a group of people she cannot stand is given a sci-fi twist, with a planet (also called Melancholia) heading for a collision with Earth that will destroy the planet and all life on it.  The film is set in a large country hotel, owned by John (Keifer Sutherland) and his wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  Part one occurs on the wedding night of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), Claire’s sister and a woman who suffers from melancholia.  The wedding reception turns into a disaster as Justine sinks into a depression .  Part two follows Claire, a few days later, as she tries to come to terms with the imminent arrival of Melancholia that will destroy the planet, and deal with Justine, now almost comatose after her calamitous wedding night.

The film opens with a prologue of shots from scenes that will reoccur later in the film, set to classical music. They are all beautifully framed, stunning computer-enhanced images, all moving in eerie slow motion. It’s about as far from the Dogme 95 manifesto as you can go. Similarly at the end, the final shot as Melancholia hits Earth is spectacular in itself. Unfortunately, much of what comes in between these striking images is quite dull.

The problem with courting controversy and seeking to provoke is that there is a fine line between this becoming irritating and annoying – like most of Dogville.  Justine, as portrayed by Kirsten Dunst, suffers from this characterisation.  Dunst, I have always found, has a certain irritating quality onscreen, that surfaces even in her mainstream roles, which may have made her ideal casting for Von Trier, as a character who purposely seems to set out to annoy anyone who knows her.  The selfishness and cruelty with which she treats everyone – her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård), her employer (Stellan Skarsgård), her brother-in-law and sister – leave little room for any sympathy for Justine, and one wonders how no one within the film doesn’t simply tell her some home truths, or end up being physically violent towards her.  Instead, she is forgiven over and over again for her behaviour – from arriving late and constantly disappearing from her own wedding reception, to having sex with a junior employee on her wedding night. She resigns from her job, having just been given a promotion. Her new husband leaves, presumably having found out about Justine’s sexual indiscretion, but seems apologetic towards her rather than angry.  This ungratefulness and selfishness are only matched by all those around her – only her new husband appears to be a genuine person, but a very weak one.  Why anyone would want to marry someone like Justine is beyond the realms of realism and a fantasy in itself.

The collection of characters within the film are so irritating that if they are in any way representative of what humans, and humanity, have to offer, then the destruction of the planet may not be such a bad thing after all.  Justine comes out of her near comatose state towards the end of the film, as it becomes clear that the Earth is about to be destroyed.  The message seems to be that the melancholics have been right all along. It’s like the ultimate ‘I told you so’ – I was right to be glum and annoying and not care because we will eventually all die – humans and the Earth are such a small part of the Universe and history that they are nothing, and there is no life anywhere else (according to Justine), we are insignificant in the general scheme of things, therefore what is the point of happiness.

It’s a depressing outlook, but the premise that humans are only a small part of the universe and history is, conversely, both a massive philosophical point and at the same time a slim point on which to hang a film on, especially without offering any relief from it. It’s a well-known fact that we are only a speck in the universe and that we haven’t been around for long, so there is nothing to dispute there. The dispute is how we, as people, acknowledge this fact and are able to carry on with our lives regardless, which is something that Justine is unwilling to do. Just because she was correct in the end with the destruction of Earth, doesn’t mean she is correct in the way she acts towards those that love her, nor does it excuse her behaviour.  Similarly, John’s cowardly suicide when he realises what is about to happen is unforgivable, leaving his wife and son to face death without him, while Claire’s naivety and whimpering also engender little sympathy.  If the film seems to back any outlook, it is that of Justine’s.  We’re screwed, so we might as well be depressed.

Melancholia is fresh in the sense that it is like the anti-Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998).  There are no action set pieces, no heroes, there is no escape for a happy ending.  This seems somewhat surreal though, the hotel is so cut off from the world that there seems no reaction to the oncoming disaster.  All we hear of the outside world is a brief mention of some crackpots on the internet predicting the collision.  Even in a fantasy world, it’s unbelievable to think the world would stay this calm if such an event was forthcoming.  There are no televisions, radios, newspapers in the hotel that give a clue to how the rest of the world is reacting.  Instead it is a character drama played out in isolation, to a ridiculous level.  Claire’s one attempt to take her son and be with others for the end, result only in failure and she returns to be with Justine at the hotel. 

Von Trier sticks to his familiar style, all hand-held camera, jump cuts and natural light, which grates for a two-hour plus film, and did give me, at least, a slight headache. There are moments clearly intended as humor, and some work – Jesper Christensen as the put upon butler gets some good moments, as does Udo Kier as the wedding planner who can’t even look at the bride who has ruined his perfect wedding.  Other moments are clearly designed to provoke, but most back fire, or at worst are pointless.  What does seeing Justine sitting on a golf green outside the hotel, in her wedding dress and relieving herself add to anything this film has to offer? Nothing. It’s needless.

Von Trier continues to provoke, and to make challenging films, but Melancholia, like others before it, is trying so hard to provoke that it forgets to try to engage the viewer, which is a shame, because somewhere there is a place for a genuine drama that looks at these issues without being so pretentious and annoying as the people dealing with the end of the world here.

Film Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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