Melancholia (2011)

07 October 2011

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In the first of Melancholia's two parts, Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, utters a line applicable to the film as a whole: "Incredible. Incredibly trivial." Indeed, after an opening sequence of a dozen or so startling images, Lars von Trier's latest work is neither here nor there, dramatically speaking, and displays an increasingly identifiable air of ludicrous cynicism. At best, the film is one whose promising premise falls apart about a half-hour in; at worst, it is an abomination.

Melancholia opens as a kind of return to the uncomfortable dynamics of an upper class family gathering of Festen (1998), the first film made under von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg's "Dogme 95" manifesto. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is a newly married bride whose late arrival at her post-wedding reception is met with barely concealed frustration by sister Claire and brother-in-law John (Keifer Sutherland), who are both organisers and hosts of the event.

At the reception, Justine and Claire's divorced father Dexter (John Hurt) flirts with the two women sitting either side of him, both called Betty; their mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) sabotages Dexter's speech to assert her own scornful views on marriage, catalysing in the process a dormant depression in her newly wedded daughter, who as the night develops becomes estranged from new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), drifts in and out of the party, is pressured from her employer Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), has sex with his new employee on the neighbouring golf course, appeals to her dad for help that never comes, and ends up sleeping alone on a sofa in the study that she earlier re-arranged in a moment of impotent rebellion.

Taking place some time later, the second half of the film is told through Claire's viewpoint, as sister Justine, suffering from depression, visits the same country manor at which her wedding reception took place. As Claire tries to relate to her sister and drag her out of her withdrawn mood, she relies increasingly on husband John's reassurances that rogue planet Melancholia is not destined to collide with earth, having already missed Mercury and Venus after entering the Solar System; one night, Claire follows Justine out onto the lawn to find her sister bathing naked under the light emanating from Melancholia.

Though there are moments early on that point to an underlying, difficult-to-contain self-hatred running beneath the social gathering of the elite, this is all very inconsequential as it happens, and is given a certain and misguided veneer of seriousness, from the director who was once so bold as to claim authorship should not be signed by the director (you'll find no such credits on the Vinterberg-directed Festen or von Trier's own 1998 film The Idiots). Here, the film's title card reads "Lars von Trier / Melancholia" (the director's name above the film's name). To be sure, this is more than a mere possessory credit, as in "Lars von Trier's Melancholia"; the director elevates his own name to be an attraction in itself.

It's a shame that an artist as privileged enough to be working with this kind of onscreen talent - Gainsbourg returns from Antichrist, Stellan Skarsgård from Breaking the Waves and Dogville, Hurt from Dogville and so on - has decided to make a film whose final third is concerned with people of such privilege that their only significant worry should be the end of the planet.

Von Trier is quite evidently a self-absorbed filmmaker; worse than this, he has seemingly little interest in actual human relations or the world humans inhabit. When Kirsten Dunst's Justine rebukes her sister's pathetic optimism toward the end of the film by claiming that the world is evil and nobody will miss it, we may posit that von Trier (who also wrote the script) fully believes these things. And if he doesn't, then why are we watching this film and why should we care?

As is often the case, the most annoying thing about this high-parading, self-celebratory disgrace of anti-intellectualism isn't its banal allegorical suggestion that an apocalypse is pending as a result of some failed communication between people, or its ridiculous flirtations with emotional states being accounted for by planetary shifts in the cosmos; it's that to a perplexingly great deal of industry practitioners and professional critics, von Trier's films somehow remain appealing.

Von Trier abused his privileged position as lauded artist with a very calculated brand of self-humouring cynicism at this year's Cannes, when he suggested during a press conference that he was a Nazi and that he sympathised with Hitler. Critics cringed and rolled their eyes, as people will when their trusted source of middle-class pseudo-anarchism risks putting their own biases on public view (biases not to the Nazis, but to someone childish enough to demand attention by declaring, jokingly or not, a sympathy for them); but it's an intellectual and political shambles for many of them to have bent over backwards and extended to the director some benefit of doubt, and not called for a more rigid rein on an artist who's quite clearly been given too much time and money to do whatever his disinterested, "look at me" sensibility calls for.