Milos Stehlik reviews the Lars von Trier film ‘Melancholia’

November 18, 2011

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(Christian Geisnæs)
Kirsten Dunst stars in Lars von Trier's new film 'Melancholia.'

Lars von Trier is his own worst enemy. He made stupid, ill-considered remarks at the last Cannes Film Festival. The Festival kicked him out and banned him. The scandal overshadowed the substance of his new film, Melancholia. But scandal aside, Melancholia shows that Lars von Trier is not just a big mouth, but a considerably skilled and talented filmmaker.

The two sections of Melancholia focus on the stories of two sisters — Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, as she gets married at her sister Claire’s country estate —  and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays Clair. She’s married to a scientifically-bent husband. They have a young son. But Melancholia is about the end of the world.

You might well ask: why go see a dark film about the apocalypse which offers no perceptible action by a sometimes lunatic Danish filmmaker? Because, with all of his excess, Lars von Trier is an extraordinary visionary. What Melancholia shows, subtly and beautifully, are anxiety-ridden relationships we have with those closest to us, and how insignificant and unconnected we are with the universe.

Melancholia is the name of a rogue planet. Always hidden behind the sun, the planet suddenly appears. Scientists — including Charlotte Gainsbourg’s husband — predict that the trajectory of Melancholia will by-pass the Earth. Yet, as the planet grows ever larger in the sky, so grows the anxiety.

Melancholia begins with a kind of prologue of images of space. A giant planet appears and approaches Earth, ending in a collision. Then we see newlyweds Justine and Michael, played by Alexander Skarsgaard, wind their way in a stretch-limo up a narrow road to the country mansion. Tension permeates the wedding celebration. Justine and Claire’s divorced parents fight. Justine is alienated from her sister, her manipulative boss and her parents. She drifts from the wedding party feeling depressed.

Claire's husband, John, convinced that Melancholia will bypass the Earth, views the close encounter with excited anticipation. Yet nature offers the first warning. At night, the horses become uncontrollably upset. Birds begin to disappear. Electric power vanishes. The events force Justine to withdraw into a primal self. She starts to build a protective cave made from wooden sticks on the estate grounds.

Von Trier projects most powerfully when he depicts the sense of disconnection and doom. He does much of this visually – in a blue-grey tone– a kind of twilight. For those who believe the Mayan calendar’s prediction of the world’s cataclysmic end in 2012, Melancholia is perfect. The film acutely captures the sense of anticipation, but also the powerlessness that comes from dealing with such calamitous events — how vulnerable and defenseless we are in protecting those we care for — how useless we are against forces larger than ourselves.

Von Trier’s brilliance is in creating a film which could be epic in scope, but remains intimate — a somber chamber-piece about broken people paralyzed in the face of calamity. The way von Trier captures the fragility of the characters — their severed connection to what gives life organization and meaning — is surprisingly touching and tender.

The question von Trier poses is simply this: What to do? To protect our families, do we build protective shelters out of sticks — or — commit suicide?  In a more rational moment than at the Cannes press conference, von Trier said that the idea for the film came from his own depression.

What emerges are thoughts that are dark, but questions which are profound. Von Trier makes us think about the end. Oddly, he succeeds at making us appreciate the preciousness of now. Melancholia is a film about the end of the world, but becomes a film about life.


Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multimedia. His commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or WBEZ.