People don’t realise that Lars von Trier has quite a sense of humour, which is why he gets into so much trouble at press conferences when he tries to crack wise. Like any comic, sometimes his jokes fall flat (unsurprisingly, saying “I’m a Nazi” at a press conference in the heart of France doesn’t go down so well – know your audience, Lars!) but he’s not the stone-faced provocateur many presume. Let’s not forget he has actually directed a comedy before – 2006’s The Boss of It All – and put his own mentor through the ringer in a series of devilishly funny trials in The Five Obstructions. His latest movie, Melancholia, also features a first act filled with nuggets of hilarity, and takes place at one of the most ubiquitous comedy settings in film history: a wedding.
I mention von Trier’s comic chops as a reminder that he is a human being capable of telling relatable, touching tales, and not simply a caricature of an alienating auteur (even if he occasionally derives joy from giving off that impression – at the Cannes debut of Antichrist, he declared that he was in fact “the best director in the world”). In Melancholia, von Trier – who also wrote the screenplay – fuses natural comedy with stark human observations. He disarms us, setting the scene for a film that feels like it takes place in the real world, with characters that feel just like us, paving the way for a fantastical finale that, instead of being silly, is actually heartbreakingly tragic and emotionally devastating. It’s his best, most humane picture in years.
Melancholia opens with a beautiful, poetic mélange of slow-motion images from the end of the world, and then winds back the clock to the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst, giving a stunning performance) and the thoughtful, kind-hearted Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). It should be every girl’s dream day, yet Justine can’t seem to shake that overbearing feeling of despair. Her sister Claire (the always pitch-perfect Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) – who are hosting the epic reception on their ginormous estate – are sick and tired of Justine’s inability to enjoy all that she’s been blessed with. Not even their frequently stated disappointment can inspire her to crack a smile (a genuine smile) on “the happiest day of her life”.
What first seems like the wedding-day jitters of a nervous bride slowly reveals itself to be a much deeper disturbance; a depression that cannot be cured – as everyone had hoped – with an extravagant wedding, or even the love of a good man. Bickering, divorced parents Dexter (John Hurt) and Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) hardly help matters with their cringe-worthy speeches. When it becomes apparent over the next few days that Justine is a lost cause, the focus of the film shifts to Claire, who becomes obsessed with the thought of newly discovered planet Melancholia colliding with the Earth. John promises her that the giant monstrosity will pass right by them, sparing everyone and allowing them to keep on living their lives. But what if it doesn’t miss? What if they’re not so lucky? What if the Earth, and everyone on it, dies? Or, the question that is really on her mind: What if she, just like her sister and mother, succumbs to that all-encompassing depression, too? What if that descent is as inevitable as the giant blue planet speeding towards them?
The metaphor ain’t subtle – that the impending planet should share the name of Justine’s disorder is telling – but the execution is masterful. Compare it with Norwegian Wood, that snoresom, pretentious depiction of depression which seeks to half-heartedly portray a debilitating disease as a graceful sacrifice. Von Trier is unafraid to show the desperation of depression; how frightening and frustrating and futile it can be (for the person who suffers from it and for the family who suffers with them). The second act of the film is a fine companion to Take Shelter; both pictures feature characters who, fully aware of their family’s medical history, become fearful of similarly falling victim and equate such a result with an apocalyptic disaster. In both pictures (especially Melancholia), we feel the soul-crushing, suffocating weight of this horrible anticipation.
Melancholia’s final shot is one for the ages; perhaps the most stirring and chilling moment of von Trier’s career. It is bleak and bold and haunting and likely to leave you in tatters. Lars has us well before that scene arrives though. Melancholia is not just a visual marvel, despite the film’s spectacularly realised bookends (courtesy of DOP Manuel Alberto Claro); it’s an emotional journey. You feel for the characters, you pity them, you pray for them, and just like Claire, you hope that you’re different, even though you understand too well what they’re going through.
Melancholia does not yet have an Australian release date.