Film review: Melancholia

Melancholia obliterates all around it, figuratively and literally, in Lars Von Trier's latest film, says Philip Dodd

September 29, 2011


Directed by Lars Von Trier

Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland and Alexander Skarsgard

Released in the UK on 30 September

The apocalypse was always more Hollywood than European film; more easily conjured up in the iconography of Cecil B. DeMille than of Ingmar Bergman. To imagine the end, Hollywood has ready to hand the spectacular landscapes of 19th-century painters such as John Martin (whose work is currently on show at Tate Britain, with the inevitable tagline "Apocalypse") and also science fiction. Aliens from War of the Worlds to The Day the Earth Stood Still provide an oddly reassuring ready-made sense of an ending.

In comparison with the German-born Roland Emmerich in Independence Day, Lars Von Trier, the Danish film-maker, has fewer cinematic models to draw on in Melancholia, whose last moments imagine a star named Melancholia crashing into the Earth, obliterating us all. Von Trier may have said that his latest film is close to American mainstream cinema, but it does not feel like that, watching it. The film's title does give us a clue to where its cinematic fellowship lies. It is to that great Soviet film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky's stark one-word titles - Mirror, Nostalghia, Stalker - that Von Trier seems to pay homage in his title. Tarkovsky, with his interest in inner not outer space, also should remind us (if we need it) that Von Trier's interest is how melancholia - rather than a star - can cancel all that we know and value.

Melancholia begins with weighty matters and a corresponding solemn idiom. A series of still art photos and slo-mos under which throbs Wagner precede the title sequence: a horse slowly collapses; birds fall from the sky behind Kirsten Dunst's face.

But after the title sequence and for much of the film, it is - I kid you not - a rather good comedy of manners. We see a newly married couple, played by Kirsten Dunst and Alexander Skarsgard, in the back of a white stretch limo. This preposterous car tries to navigate a narrow country lane, with the couple giggling and taking turns to drive. Shot with Von Trier's distinctive, close-up and nervy hand-held camera, the scene has a wonderful intimacy about it. The couple arrive two hours late for the wedding dinner, face an anxious sister, a splendidly competent and self-satisfied brother-in-law, and a mother (Charlotte Rampling as bitter as a lemon) whose speech denounces marriage, all marriage, as a sham.

This is much like the world of Von Trier's colleague Thomas Vinterberg's Festen, where bourgeois life is mocked, relentlessly, if with a certain self-satisfaction. In Melancholia, too, there are the usual targets, the bourgeois male (Kiefer Sutherland), loyal to science, who finally kills himself after miscalculating the trajectory of the star, the father who absents himself when asked for help by the daughter in distress, the awful boss of the advertising agency, the coercive rituals of bourgeois life - nothing surprising, then, but done with a certain glee.

But at the film's heart are the two sisters - the film is divided into two parts, each of which is named after one of them: the blonde Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and the dark-haired Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Claire is the anxious, controlling bourgeois mother; Justine the figure whose melancholia cancels all possibility of accommodation - her husband packs his bags and leaves her as her implacable melancholy obliterates him. Her face is to Von Trier what Liv Ullmann's was to Bergman: a landscape for imagining possible states of mind. It is a good and unsentimental performance that shows at times both how inconsolable melancholy can be and how it can cancel all and everyone surrounding it.

As the film moved on, out of a comedy of manners, I began to think of another inspiration for Von Trier - closer to home than Russia and Tarkovsky. It was Ibsen and his great play of apocalypse, When We Dead Awaken - where one couple go to oblivion in an apocalyptic avalanche while the other pair go down to warmth in the valley. The difference is that in Melancholia, there are no survivors. The complaint is not the film's cancellation of all hope; rather the fact that it did not feel quite earned. Call Melancholia Tarkovsky-lite or maybe Ibsen-lite: too often more glum than apocalyptic.

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