It’s the end of the world as we know it and nobody feels fine in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, the Danish provocateur’s take on the apocalypse which blends soaring celestial special effects with gloomy, earthy melodrama.

As with von Trier’s previous film, the punishing morality play Anti-Christ, Melancholia opens with an eight-minute overture; a collection of slow-motion tableaux set to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. We see glimpses of the story to come as a woman in a wedding dress floats impassively down a stream, in a nod to Millais’ Ophelia, or stands in a field as blue electricity sparks from her fingertips. Birds fall from the sky as a staring horse collapses in a heap. We see another woman drag a young boy across a golf course, a look of anguish in her face as she sinks up to her ankles in the suddenly boggy ground. And we see the cosmos, a black sheet of stars against which von Trier places the Earth and the newly-discovered planet Melancholia, as they glide inexorably towards one another.

The rest of the film is divided into two sections of more-or-less equal length. The first chapter, reminiscent of von Trier’s friend and Dogme 95 collaborator Thomas Winterberg’s caustic family drama Festen, opens with the woman in the bridal dress, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her newlywed husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), sitting in a stretch limousine as it attempts to negotiate a winding driveway. They are hours late for their own reception at a palatial hotel, hosted by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who lives there with her wealthy husband Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) and young son. As the wedding party sits to eat a long-delayed meal, von Trier slowly reveals deep divisions between the other family members, especially the sister’s divorced parents, their gadfly father (John Hurt) and cantankerous mother (Charlotte Rampling). Justine works in advertising and her slimy boss (Stellan Skarsgård) hovers at her shoulder like a wasp, pressuring her to deliver a new slogan for a fashion campaign. The only glimpses of humour are the barbed asides from the despairing wedding planner, played with a sniff by Udo Kier. As the evening wears on, Justine’s behaviour becomes increasingly strange as she falls prey to anxiety, doubt and paranoia. The evening ends in disaster, of no consequence when set against the impending apocalypse, but disaster nonetheless.

A few weeks later, the second chapter sees Justine’s depression evolve into a complete nervous collapse. Slumped and unresponsive, Claire moves her sister into the mansion to look after her. Isolated from the rest of the world and, for some reason, unable to cross a bridge to get into town, the three adults and one child rattle around the house as the planet Melancholia makes its relentless way towards Earth. Amateur astronomist Jack believes the scientists, who say the galactic interloper will pass harmlessly by. Justine and Claire trust their instinct, which tells them that the sky is falling down and that the ever-growing blue ball in the sky will signal the end of everything.

Melancholia is not quite on the same level of cruelty as Anti-Christ but, as a companion piece, it carries the same dread air of awkward manipulation and tiresome fatalism. Von Trier crashes planets together but I never felt the earth move, despite a brave and compelling performance from Dunst (who won the Best Actress award at Cannes even as the director was expelled from the festival for making boorish remarks about Jews and Nazis). Compare von Trier’s thesis on the end of time with the graceful expression of its beginnings in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Malick sees the glory and wonder in creation and displays it like a treasure, while von Trier looks at the same world as it blinks out of existence and sees only squalor and sadness.

Brilliantly played, technically adroit and at times breathtakingly beautiful, Melancholia is still a cold and uncaring provocation, a poke in the eye with an ornately carved stick. You can admire the craftsmanship, even as it blinds you.

1 comment:

Snooker said...

I have to comment sight unseen but this really does sound like another chapter of the book "The tree of life" came from. Or something Kubrick could have done.
Hopefully it won't be as tedious, boring or as pretentious as that.
I await with trepidation.