Despite assertions that I would never consciously put myself through the draining experience of watching one of his films again, this morning saw the first screening of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, a film about the end of the world, as well as one that presents the triumph of melancholia, or the feeling that everything we know is hollow.
So, now the credits have rolled, the world has ended and again, I find myself challenged by the dichotomy of a film that consciously aims to jar and jolt, rather than be pleasurable (is there any other way for this director though?). Like Malick’s The Tree of Life, Melancholia is experiential cinema, a film that has limited commercial appeal aside from the names attached to it, that is as much a manifestation of Von Trier as an artist as it is a film in its own right, and long after this film festival is done, it will be those two films that will command the most debate, side-by-side. Both are endurance tests, but Melancholia is something entirely different to that other film, even though both will no doubt split the festival.
Is it successful? Incredibly so. Though it’s certainly not an enjoyable experience. But at the end of the day, that’s exactly what the infamous director set out to achieve.
The parallels with The Tree of Life are explicit: both Malick and Von Trier investigate the human relationship to the grandeur and power of nature, and while Malick has a positive message hidden in amongst his on-screen pondering, Von Trier, somewhat typically takes a far more morbidly fascinated stance. There is no hope here, and because the director himself is a “melancholiac” (Kirsten Dunst‘s character is very much an autobiographical one), the film’s manifesto is one of bleakness and the triumph of emptiness. Both films also feature impressive cosmic images, though the notable difference is that Von Trier’s are very much part and parcel of the human stories he tells, rather than the more disjointed overall effect of Malick’s.
What is most astounding is that Von Trier has decided to present his most fatalistic film as his most polished looking; something he says he wrestled with, as he consciously resists the traditional filmmaking urge to inject beauty into the art. But beauty was a necessary choice here, because even Von Trier would be wringing every last drop out of his reputation as an Enfant Miserable if he had gone with the starker style of Antichrist – and ultimately the beauty of the print adds a jolting tragedy to the substance of the film. Not only that, Von Trier presents the film as a grand ballet: the overture, which poetically tells the story of the world’s end before we get the chance to see the immediate moments beforehand and their effect on the character we follow, is a huge artistic statement of that manifesto. At one point the doomed planet seems almost caught in a lovers’ embrace with the giant Melancholia, as the score (the overture to “Tristan and Isolde”) soars – an intrusive presence that continues to provoke visceral reaction throughout the film, and whose enduring effect is that we are witnessing a poignant and profound ballet.
Melancholia is a film fascinated, and appalled by the idea of rituals: they are merely hollow artifice, created to distract from the ultimate hollowness of existence, which Von Trier argues is the only appropriate truth, whose resistance is the real tragedy of existence. And rather than present Dunst as a tragic figure whose depressions alienate her from everyone else, and cost her a normal life, it is her mentality that is celebrated at the end. Her life after all is overwhelmingly defined by a yearning for something catastrophic and dramatic to occur, and one can imagine Von Trier standing hand in hand with his character, watching the world end with a smile on their faces, and mouthing the words “We told you so.”
Dunst is fantastic as Justine, and her transition from the first stages, where we see her attempting to adhere to the conventional rituals of society at her wedding, when everything within her screams defiance to her second-half evolution to a walking shadow, who has allowed her melancholia to take hold of her is breathtaking to watch. The performance perfectly pitches the character’s inner struggle, and when she does eventually let her facade of normalcy slip, the physical change in Dunst is just as affecting. In some ways this spells a new-found maturity in her career that might well spell more challenging roles for her in future. Alongside her is Von Trier favorite Charlotte Gainsbourg – as her sister, Claire – who appears as a worrier, and someone who is very much the captive of ritual in the first chapter, who is also the most intensely affected character as the second chapter unfolds and the planet’s impending doom is confirmed. Her performance is just as impressive as Dunst’s, though it probably won’t attract the same heady praise, since we already know of her abilities with this sort of material (thanks largely to Antichrist), which will be something of an injustice.
Gainsbourg is the emotional heart of the film, it is on her shoulders that the tragedy of the film’s events rest as she crumbles into an emotional wreck, which is in contrast to the way Keifer Sutherland‘s John (her husband) is presented. He is a skeptic and a believer in the invincibility of humanity who continually states his faith that the planets will miss one another, and Von Trier presents his skepticism as one and the same thing as his inability or unwillingness to understand or tolerate Justine’s melancholia. Sutherland does well in the role, his enthusiasm is tangible and makes his ultimate resolution even more profoundly affecting.
But we are not supposed to feel anything like pity for Sutherland’s character, and Von Trier also encourages us to resist the empathy we feel for Gainsbourg, which causes the greatest conflict of the film. If Dunst is Von Trier’s on-screen self, comfortable with the end of the world, even thrilled by the pathos and tragedy of it, Gainsbourg is us: her reaction of despair and helplessness is the reasonable response in our world, but the assertion by Von Trier and Dunst’s characters that such feelings are folly means the conclusion of the film leaves us feeling shaken, and emotionally exhausted. Melancholia is an anti-human state, and Von Trier challenges the audience to accept that it is the only intelligent response to life, since all human existence is evil. Heavy stuff.
But what else are we supposed to expect, exactly? Von Trier is a deeply challenging and provocative filmmaker, and the success of the film can be easily judged against the response to The Tree of Life, which was challenging in a markedly less welcome way. The agenda of cinema is to thrill, to engage, occasionally to appall, and the fact that Von Trier’s art has once again inspired these incredibly visceral responses is the perfect mark of success.
In final evaluation, Melancholia is very much the embodiment of Von Trier’s commitment to producing a cinema of self-harm: it is a manifestation of his inner turmoil, explicated and resolved through this fantastical filmic wound, as he seeks to match the thrilling sensation of his inner melancholia (something audiences will invariably find troubling) with an exterior, artistic sensation. And it is incredibly successful in that agenda, albeit at a cost of the audience’s enjoyment and traditional sense of pleasure. But then those responses are perhaps best viewed as the rituals of cinema that Von Trier is determined to destroy.
That’s it from me, I’m overwhelmingly taken by the need for a filmic hug, so I’m off to watch Mary Poppins. It’s either that or I’ll punch a kitten.
The Upside: Von Trier has succeeded perfectly in his agenda, and the polished visuals and effects sequences are incredible.
The Downside: I feel like fucking crying.
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