You should know straight away that I hate Lars Von Trier. Everything I’ve seen of his work so far I have at least disliked and mostly hated, and I find his egotism and pretentiousness in real life (and that which bleeds into his work) irritating to say the least. Just look at his Nazi-defending antics at this year’s Cannes Film Festival as a prime example of why I have a problem with him.
However, I am always willing to give any filmmaker another shot with each new film, even someone I dislike as much as Von Trier. To my surprise I didn’t hate his latest effort, Melancholia – that’s probably the best thing I can say about it from my own personal perspective.
Melancholia is a rather slow and depressing film, unsurprisingly given the name. True to Von Trier’s distinctive style, he takes his time. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. The first half of the movie takes place after Kirsten Dunst’s troubled Justine gets married. The ensuing awkward family drama is sometimes interesting, other times it feels needlessly long and drawn out. Perhaps this perfectly captures how this situation would really play out in real life but nonetheless it makes for often frustrating viewing.
Along with the family drama, Melancholia deals with the possible impending doom of Earth as another planet (the planet of the title) may or may not collide with it. The film actually starts off showing us, after a sequence of shots done in super slow-mo, the two planets colliding before cutting to the start of the family drama. Is this a vision of the inevitable end and we are to take it as “this will happen and there’s nothing you can do about it?” Is it in Dunst’s troubled mind? Or is Von Trier just messing with us? To his credit you are entirely unsure throughout.
What may have allowed me to admire Melancholia’s more interesting aspects is that Von Trier has, for the most part, stopped his standard (infuriating) controversy nonsense. With his previous film, the despicable Antichrist (see my rather scathing review from the EIFF 2009), he seemed to spend the entire movie poking and prodding at the audience, trying everything he could at every turn to push people’s buttons. It’s a cinematic endeavour I find completely pointless and insufferable, and it’s the reason I usually can’t stand Von Trier and his films. But with Melancholia he has almost entirely forgotten his MO and takes the subject matter, and his audience, seriously. In that way Melancholia is the director’s most accesible work to date.
Nonetheless, the film is still vintage self-indulgent Von Trier. For example, he continues to favour a technique he utilized in Antichrist of having shots slowed down to an absolute snail’s place, so slow that it takes, for example, a character 30 seconds to take a single step. And while these moments are gorgeous to look at (despite all else this is one of the most visually stunning films of the year) I fail to see what purpose they serve beyond mere aesthetics.
Regardless of the controversy he draws, Von Trier always manages to get a great cast of actors to act out his strange ideas. Here we have Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg (reteaming with the director after Antichrist), Alexander Skarsgård, Stellan Skarsgård (who are father and son), Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, and John Hurt. All performances are fantastic but it’s Dunst who gets all the heavy-lifting to do, and she was aptly awarded for her brilliant performance with the Best Actress award at Cannes. If you thought being a damsel in distress for Peter Parker was all she could do, think again.
In the end I can’t say I liked Melancholia. It’s more interesting than anything else for me, a piece to be admired from a technical standpoint. And overall I don’t think it adds up to as much as Von Trier maybe thinks it does, a case of being less than the sum of its parts. Von Trier is still as decadent as ever, perhaps even more so because he spends less time trying to annoy his audience and more time wallowing in his various trademarks. But hey, I didn’t come away from this one seething – considering how much I dislike Von Trier, that’s definitely a step in the right direction.
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