'Melancholia': End of the World as We Know It (And Lars Feels Fine)
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
No other film director seems to manifest his immediate mood in his work as vividly as Lars von Trier. As such, it's pretty clear that over the past few years he's been in a darker-than-average mood. His prior film, 2009's "Antichrist," was an intellectually incoherent but visually, erm, memorable welter of apocalyptic ruminations on the battle of the sexes that featured on-screen genital mutilation and a talking animatronic disemboweled fox among its cinematic highlights. "Melancholia" takes up the end-of-the-world theme yet again, this time on larger terms. It's a micro-treatment of what most sci-fi eschatological tales take a more expansive view of: Think "When Worlds Collide" reconfigured as a Bergman film, or, to be more specific, as "The Celebration," the 1998 family drama directed by von Trier's Danish sort-of disciple Thomas Vinterberg.
Opening with an impressionistic, special effects-laden prologue, or overture, if you will, scored to some orchestral music from Wagner's opera "Tristan und Isolde" (the passages skirt, but never quite reach, the famed Liebestod of that work, which figures prominently in classic films by both Buñuel and Hitchcock) and offering a bit of a précis of what's to come, "Melancholia" proper starts relatively small. Hand-held, hardly razor sharp imagery takes us to a lavish wedding at an imposing mansion. Bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is sweet and lovely but tentative. Groom Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) is handsome and good-humored. Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a bit of a worrywart. Her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), is bluff and a trifle dismissive. With each guest we meet (and they include Charlotte Rampling as Gaby, Claire's gimlet-eyed mom; John Hurt as their affectionate wreck of a dad; Stellan Skarsgard as Justine's boss; and Michael's dad) the dysfunction stops at yet another floor. When Justine's predictably piggish boss sics a whipped cur of an associate on her, to hound a behind-deadline "tagline" out of the psychically battered bride, it doesn't take an Erich Fromm to guess how the self-loathing Justine is going to handle the situation, and sure enough she's soon straddling the guy out on the estate's golf course.
The intimate camerawork gives the proceedings the feeling of stock characters handled in a not-quite-stock way, not unlike "Celebration" at all, come to think of it. But something new has been added: that is, the threat of complete global destruction due to the approach of a planet called, yes, Melancholia, which might just eat up the Earth entirely or pass by our planet and cause a couple of power outages; nobody seems able to say for sure. And it's with the treatment of this element that the film gets really interesting, or as interesting as it's going to get.
This isn't the first time a filmmaker's attempted an intimate look at possible global catastrophe. The most obvious influence here is "The Sacrifice," the last film by one of von Trier's artistic heroes, Andrei Tarkovsky, which looks in on a single isolated family's reaction to a possible nuclear cataclysm. Von Trier is an altogether more blunt, less hermetic and more pop filmmaker than Tarkovsky was, and the emotional interactions, not to mention the sense of suspense, in "Melancholia" is somewhat more conventionally accessible than Tarkovsky's vision.
There's quite a bit of striking stuff on hand, and the performances are all first-rate, particularly Sutherland's. I'd forgotten just how sympathetically nuanced an actor he can be, and it's to von Trier's credit that he gave the actor free rein to really work that part of his instrument. But there's also a sense that the moody von Trier's engaging in some unsubtle self-aggrandizement here: Justine, needled by the production demands of a crass employer on one hand and under constant pressure from family members to observe propriety on the other, is clearly a stand-in for the director. And the final scenes, in which Justine first shows magisterial contempt for her sister's fear and then achieves perfect empathy with her young nephew, are clearly briefs for the exquisite perceptiveness and sensitivity of our poor little auteur. And I say, go peddle your papers, and your pity party while you're at it. But I say it with some affection, because even when I was getting a little fed up with the film, I was still almost entirely engaged by it. Your own reaction will depend on your own indulgence, I suspect.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.