Monday, October 03, 2011

New York Film Festival: Lars Von Trier's Melancholia

Directed By Lars Von Trier

When describing the filmmaking qualities or narrative strategies of Lars Von Trier, one word shows up again and again: provocateur. The Danish director wants to get inside our skin, distort our comforts, and make us shout at his vision of the world as false. This applies not only to his films like Dogville or Antichrist, but also to his personality off the screen. At the premiere of Antichrist at Cannes, he claimed that God had declared him the greatest director in the world. And this year, at the premiere of his latest film Melancholia, Mr. Von Trier went on a rant that ended with him claiming himself a Nazi. Give it, the director was only joking, knowing the Cannes press core would eat such comments up (it did; the jury declared Mr. Von Trier persona non grata). But Mr. Von Trier was really loves watching those reactions nonetheless. This is a director who loves fucking with you.

And thus comes Melancholia, Mr. Von Trier’s latest, and surprisingly restrained examination once again of depression, except this time with a bang. The apocalyptic imagery that surrounds Melancholia not only makes for some moments of truly shock, but there is certainly much more under this surface as well. Mr. Von Trier suffered from a severe depression in 2006 and has been slowly rebuilding himself as a person, including the blunt instrument that was Antichrist in 2009. But now with some distance, and a real provocation out of the way, Mr. Von Trier has created a more thoughtful and shocking approach to not only examining his own depression, but how to fuck with us as well.

This being Mr. Von Trier, it can’t be all too simple, and Melancholia opens with a series of almost tableaux like shots that set the stage for the end of the world. We see Kirstin Dunst in a wedding dress being dragged and controlled by nature. Charlotte Gainsbourg carries her son in anguish as her feet sink into the ground. Breugel’s Hunters in the Snow slowly disintegrates before our eyes. And soon before we know it, a giant blue planet consumes the Earth. These gorgeous shots, all accompanied by the sounds of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, are the most jarring images that we see in Melancholia, and the prologue almost serves as a way for Mr. Von Trier to get all of his fantastic imagery out of the way so he can dig into the real narrative.

That narrative is broken into two parts, named for the two sisters in the film: Justine (Ms. Dunst) and Claire (Ms. Gainsbourg). The first section on Justine deals with her wedding to a nice Southern gentleman named Michael, played by True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard. We begin with Justine and Michael  showing up two hours late to their reception, but in a state of ecstasy, despite the constant reminders of the amount of money spent by Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland, never better). But something is rotten in the state of Justine, who we get the sense is not right in the head. Taking a cue from Thomas Vinterberg’s Celebration (part of the Dogma 95 movement Mr. Von Trier founded and later abandoned), this first part of Melancholia is shot through handheld but with a much more polished and gorgeous attention to light.

Depression has been a common theme in a number of films, and it usually deals with us watching characters scream in pain or attempt suicide. But Mr. Von Trier knows we’ve seen all that, and instead gives us a woman on what should be the happiest day of her life. Here, we see Justine feigning happiness as the world celebrates a life she cares nothing about. She disappears to sleep for hours, rejects any closeness between her and Alex, and finally goes off the deep end a couple times. 

No doubt this in help due to her shrill mother (an icy Charlotte Rampling) and absent father (John Hurt) that she can’t seem to take in the tradition and happiness of this day. What Mr. Von Trier understands about depression is that it is not an overload of sadness, but a dire absence of happiness, and the ability to project those emotions that controls us. I’m not sure how Ms. Dunst, an actress who has only been a blockbuster staple, prepared for the role, but under the control of Mr. Von Trier, she brings the truth. This is the type of performance that brings so much nuance to each scene, where nothing feels manipulated and every note hits a certain authenticity rarely shown in performances that feel more relaxed (she won the Best Actress award at Cannes for the role).

But this is Mr. Von Trier after all, who none of us could imagine simply making a film about depression, and thus part 2 is where he turns on us instead. It’s some time later, Justine is now seriously depressed, and a planet named Melancholia is hurling toward the Earth. John tells his family that the calculations have been made and it’s going to pass right by, but Claire slowly loses her mind. Justine of course couldn’t be more calm—the end of the world sounds like a delightful possibility for her horrid life.

Claire’s state of mind is of course the one that any sensible person would have, someone who has connections and sees value in their life and future. But Mr. Von Trier identifies not with the saints but the sinners, so in some way he mocks Claire’s panicked state as it grows ever more disastrous. She refuses to accept the inevitable, and Ms. Gainsbourg slowly lets her drown in that anxiety to a state of complete fear. More reserved than she was in Antichrist, it is nonetheless an organic and confounding performance.

The second half though doesn’t seem to capture the truth in the same way as the first. The constant state of dread the film assigns itself to simply marches on without any narrative momentum. Mr. Von Trier obviously wants us to feel the pain he has felt, but to a certain extent, he really drains the film of its life as the inevitable comes in its obvious allegorical state. Mr. Von Trier loves going for his shocking and bizarre imagery, but he’s best when he’s more reserved and more nuanced in both his ambitions and his storytelling.

Issues aside, this is a masterstroke by a director who has made some of the most fascinating films about our humanity in the last two decades. When Anitchrist came and went, I felt I had witnessed a director who was too personally connected with his own life to make a serious statement on what that experience meant. Now with more distanced, Mr. Von Trier has truly explored depression in all its miserable glory, and taken out the world at the same time. 

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