Lars von Trier’s need to provoke ended badly for him at Cannes this year when he professed sympathy for Hitler. He isn’t a Nazi, as he said, and it’s best to let his films do his talking. The fracas was a distraction from Melancholia and Kirsten Dunst, winner of the best actress award.
Melancholia is far more straightforward than his last film, Antichrist, but shares an opening that’s awash with beautiful super-slow motion images. This, in effect a prelude, tells us the narrative to come and emphasises the film’s about the depressive Justine’s (Dunst) state of mind. This expressionist sequence, revisited to an extent at the end, is in stark contrast the part one (‘Justine’) which focuses on her wedding party. Von Trier’s pricking of bourgeois rituals, and hypocrisy, takes us back to Festen (Denmark, 1998), directed by Tomas Vinterberg, the first of the Dogme95 films. Dogme95 was anti-Hollywood, swearing a ‘vow of chastity’ in only using, for example, natural lighting, handheld camera and definitely no special effects. Von Trier was co-author, along with Vinterberg, of the manifesto but has long since departed from its tenets. However, this section utilises Dogme95’s trademark febrile camera and jump cuts.
Part two, ‘Claire’, focuses on Justine’s sister’s attempts to help the latter out of her depression. Science fiction enters the narrative as the planet Melancholia is approaching Earth, though we are promised it will merely ‘fly by’ and everyone will be saved. The symbolism is clear for all and generates a quite brilliant climax.
However, and maybe this is a result of seeing the film after the immaculately directed We Need to Talk About Kevin, von Trier’s direction of the first part simply comes across as sloppy and lazy. Whilst Vinterberg’s similar direction worked brilliantly in Festen, the contrast with the the prelude and the later sections, where we are viewing an expressionist landscape, is just too great a contrast.
There are many references in the film; the above image, with Wagner’s Liebestod dominant on the soundtrack, reminded me of Bunuel-Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (France, 1929) and Hamlet’s Ophelia tangentially appears in an image of Justine floating on a river and a painting of the scene is shown. Chien Andalou is about an ‘amour fou’ and Ophelia goes mad because of love. The name Justine reminds up of Marquis de Sade’s character, the ‘good sister’ suggesting that she is one with knowledge unlike the ‘sane’ Claire. In addition, the mansion, and its gardens, reference Last Year in Marienbad (France 1961), Alain Resnais’ engimatic film, which might be about a love affair that never happened. If nothing else, von Trier is cineliterate.
That said, this is a film of tremendous imagination that, at its best, touches brilliance.