Link to a formal review at the end.
Maybe you heard about Lars Von Trier’s Nazi-related comments that have (purportedly) gotten him banned from the Cannes Film Festival. Or maybe you’ve heard other arrogant and maniacal stories – how he gave the Cannes jury the finger, turning down an invitation to direct in the US from Spielberg, calling himself the greatest living filmmaker, adopting the “Von” in his name as homage to Josef Von Sternberg, nude appearances on set, torturing female leads, etc. Whatever you make of all that, it’s helpful to approach Melancholia not from the standpoint of a fascist, lunatic, domineering director, but rather as a surprisingly tender, visually astounding, and structurally bold film.
Not only do I really like all of Lars Von Trier’s films (Epidemic is a bit lacking, but even that reaches quite an apex late in its third act), but I have great admiration for someone who is so able to slip between styles. A cursory glance gives numerous visually rhyming groupings within his filmography: Zentropa and The Element of Crime, Dancer in the Dark, The Idiots, and Breaking the Waves, Dogville and Manderlay, Antichrist and Melancholia. Even seeming outliers – The Boss of it All, Medea – find themselves comfortably within his oeuvre as transitional or interlude films.
Melancholia is a stronger film than Von Trier’s last few outputs, and his best since Dogville. It certainly finds a sister film in Antichrist, but its structure far outpaces that film.
The structure of Antichrist is basically: introduction of the inciting incident (breathtaking slow-motion scene), grieving period, journey to Eden, series of incidents at Eden, climax alongside a revealing flashback, and slow-motion epilogue. It’s worth noting that all of Antichrist is completely narrative in the sense that all events, perhaps with the exception of the very last few frames, propel the story forward.
Melancholia works in similar territory, but it finds Von Trier as willing to harken back to some of the symbolism of his debut feature as he is to stretch his writing. The structure of Melancholia: slow-motion introduction of the inciting incident (breathtaking slow-motion scene), depression period in the Justine section, anxiety period in the Claire section, formalist finale. Doesn’t sound all that different from Antichrist, right?
Well, it is. For one, the prologue, as I mention in my review linked below, gives away the ending of the film and functions on a far more symbolic level than that in Antichrist. Why tell us how things are going to end in the first 5-10 minutes of the film? One reason, and my vote, is to essentially dispense of any sci-fi suspense trappings so that we can focus on the real part of the story: the sisters. I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t say that the other reason is, conversely, precisely to keep us in suspense. It’s not a “how will that happen” type of suspense (think of Sunset Blvd where we open on a dead body. There’s still suspense in the events that lead to said death), or even a “why or when will that happen,” but rather cinematic suspense: how will that look? Will we see it again? It’s kind of a schoolboy-gleeful strategy: show them something heart-achingly gorgeous, and make them want it again. If you’ve seen this film On Demand or on DVD you’ve probably rewound the beginning (I know I would have). Well, this beginning is Von Trier – if you watch it in a theater – taking back the remote control, giving just enough to want more but not enough to give it all up, and then holding out to replay it in an even more breathtaking ending.
The rest of the structure is interesting as well. There’s the split focus, which allows significant time – even in mundane events – with Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). There’s also the fact that backstory mostly proves irrelevant and that the “inciting incident” that I mention is mere backdrop. It’s inciting in the same way that the moon incites the tides to come in and out. Justine’s section in particular relies heavily on her interaction with others, and our interest in her seeming mania…far more so than her solving, being threatened by, overcoming, or running from anything.
One thing that I realized as I was watching Melancholia is how funny it is. John Hurt is charming and witty. Brady Corbet is kind of hysterical. Even Kirsten Dunst is frustratingly funny, and don’t get me started on Udo Kier! If Von Trier made Antichrist because he wanted to make a film that is as depressed as he was I wonder if he made Melancholia to make a film that is as winking and smirking as he is. There’s plenty of darkness in this film. There are tears, there’s suicide, there’s death, there’s hate, there’s angst, there’s a rocky (understatement…) marriage, there’s adultery…but still the film isn’t about true darkness. It’s not about moping before death or the misery of our last moments on earth. Instead, the humor, alongside Von Trier’s style make this a film that is about progress and not – as the explosive ending might have you imagine – stasis (or non-existence). There’s definite movement in here, in that the main characters clearly develop. They work towards something akin to a true relationship, finally fulfilled in a rudimentary but gentle way at the end. Sure, the world ends – or at least the world of the characters who we’ve spent much of the film with – but it does so in moments of purity and honesty. There’s no pain present in the ending shot, which Von Trier lenses as wide-shot and as the fullest full moon you’ll ever see, and despite the screen being enveloped in fire, what it threatens to destroy is more the depression present throughout, not the world.