That’s it… I have to leave this town. I can’t risk walking past those Melancholia film posters spread all over my town any longer: they do unspeakable things to my body! Before I start obsessing about a marriage to Kirsten Dunst, I’m off to Frankfurt for a couple of days. By the time I’m back the poster people will have replaced “my” Kirsten (see… it’s starting already!) with some harmless blockbuster I won’t even bother watching.
But, while I wait on my train, why don’t I fill you in on my views on probably the most controversial film of the year… why bother about genital mutilation (Antichrist) or being banned in the UK (The Human Centipede 2) when all you need to do is stumble your way out of a ill-received comment? Whether Cannes did the right thing by banning von Trier, is a debate we won’t stir up here, but at least they did the decent thing by leaving the actress in competition and honouring her by awarding her Best Actress. Rightfully so, Kirsten Dunst stands above this film (which stands above any of the director’s comments). Near the end of the credits, you’ll see Penelope Cruz being thanked. Von Trier originally wrote this film for her, but Cruz chose to give priority to Pirates of the Caribbean 4. Best decision ever. And you can read that sentence both as a snotty remark as well as a genuine statement: here’s a rare example of a film improving by giving the role to another actress. This film fits Dunst like a wedding dress. (And one can only wonder how Cruz would’ve sat next to von Trier during the notorious press conference – check Dunst’s reactions here.)
But weren’t we here to dissect the film? The two stills you’ve passed so far are from the film’s prologue. Yes, like Antichrist, this film also starts with a montage of slow-motion shots and stills, but this time the Danish director surpassed himself. The settings, the colours, the styles… I dare you to find more beautiful images in any other film released in 2011.
The prologue ends with our planet being destroyed by the planet Melancholia. It’s done hauntingly gorgeous, like you were watching some big-budget BBC documentary, and in complete contrast to the next image you see: a cheaply looking pancarte displaying the name of the director and the title of the film (another signature trademark by von Trier). And then Melancholia splits itself in two parts, named after protagonist Justine (Dunst) and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
Justine is on her way to the party of her life, or that’s what it should be: she’s the radiant bride and the star of a spectacular evening hosted by sister Claire and her überrich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). But even the first scene shows hybris comes at a cost: the extralarge limo rented for the wedding can’t get past the crooked paths leading to the wonderful estate (complete with a golf course of – John insists this is remembered – 18 holes).
Other possible problems include Justine’s labile character and her mother (Charlotte Rampling), by far the most unlikable characted in this film and possibly any other film released in 2011. The director insisted he based this character on his own mother. After ruining a couple of wedding speeches and retiring to her room, she’s visited by her distraught daughter and consoles Justine by saying: “You should be scared.” At this point, she’s talking about marriage – the possible end of the world is still unannounced.
So who is Justine getting married to? Her newlywed husband is the son of Justine’s boss. Justine works as a copywriter for him and he honours her by promoting her on her wedding night to art director… on the sole condition she comes up with a fitting slogan for another campaign. Justine has until the end of the night to find a brilliant tagline and she gets the even more wonderful news that Tom will follow her every move, ready to write down her inspired thoughts. Tom obediently does so as this night means a lot to him as well: if he can’t get her to find a tagline, he loses his brand new job as Justine’s replacement (a pretty useless job, the proud father-in-law can’t resist to add). Another lovely character.
I’m sure you’ll understand by now why Justine’s happiness on this glorious day is only a facade. You can’t even blame Claire for being so tight: all her life she’s had to face an ice-cold mother while keeping an eye on her labile sister. Compared to all of them, is the father of Claire and Justine: a jolly bon vivant (John Hurt), who visibly likes his life better since his divorce. He’s seated next to Betty and Betty (more von Trier comedy: the actresses portraying Betty and Betty share the same last name in real life). Whether he’s present enough to be there for his daughter(s) in time of need, is a question I’ll leave for the movie to answer.
What I will answer myself is how the film is split into two parts: the first segment focuses on the disastrous wedding evening and shows Justine losing control. In the second part, Melancholia appears unwilling to brush by our planet and here it is Claire who loses her marbles. The more desperate Claire becomes, the more Justine manages to find inner calm and to become more in control – a sheer contrast to the wreck who is seen in the opening scene of the second part. As von Trier explains, here Justine is helped by her depression. Depressed people are so used to facing their inner fears that, if a catastrophe took place, they would know what to do better than “normal” people. As Claire is freaking out, Justine calmly sits on a wall near the 19th hole. (Check “melancholia 19th hole” on Google and consorts for discussions on the meaning of this scene.)
Shots like these and the superb slow motions make you wonder why Lars von Trier is so adamant in keeping the loose camera style he used before the term Dogma 95 was coined by him and Thomas Vinterberg. Vinterberg is famed by Festen – a film Melancholia is sometimes compared to by lazy reviewers who think “Danish directors” and “wedding” is enough to link two movies together: Melancholia is very much unlike Festen. The party going awry was the centre piece of Vinterberg’s film. Here it’s only a prelude of things to come, the catalyst at most. It’s not a film about a wedding, it’s the most stylish embodiment of depression you’ll have seen in a long time.
In a way you could say the unsteady camerawork is a visual version of this labile state, but the film doesn’t always benefit from von Trier’s choice to do so: occasionally the film looks amateurish because of it, as if a debuting cameraman narrowly missed out on the action. (Especially given that in other scenes the camera is quite stable.) In The Idiots, this sort of camerawork added more to the film. After all, aren’t we witnessing the breakdown and recovery (of sorts) of Justine? Aren’t we mere spectators than people losing control ourselves?
Visual preferences aside, Melancholia features some of the best scenes in von Trier’s oeuvre and it would definitely be a shame if the movie would forever be associated with the Cannes press conference. It may not be the best film of the year, but no points for guessing who’ll win the prize for Best Actress.
P.S. You might have seen the trailer before (if not, it’s here), so instead here’s a brief look behind the scenes of the special effects in the prologue: