Film Review: ‘Melancholia’

It’s been over four months since Lar von Trier shocked the world’s press at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival by claiming he could “understand Hitler” and was himself  “a Nazi”, whilst discussing his new film Melancholia (2011). Whilst his choice of wording was obviously wildly insensitive, Von Trier’s outburst can be placed in context as a product of his liberal, restriction-free upbringing or a marketing ploy for said film, which stars Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland.

Whatever your own personal views on Von Trier and his confrontational approach to high profile interviews, few can deny his directorial talent. A regular at Cannes over the last two decades (before this year’s persona non grata ban), the Danish auteur specialises in provocation; in visually presenting the taboo through a variety of techniques.

His latest effort, the operatic ‘disaster film’ Melancholia, is, of course, no different. Following on from his previous feature, the highly controversial psychological horror Antichrist (2009) (which saw the director once again labelled a misogynist by his many detractors), Von Trier again recasts French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg – this time as Claire, the sister of newly-wed depressive Justine (Kirsten Dunst).

Concocted by Von Trier during a recent, well-publicised bout of clinical depression, Melancholia begins with an operatic, five-minute plus sequence using the Phantom camera, resulting in a crawling montage of incredibly impressive, wholly cinematic images.

To the strains of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde overture, we see the Earth destroyed in a collision with a gigantic blue planet, itself referred to as ‘Melancholia’, before taking us back to Justine’s wedding night and the consequent events that followed before the world arrived at its own demise.

It’s very easy to dismiss Von Trier’s high concept narrative before it even has a chance to begin, and many critics took the opportunity to do just that following its world premiere at Cannes back in April. For many, Melancholia was (and remains) too unfocused, too self-indulgent. But what is Von Trier without his flourishes of self indulgence? His latest effort may well feel at several points like the cinematic equivalent of a ‘Cut and Shut’, but when the front end is an entertaining coupé and the back a stylish vintage classic, there is still a great deal of pleasure to be had.

Dunst and Gainsbourg are both on top form as the two sisters Justine and Claire, with the film itself bisected and consequently named after its two very different heroines. Dunst in particular shines in a difficult role, and was rightly awarded the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her endeavours. Elsewhere, a whole host of recognisable names and faces flit in and out of the unfolding drama, with John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgård and real-life son Alexander all bringing something to their smallish parts. There is even room for Von Trier regular Udo Kier to show his face (or constantly shield it, as transpires) in one of the few, but necessary comedic roles.

Melancholia is a difficult film, made by a difficult director at a particularly difficult time in his life and career. Whilst quite a substantial way of his best work, its is also clearly far removed from his worst. A sublime score and hypnotic visuals cover the cracks and flaws that would be present in the work of any auteur struggling with his or her own personal demons.

Daniel Green