15 cert, 136 mins. Dir: Lars von Trier; starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland.
I came to Lars von Trier late. One Sunday morning in 1997, I went with friends to see Breaking the Waves, in which Emily Watson plays a young woman brought up in a strict Calvinist community who marries a Norwegian oil worker with disastrous consequences.
It is one of the most intense, heartbreaking films ever made. So passionate, so fearless, so dark it almost makes you laugh. Actually, by its close, my friends and I were in tears and barely able to speak. One was furious: furious that, although von Trier’s depiction of the madness and masochism of love ran counter to her feminist beliefs, she was so moved by the damn thing.
For myself, all I could do was tremble. I knew that I loved the film – and that I never wanted to see it again. I still haven’t, but then I don’t need to. Just the memory of it feels like a scar, a scar to remind me of how wonderfully wounding cinema can be .
What a towering director von Trier is – someone who marries a Lumière-era sense of showmanship, an escape artist’s relish for formal challenges, and a gambler’s willingness to take risks with stories from which less brave filmmakers would shy away.
Melancholia, like everything von Trier does, is an event. More than that, it’s his finest film for nearly a decade. A crazily bold, visually enthralling, and emotionally seismic drama about the meaning of existence. It’s also, by some way, a funnier and more visceral companion piece to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a successful advertising copywriter who is getting married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård ). It should be the happiest day of her life. The wedding – organised by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) – is a lavish affair held at a secluded Swedish chateau. Straight away, you know this is not going to be a happy princess story. Justine and Michael’s limo can’t turn a corner to get them where they need to be.
She starts to cry, mutters things about how she’s “trudging through this grey, woolly yarn”, has an epic fit at her arrogant boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard), declines to have sex with Michael but instead does so with a near-stranger on the green of the estate’s golf course.
You could say she’s a bit troubled. Perhaps this has something to do with her parents: father Dexter (John Hurt) who’s one-quarter rogue-ish flirt to three quarters child; mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) who is sensationally rude to everyone around her. But, especially when she takes a bit of meatloaf and comments “It tastes like ashes”, it’s hard not to wonder if she knows something that worldly, pragmatic people around her — such as Claire - don’t.
That something concerns death: a planet called Melancholia is heading towards earth, and even though amateur astronomer John insists there’s no way it will hit, Justine thinks differently. It may also concern humanity itself: “All I know is life on earth is evil. I know we’re alone.” You wouldn’t hear sentiments like those in a Roland Emmerich apocalyptic movie.
And Melancholia is definitely an apocalyptic movie. Yet, though the brilliantly realised opening scenes show the end of our planet, you still watch what follows hoping against hope that it won’t come true. In this age of hurricanes and tsunamis - as well as deliberately obtuse climate-change denial — there is a political dimension to this agonised waiting. But it will also be horribly recognisable to anyone who’s ever fought in vain against the end — of a friendship, a marriage, a job.
For all the accusations that he’s a misogynist, Von Trier is as brilliant, though less flattering, a director of women as Pedro Almodovar. His attention to the female face — and the rapture of suffering it can convey — is rivalled only by Carl Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Mehboob Khan in Mother India (1957).
Dunst, realizing the potential she showed in The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), draws on her much publicised experiences of depression to portray a woman who is both young and old, wise and immature, deadened and very much alive to the dark ways of the world. In one extraordinary scene, she’s shown lying naked by a stream bathing in the obliterating force of the oncoming Melancholia.
That scene is so bizarre it draws laughs. There are many more to be had: the tense, nervous social comedy, so redolent of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998), at the wedding-night party; a delicious cameo by Udo Kier as a prissy wedding planner; the send-up of bourgeois self-satisfaction that’s implicit in having John deny the possibility of apocalypse: “Trust me, I’m a scientist.”
I’m in two minds about the early sections of Melancholia which feature extreme slo-mos of horses tumbling and Justine opening her eyes to the camera while birds crash to the ground beneath her. They’re lavish and overwrought, reminiscent of the choreographed photographers of Jeff Wall, and accompanied by crashingly loud extracts of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Too much, no? Yet there’s a strange pathos here, an almost surrealist break with the shaky, handheld realism of what follows that feels magical and true.
That feeling never wanes. Not during those scenes set among chateau gardens as cruel as those in Last Year At Marienbad (1961), featuring unforgettable shots of the sisters galloping on horseback through misty tracks or huddling with Claire’s son as oblivion beckons.
Surging forward, piercing through the thickets of irony and emotional armour in which so much contemporary cinema is clad, Von Trier takes a B-movie storyline and from it creates an utterly singular work of art that leaves you stunned and winded. This – not the corny pastiche of Drive, not the semi-skimmed apocalypses of the average American disaster movie, not the sad-sack banality of most multiplex fare – yes, this is cinema.
You may like or hate Melancholia. It’s hard, though, to imagine being indifferent to it. The film seethes with ideas, darkness, bruising soulfulness, visual invention. Its monstrous conceit, its excess and complexity, its sheer unreasonableness: this is cinema that refuses to know its place, that doesn’t cater to an instant-response. But make no mistake: this is cinema as scar.