At this point, Danish director Lars von Trier’s latest cinematic provocation has been unfortunately overshadowed by his comments when Melancholia debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May: “What can I say? I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely. He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit.”
Stupid? Misguided? A bad joke? Probably all of the above. That’s von Trier – from Breaking the Waves to Antichrist, he delights in stirring things up. Are his remarks the end of the world? It’s your call. But the end of the world is surely coming in Melancholia, a potent beauty of a film. As Justine (Kirsten Dunst) prepares for her wedding at a mansion owned by her sister Claire (a superb Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her know-it-all husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), the planet Melancholia is on a crash course with Earth. Von Trier opens with a surreal hint of things to come, set to Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” in which Justine – in her bridal gown – seems to sleepwalk through images of brutal destruction. It’s then that the director reverts to Justine’s wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), her battles with her bickering, divorced parents, expertly played by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling, and the palpable tension between Justine and Claire.
The luminous Dunst deservedly won the Best Actress prize at Cannes. Her incomparable performance, a slow accumulation of moods from despair to euphoria, never strikes a false note. In the film’s final section, a few weeks after the wedding, Claire dominates the proceedings as Justine gives in to depression. It’s here that Gainsbourg shatters Claire’s careful mask of calm to show the raging insecurities beneath, prompted by concern for her young son and her husband’s pompous insistence that disaster will be averted. Von Trier draws us inexorably into the web of these characters. He loses us in a dream of his own devising. That’s filmmaking. Now if he’d only learn to shut up at press conferences.