CANNES REVIEW: Lars von Trier Gets Happy, in His Way, with Melancholia

Lars von Trier's Melancholia is neither the provocation nor the yowl of anguish that his last picture, Antichrist, was. For those reasons, it's less effective and also far less of a workout: Antichrist was the first von Trier movie I genuinely loved, after a decade's worth of railing against the sufferdome atmosphere of pictures like Dogville, Dancer in the Dark, and even the mildly bearable Breaking the Waves. Antichrist stunned and upset me, but it also filled me with compassion toward the man who made it, a feeling I'd never imagined I could have. The gift of Antichrist -- with its horrific depictions of emotional suffering, its wailing-wind subtext of "Nature is everywhere, inside you and out, and it is not your friend" -- was that von Trier had surprised me. That is a critic's greatest pleasure -- or at least it's mine.

With Melancholia, von Trier hasn't tried to top himself, thank God. Despite the somber nature of the title, the movie is something of a breather, a respite, a chance for von Trier to explore emotional anguish and intricacies in vibrant, often elegant visual ways, with no self-mutilation involved. It's gorgeous to look at, deeply moody and atmospheric, and it's always in on its own grim little joke. At the press conference following today's Cannes press screening, von Trier said this movie is a comedy. He's right.

Melancholia is the story of the end of the world, a day that's coming very soon according to numerous doomsayers. And yet for one of the movie's two heroines, it turns out that end can't come soon enough. The end of everything we know also means we no longer have to worry about any of it: It's kind of like the maid's day off, except it lasts an eternity. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is a new bride, married only a few hours when the movie opens, and the first chapter of the film (one of two) belongs to her. She and her husband are en route to their own wedding reception at a palatial golf resort owned by her brother-in-law (scowling sourpuss Kiefer Sutherland). (It looks like Augusta National transplanted to Versailles.) The massive, hours-long wedding celebration has been overseen by Justine's sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose efficiency seemingly goes unappreciated by everyone other than herself.

But it becomes clear early on that this magnificent celebration -- presided over by the sisters' feuding, long-separated parents, played by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling -- won't be enough to draw Justine through the emotional keyhole that connects her dark, interior world with the regular one outside. Her gown looks as if it were made of translucent meringue, all rosettes and furbelows; but when the camera tracks to her face, we see a dull blankness that signifies internal terror. The groom (Alexander Skarsgård, son of Stellan, who also appears in the film) is an afterthought. In fact, Justine indulges in a brutal act of female seduction, if you could even call it that, with another wedding "guest" out on the golf course, beneath a floodlight. Her insides and her outsides are mixed up: She flagrantly exposes everything that should be kept private and guards with utmost secrecy the things she ought to be sharing.

Claire looks on with exasperation. But she has her own worries, as the movie's second chapter reveals. Her husband, an astronomy enthusiast, has gotten her and the couple's young son hepped up about an impending event, a planet (named Melancholia) that is quickly approaching the earth, though he assures them there will be no collision. Claire isn't so sure, and when the planet does appear in the sky -- it's an orb that glows powder-blue by day and whitish by night, like the moon's long-lost twin -- she uses a home-made astronomer's tool, devised by her son, to make sure it's not coming any closer.

But she can't ignore the signs of impending disaster, and neither, it seems, can the horses hunkered down in the resort's stables. When Claire and Justine go out riding in the mornings, Justine's horse, a normally docile creature, repeatedly stops at the same location, unwilling to budge even when Justine beats him. But as Claire becomes more anxious about the bitter end, Justine blossoms, almost literally: One night Claire catches her lying naked on a riverbank, lounging placidly in the glow of Melancholia -- it coats her skin with a pearlescent sheen. She's already accepted the worst; the apocalypse will just be the icing on the cake.

Gainsbourg's Claire and Dunst's Justine are both individual, distinctly human figures, possessed of varying degrees of fear and bravery. Justine, so fragile in the movie's first half, is an armor-clad warrior in the second -- paradoxically, once she concedes defeat, victory is hers. Claire is self-assured in the first half and hesitant in the second: Because she knows how to function in the real world, she's much less sure about the unreal one she may be stepping into. The actresses' performances intertwine beautifully, like twin climbing vines vying for the attention of the sun.

Claire and Justine are also inhabitants of a landscape, and that's where von Trier outdoes himself. With cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, he's created a natural world of highly unnatural, manicured beauty. That's particularly true of the movie's opening sequence, a preview (set to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde prelude) of everything to come. By design, von Trier tells us the whole plot of the movie in the first 10 minutes, using a series of slow-moving pictures rendered in High Renaissance colors. The images include Justine facing the camera, and the world, as dead birds drop from the sky around her; a horse easing himself to the ground, either in pain or out of exhaustion; a nightmare vision of Gainsbourg's Claire attempting to carry her child across the grassy golf course, her feet sinking deeper into the soil with each step; the bride Justine as John Millais' floating, lifeless Ophelia.

These are somber, glorious images: They incite both dread and shivery anticipation -- the effect is that of gazing deep into the sugar Easter Egg of doom. What, exactly, is von Trier trying to say here? Antichrist was a scream of pain; Melancholia is more like a heavy sigh, a gasp at the horrible wonder of it all. It isn't nearly as somber as its title would lead you to believe, and it's so beautiful to look at that it feels decadent, almost luxurious. It's also, for all its weirdness, reasonably accessible, as if von Trier had decided -- tentatively -- that once in a while it might feel good to be part of the human race instead of just railing against it. If it's true that misery loves company, maybe this is von Trier's way of reaching out. Melancholia may be as close as he'll ever come to wrapping us in a bear hug.


  • Strawberry Pain says:

    "won’t be enough to draw Justine through the emotional keyhole that connects her dark, interior world with the regular one outside." --I haven't finished reading this review yet, because I was so moved by this wordsmithing that I had to comment immediately. Beautiful.

  • rvaughn79 says:

    I have been a loyal reader of Ms. Zacharek's for ten years now (since her days at Salon), and she continues to be one of the most erudite, lucid, and eloquent critical minds out there. I sometimes disagree with her opinions, but I enjoy reading what she has to say, regardless.

  • Jen says:

    This is an amazing review. Kudos, Stephanie.

  • David Siegwart says:

    "keyhole" is also the name given to the small region in space through which a celestial object during flyby would need to pass for the object to hit the Earth on "rebound":

    Such an event is potential in 2029.

    A profound dualist message thus twins the psychological with the celestial, and real and unreal phenomena meet. After the keyhole, the real and unreal are transposed, apocalypse is certain, Justine waxes, Claire wanes.