For most of his filmmaking career, Lars von Trier has run the risk of either falling flat on his ass or disappearing up it. His earliest films in the Europe Trilogy, fawningly derivative of Tarkovsky and Bergman, demonstrated more style than substance, but from Breaking the Waves and The Idiots through to Dogville and Manderlay, Trier managed to continually push boundaries by setting himself new challenges, self-enforcing restrictive and often obscure rules that risked his whole career blowing-up in his face. As interesting a personality as a filmmaker, notoriously demanding and even merciless on his actors, Trier himself however obviously finds living on the edge creatively inspiring, and also clearly gets a kick of winding up the world’s press (who nearly always fall for it) with regular controversial outbursts and deliberately provocative pronouncements at Cannes. Underlying it all however – and you don’t need to be a doctor or a psychiatrist to recognise the fact, it’s there in those behavioural traits and even overtly tackled in his last film, Antichrist – there’s the director’s well-documented battle with depression.
As the title of his latest film suggests – it’s the name of a giant mysterious planet from the far side of the sun seemingly now on a collision course with Earth – full-blown depression clearly, and quite literally, still looms large on the horizon in Melancholia. Appropriately split into two parts, one part charting the mental disintegration of Justine (Kirstin Dunst) over the course of her wedding night, the other the growing unease of her married sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the aftermath, the approaching menace of Melancholia exerts a powerful effect on the psychology and behaviour of the two women in different ways, until it threatens to completely blot out any kind of normal existence. It’s a very heavy metaphor, one moreover underscored by extensive use of the Overture from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde to rather portentous if nonetheless appropriate effect. Unlike the hopelessly muddled Antichrist however, with its over-reliance on obvious symbolism, hackneyed imagery and its painful attempt to express the nature of an extreme form of depression that is mixed with guilt, self-loathing and bereavement through conventional cognitive analytical techniques (not least of which the writing and making of the film itself being a form of (shock) therapy for the director’s own problems), the tackling of the subject in Melancholia actually takes a rather more creative and less obvious path.
The influence of Tarkovsky (and to a lesser extent Bergman and Dreyer) has always fitted awkwardly with Trier’s films. The attempt to emulate them is understandable for any director with the ambition to raise cinema to the level of pure art in order to confront relevant personal issues and universal human experiences, but the references were obviously appropriated and didn’t come from within as a personal means of expression. The influence of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice is evident in the end-of-the-world scenario of Melancholia, but here Lars von Trier channels the spirit of legendary Russian director more than just copying him, drawing on striking imagery that comes from some dark place within, and finding in it, in the nature of German romanticism and in the situation of a planet on a collision course with Earth, the most powerful and devastating personal expression of the inner torment of his characters, in the process approaching other issues related to the human condition.
It’s more than just symbolism, imagery and metaphor however – thankfully, otherwise we’d just be subjected to more pointlessly provocative Antichrist angst – Trier spending even more time developing his characters and the relationship between them. The entire first half of the film is based around one of the most disturbingly entertaining dysfunctional wedding receptions since Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (the first film made based on the Dogme principals devised largely by Trier), with Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt injecting a considerable amount of bitterness, conflict and relevant family history into the proceedings in very different ways. Kiefer Sutherland, as Claire’s rational husband and Udo Kier as the German wedding planner who organises the proceedings with militaristic precision and undisguised distain are also wonderful to watch in action, but as entertaining as they are, none of these roles are mere character parts, and all of them contribute to the growing discomfort that is felt over the course of the evening.
That is even more impressively expressed by Kirsten Dunst, a very fine actress who demonstrates a new sense of maturity here, her descent into dark depths played with all the conviction and with a look in the eyes of someone who has actually been there themselves. It seems a little bit unnecessary to then follow Justine’s descent with the grim inevitability of the breakdown of her sister, but Claire, as played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, does manage to bring out another dimension to the otherwise totally nihilistic view of humanity expressed by the director in the film, through Claire’s family relationships and her sense of motherhood. Taking those Bergmanesque sentiments to perhaps excessive length in a two and a quarter hour movie that dwells for its near entirety on cases of complete mental breakdown, Melancholia is by no means easy viewing and does feel occasionally overwrought, but the sincerity and brilliance of Trier’s personal vision is never in question.