Melancholia | Film review
The end of the world revitalizes Lars von Trier.
You’ve probably heard a lot about Lars von Trier’s publicity problems (involving Nazis and stuff). Let’s instead focus on his other problem, the more serious one. You have to go all the way back to 2003’s Dogville to find a trace of the unflinching director of domestic tensions, the arguable heir to giants like Dreyer and Bergman. Meanwhile, a whiff of 2009’s noxious Antichrist still lingers.
Melancholia marks a major return of the artist’s vitality. Granted, the movie starts off with nothing less than the end of the world: two planets colliding in Kubrickian grandeur to the strains of Wagner. But this is actually Von Trier settling into the cozy confines of sci-fi melodrama. For the next two hours, the writer-director will try to achieve the same level of cosmic futility within the parameters of a wedding and a ritzy estate. In the first half, as the reception wears on, we watch giddy bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) unravel, fleeing before the cake is cut so she can take a leisurely bath, wilting in the glare of her divorced mother (the ferocious Charlotte Rampling) and falling into misery. Justine escapes into the night. Relieving herself on the golf course, she looks up to the sky and sees a dark star that’s been haunting her.
It’s during Melancholia’s second half that the real magic happens, with our heroine hardened into a wry, cynical Cassandra—the voice of Von Trier himself. Justine has company: sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire’s fatuous, wealthy husband (Kiefer Sutherland), who insists the heavenly body will harmlessly pass in a flyby. Justine knows better. “The universe is evil,” she offers. “No one needs to grieve for it.” This, as it happens, is a perfect summation of the director’s most cutting instincts, now leavened with a dash of compassion. The whiz-bang conceit hasn’t made him a softie, just more direct. He’s back, bruised and that much closer to brilliant.