Melancholia: Cannes 2011 Review

Melancholia - Movie Still: Kirsten Dunst  - 2011
The end of the world, von Trier-style, is a middling thing as a film.

The Danish director's brooding contemplation of the planet's demise is a bit of a bore, writes Todd McCarthy.

CANNES -- Lars von Trier manages to turn the end of the world into a bit of a bore in Melancholia.  A brooding cross between The Celebration (Festen) and Armageddon drenched in the tragic romanticism of Richard Wagner, this contemplation of the planet’s demise predictably provides not an ounce of comfort or redemption, nor does it offer characters or ideas with which to meaningfully engage, just ample opportunity to wallow in some rapturous images, glorious music and a foul mood. Absent the deliberate provocations of Antichrist and some of the Danish contrarian’s other works, a middling commercial career seems in store.

Certainly the prelude offers enticements: Amplified by the darkly yearning strains of “Tristan und Isolde,” von Trier begins with a beautiful close-up of Kirsten Dunst’s face -- expressing what can only be described as pronounced melancholy — and follows with a slow progression of strikingly dramatic and often strange images -- of galactic phenomena, a golf course, some planets, the sun and moon, a dark horse falling, Dunst in repose -- climaxing with a literally shattering shot of the Earth breaking apart as it crashes into a much larger planet.

On a lighter note, we then see from above a white stretch limo laboriously attempting to negotiate a windy road leading to an estate where wedding dinner guests await the beautiful happy couple, Justine (Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). Thus begins the Celebration part of the story, as what by rights should be a merry occasion quickly turns into a nasty public exchange of recriminations between disaffected family members, including the bride’s daft father (John Hurt); bilious mother (Charlotte Rampling); brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland), the mansion’s owner, who can’t help pointing out how much money he’s spent on the bash, and egotistical boss (Stellan Skarsgard). Through it all, Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) wages a losing battle of damage control.

With everyone decked out so elegantly and the scene bathed in rich golden hues bespeaking untold wealth, this introductory section has its moments (including some fleeting scene-stealing by Udo Kier as the harried event organizer). But too many elements don’t really ring true: That these swells can’t for a moment curtail their bad behavior, even for the sake of the couple; that Dunst and Gainsbourg, so entirely different in looks and accents, are supposed to be sisters; that Justine and her mother would retreat to take baths when it’s time to cut the cake and that, after she and her husband finally retire to their wedding bed, Justine slips out in her wedding dress and has sex with a dopey young guy in a sand trap.

A distinctly European privileged-class ennui envelops most of the characters, who, unlike their forebears from previous generations, can’t even manage to get through an evening with a degree of style and good manners. But Justine is much further off the deep end, in a mental category all to herself described by the title; she simply can’t be happy and, by dawn, her new husband has already left (as have all the guests), leaving her to take a beautifully rendered horseback gallop with her sister through the fog.

As Part One is called “Justine,” Part Two is entitled “Claire.” Indeed, Justine goes into profound withdrawal at this point, to the film’s detriment, as one is essentially left to observe the spectacle of Claire’s anxiety about the giant planet called Melancholia that may be on a collision course with Earth. Her husband, who has set up a telescope on the grounds and claims to be in touch with top scientists, insists humanity is not in danger; after all, Melancholia has managed to miss both Mercury and Venus on its surprise journey out from behind the sun and is destined to just do a “fly-by” of Earth.

But Claire correctly believes otherwise, that Melancholia is the iceberg to the Earth’s Titanic. Unlike on board that ship, however, there are no life rafts; nor is there a Bruce Willis to blow it apart before it hits; nor, as might by implied by The Tree of Life, another Cannes entry to contemplate the grand scope of things, is any state of exaltation or grace possible. For von Trier, there is no meaning, higher purpose or anything resembling Godliness, just obliteration and the void.

In the end, then, Melancholia would seem to have two purposes: To express the state of deep depression the director has so often described his being in for the last several years, and to articulate his non-belief in anything beyond our temporal presence on this rock.

In, and sometimes out of, her beautiful wedding dress, Dunst looks gravely beautiful here, although it is arguable that the emotions and state of mind she is meant to express seem more supplied for her than to come from within. Most of the other solid actors are largely straitjacketed by the one-dimensional, occasionally inexplicable demands of their roles.

The Swedish estate where much of the film was shot provides a stupendously beautiful backdrop, which has been manicured, dressed and photographed to maximum decorousness. The numerous special effects shots possess the desired haunting effect. Von Trier’s advantageous use of Wagner here serves as a reminder that, several years ago, he agreed to direct a Ring cycle at Bayreuth, only to back out when push came to shove.