Of Madness and Rogue Planets …
by Glenn Lovell
It’s official. That red star in the constellation Scorpio, the one now parked behind the sun, is making towards Earth at 60,000 miles an hour. Depending on whom you believe ‒ the guys with the protractors and pocket calculators or the doomsday prophets ‒ Melancholia, as the planet has been dubbed, will either fly by or collide with us in five days.
A high-concept scenario from the folks who brought us “2012” and other high-tech disaster epics? Hardly. This is the alarming set-up for Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg as sisters with starkly different takes on the looming crisis. Like the Danish director’s previous works, this international co-production (shot in Sweden in English) proves at once exhilarating and bleak, oddly reassuring yet apocalyptic in reach.
It’s a safe bet you haven’t experienced anything quite like this film. In spots it reminded me of Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life.” It has that kind of thematic heft. But I must say I found von Trier’s take on what awaits at Judgment Day more sobering. I still can’t shake it.
The haunting prelude, backed by the achingly tragic strains of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” sets the tone for much that follows. In this pre-credit sequence, shot in high-def super-slow-mo, birds drop from the sky, a bride is mired in an elasticized forest, a mother carries her son through a golf course-turned-bog … and the Earth extends gaseous tendrils to the rogue planet.
Is this an early peek of what’s in store for mankind or a potential worst-case scenario meant more as scare tactic, straighten-up-and-fly-right wake-up call a la “The Day the Earth Stood Still”?
Von Trier, as we know, specializes in complex, Bergman-esque studies in fear and guilt. In his “Dancer in the Dark,” Björk copes with encroaching blindness by sliding in and out of an MGM fantasy world. In the even more disturbing “Antichrist,” Gainsbourg takes refuge in witchcraft and madness after the loss of a son.
In “Melancholia,” Dunst’s Justine also finds strength by seemingly locking herself away from the world. We’re introduced to Justine at her ritzy wedding reception, organized by her fastidious sister Claire (Gainsbourg) and paid for by her ostentatious bro-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Initially, Justine seems to have it all: She’s beautiful, has just received a nice promotion at work, and her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), couldn’t be any more doting or adoring.
But then the varnish begins to peel away. Justine and Michael arrive late for what turns out to be the reception from hell. Justine’s father (John Hurt) stumbles through a toast that turns into a row with his domineering ex-wife (Charlotte Rampling), whose best wishes for her daughter begin with an acrid “Enjoy it while it lasts. I myself hate marriage.” Justine, who seems to be oblivious to all this, flits in and out of the party. She’s obviously suffering from acute depression, euphemistically referred to as those moments when she’s feeling “a little sad.”
By the end of this party, which resembles something out of Bunuel’s “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” John has deposited his mother-in-law’s belongings on the front steps, Justine has insulted her insufferable boss (Stellan Skarsgård) and seduced a young co-worker (Brady Corbet), and the wedding planner (Udo Kier) has washed his hands of the whole affair, shielding his eyes whenever the bride passes.
I know what you’re thinking: If this wretched gathering represents mankind, The End can’t come fast enough.
But that’s exactly von Trier’s point. We’ve soiled the planet beyond all recognition and must now face the consequences. The irony is that the “sane” ‒ represented by the well-off Claire and John ‒ can’t see it. It takes someone like Justine to recognize a truth so obvious it borders on the absurd. She tells her panic-stricken sister, “The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it … Nobody will miss it.”
“Melancholia,” befitting its title, is a sad, meditative film, brilliantly written and startlingly beautiful to behold. Dunst deservedly copped top acting honors at Cannes for her crippled visionary and should be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. The erstwhile Spider-man heroine is stripped bare, physically and psychologically. And yet I found Gainsbourg far more interesting because she has more of an emotional arc, evolving from disapproving older sister to stubborn self-deceiver to mortified mother. Sutherland, at least at the start, feels like the film’s anchor, the single rational voice in a sea of madness. Or is it all an act? Only von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgård disappoints. His snarled American accent goes beyond crass to ludicrous.
“Melancholia,” I’m guessing, will be a tough sell at the box office. (It doesn’t help that it’s now on Comcast PPV.) I hope I’m wrong. It cries out to be seen and discussed. And who knows, von Trier may have gotten it wrong, maybe there is hope for us yet. Maybe that mystery planet will find us too petty and inconsequential … and give us a miss.
MELANCHOLIA ✮✮✮✮ With Kristen Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt. Directed, scripted by Lars von Trier. 135 min. Rated R (for language, rather chaste nudity and sex)