NYFF ’11 Review: A Big, Devouring Thing: “Melancholia” Take 2

Press coverage of Lars von Trier’s “Nazi comments” at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival far and away overshadowed anything else the filmmaker has had to say in recent years. Seen in its entirety, von Trier’s press conference remarks seem to be the sort of both-feet-in-mouth moment you find yourself in precisely because you think you’re going to say something horribly stupid when you get in front of an audience – like the episode of Cheers in which Norm is a hair’s breadth away from getting a job at a beer plant, but blows it in a fit of panicked, verbal diarrhea when he meets the plant’s president. If von Trier ever conceives of a film to be called Logorrhea, count me as unsurprised.

Not for nothing, but you don’t need training in psychiatry to link von Trier’s oratorical malfunction to social anxiety, and from there it’s no great associative leap to the depression that is supposed to afflict the Melancholia director. In an abjectly literal manner that underscores, by contrast, Antichrist’s Grand Guignol abstraction, von Trier performs his own biopsy, extracting the tumor of his depression and flinging it not only upon the screen, but at the sum of life on Earth. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the sort of thing depression sufferers daydream about: all-of-existence-icidal reveries that combine a doing-unto-others and a surrender to a Big, Devouring Thing.

It’s ironic that it’s hard to talk about von Trier as an artist without feeling obligated to reconcile his art with the embarrassing spectacles that often accompany his interactions with the press, and the manner in which he has engineered his entire public persona to suggest a puckish, prancing rock star who knows he’s guaranteed plenty of ink and a galvanized blogosphere. Ironic, because it’s equally difficult, in processing Melancholia, to get out from under the fact that everything that’s depicted in the film, all the melodrama, the familial infighting, the scenery-chewing, all of it takes a backseat to the fact that a giant planet comes out from behind the sun and wastes the Earth.

If you backtrack from the big event, there’s a lot of movie to contend with – at its core is Justine, a deeply depressed girl (Kirsten Dunst) who’s straining heroically to get through her own wedding day without collapsing into a catatonic heap. Like the planet, she inevitably wastes everything and everyone in sight, only with words and misdeeds instead of, well, a giant planet. The script, as is frequently the case with von Trier (c.f. Dogville and Breaking the Waves, for starters), makes of her self-destruction/self-effacement only the first of two chapters. The second concerns her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and concerns the Event Itself, largely in a what-people-would-actually-do frame of storytelling mind. While the first chapter plays out an apocalypse of a kind in broad, theatrical terms, filling the stage with nine-foot-tall hams (Stellan Skarsgård, John Hurt, Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling), all set up to be knocked down or pushed aside or otherwise alienated by the bride’s whirling-dervish act, the second picks up the pieces from the first and gets down to the cold business of ending the world.

Claire’s response to the inbound planet, scrambling around the palatial estate like a trapped animal, seems to spoof our own mental acrobatics as we attempt to inventory all the moving parts in the Justine section. As we chase down von Trier’s intricate morass of misleads (ex. the way Justine’s father closes his letter to her more or less exactly as Grace’s father did in Manderlay), or simply stand back to take in the parade of big moments, we are only momentarily distracted from the final, inescapable end. Even as the Automavision-inspired inflections of his camerawork (his once-impishly-defiant “mistakes” now part of common visual grammar, at least on some American television) create the illusion of verisimilitude, all roads lead to Melancholia.

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