I don't know if I want to watch nearly perfect movies anymore. What's the point of a movie where everything is done cleanly and precisely? These days, what turns me on at the movies are those mad, weird, risky, and crazy moments when, if only for a few seconds, the filmmakers and actors dig deeper into the material than they should and uncover some stuff they should have left well enough alone.
Melancholia, Lars von Trier's latest possible masterpiece, has plenty of those moments. Von Trier's film also looks like the missing half of the most thought-provoking double feature in years. Both Melancholia — which first screened here in November at the Indie Memphis Film Festival — and Terrence Malick's equally ambitious The Tree of Life — which played Memphis earlier this year and is now out on DVD — premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May. After seeing both works, I can't shake the feeling that these two filmmakers are trying to communicate with each other. It's as if von Trier sampled one of Malick's earthly delights, held it in his mouth for a while, and then spit it back in his fellow filmmaker's face.
Melancholia's ominous, arresting opening images of a world gone wrong — shot in super slow motion and utilizing a hyperstylized, Watchmen-esque color palette — hang over the rest of the film like the Doomsday Clock. For a long time, it's not clear where they fit into the narrative timeline. Or if they're real. They could be visions or hallucinations emanating from the brain of advertising whiz and bride-to-be Justine (Kirsten Dunst). But after watching this five-minute overture, it's clear that Melancholia — an apt description of Justine's emerging psychological condition as well as the name of the rogue planet that peeks from behind the sun to threaten life on Earth — is a movie about endings rather than beginnings.
The ominous mood created by those first five minutes bleeds into the most innocent scenes of the film's first "chapter," a puzzling, uncomfortably intimate depiction of a marriage coming unglued before it's really begun. At first, Dunst plays Justine with her trademark openness and sunniness. She's charming and patient as she cajoles her husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) while they wait for their limousine to negotiate the winding road up to a vast castle where the rest of their wedding party awaits.
But over the course of this endless, awkward, all-night-long reception, Justine gradually withdraws into catatonic despair while her well-meaning but clueless husband and the rest of her extended family try to keep it together. Dunst's performance here is sneakily good at sidestepping all the gimmicky physical tricks that lesser actors rely on when they play ill or disabled people. Instead of showboating and playing up her depression, Dunst's shutdown conveys intelligence and even conviction as the world around her crumbles.
In spite of good work from Skarsgård and John Hurt, Melancholia is an actress' film. And if despairing Justine is the director's surrogate, her sympathetic, pragmatic sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is the audience surrogate. Claire's most effective moments come in the film's second half, which is named after her and takes place some time after the wedding debacle in the castle where the reception was held. As the titular stray planet moves closer to Earth before receding from view, Claire's helpless panic and primal fear — for her family as well as for her own safety — turn a couple of amateur astronomy scenes into high psychodrama. Claire's husband (a wonderfully dour Kiefer Sutherland) assures her that everything's going to be fine. But thanks to some lingering doubts (and von Trier's ingenious use of the technique of changing focus within a shot), her own idle curiosity eventually confirms her worst fears.
In a film full of repetitions and doublings, few critics have written about Claire's statement to Justine, "I hate you so much sometimes." This is said toward the end of each section of the film, and both times you hear it, it's devastating. The first time Claire accosts her sister, it's a relief: Finally someone has had enough of this poor, self-destructive girl! Finally someone's calling a stop to this meaningless party! The second time Claire says this to Justine, it's both pathetic — she has time for hatred now? — and, in a way, oddly life-affirming. In her darkest hour, Claire expresses the kind of principled rage that distinguished Captain Ahab from all the other whale-hunters.
There's a breadth of knowledge and allusion in Melancholia that separates it from tawdrier apocalypse-now pictures. There are allusions to Breugel paintings and (very loud) music from Tristan und Isolde, nods to Shakespeare, Alain Resnais, and Caspar David Friedrich — and, though von Trier couldn't possibly have intended it, the film's overpowering final image alludes to the 1979 Disney film The Black Hole.
Melancholia is a sprawling, crazy mess all right. But its pretentiousness has gravity. And there are parts of it that haven't left my head yet. This movie could have been so nihilistic, so phony, so cynical. It isn't.
Opening Friday, December 9th