Dir:- Lars Von Trier
Starr:- Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt
Lars Von Trier is one of the great cinematic con artists. Having managed to make his latest gloomily entitled movie the toast of the croisette back in May, the audience for this apocalyptic piece of miserabilism swelled to multiplex proportions. Little were most of us to be aware that Melancholia was just another testing instalment in Von Trier’s ongoing practical joke of a directorial career, although perhaps potential viewers should have spent a little more time reflecting on his brazen self-publicity stunts as an indicator of exactly how low he’d allowed the quality level to go. Even in Von Trier’s most flagrantly irritating moments, Dancer in the Dark, Manderlay, The Boss of it All, he has still been able to engage the viewer with lavishly arranged and intriguingly rendered imagery. With Melancholia it appears as if the trier in Von Trier has finally given up. Perhaps the only thing of any merit that can be said about this stultifyingly dull and insipid film is that it offers the mildly novel opportunity to experience being bored to the end of the world.
Clearly Vicodin and Prozac have been the key sources of inspiration in this dirge-like dance of interplanetary death, as that is the only adequate explanation for some of the blandest visuals of the director’s lengthy career. Lars has never been one for structuring an intricate and engaging script, a tendency for abstract and pretentious dialogue often sitting uncomfortably alongside some of the most clichéd of plot arcs this side of Romanticism, however, with Melancholia he seems to divest himself even of the rawness of inspired improvisation. If Dunst mouthed her dreary nihilistic diatribe in your average lobotomised Hollywood blockbuster (Spiderman 3, perhaps) it would rightly be seen as the torpid, lifeless and redundant piece of prose it actually is. Yet my personal fear is that with Von Trier’s art-film by-the-numbers some amongst the audience may mistake this for philosophical or poetic profundity (remember Von Trier has namechecked his Nietzsche).
Why do I keep on returning to Von Trier? I often find myself pondering this question in the aftermath of yet another disappointing cinematic offering. Alas, some filmmakers I excuse their very worst sins (Welles, Scorsese, Herzog, Wenders) because they have created at least one work of such unparalleled and staggering beauty that it is impossible for me to accept such an offering as a fluke. Unlike many a critic I was not easily won over by Breaking the Waves, a movie that seemed almost cut-out in its crude characterisation, succeeding only through the amount of energy Emily Watson invested into her performance in the lead role. The publicity and critical attention the Dogme’95 manifesto attracted was utterly disproportionate to the quality of the movies that adhered to its rather too fluid criteria. Of the movies Von Trier himself directed post-Dogme, only Dogville and The Five Obstructions have been unqualified successes. It is this latter film that I consider to be the director’s finest work, managing to be structurally groundbreaking, whilst training that uncomfortable, or discomfiting, mischievousness that is constantly informing the focus of his lens, first upon his cinematic mentor (Jørgen Leth) and then, more surprisingly, upon himself. For me it stands as one of the finest films about filmmaking ever made, as well as being one of the most intriguing approaches to cinematic autobiography you might expect to see. Part of the movies power undoubtedly stems from Von Trier’s deliberate renunciation of authorial control, something that, when he selects the right restraints, seems to sharpen his filmmaking talents. Unfortunately no such restraints are in evidence in the bloated, ineffectual mess of a movie that is Melancholia.
The plot, as it can barely be considered, revolves around two sisters whose strained familial and sibling relationships come to a head at Justine’s (played by Kirsten Dunst) wedding and then are reconciled under the duress of an impending planetary apocalypse at the older sister Claire’s (another Von Trier turn by Charlotte Gainsbourg) countryside manor house. The wedding is meant to be an unbearable and pompous affair, full of the needling hatreds of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen, yet it plays out like a truly tedious mockery of that movie, with a number of wasteful cameo turns from the likes of Skarsgård Senior, Hurt and Rampling (who at least makes her bitterness biting). Dunst’s performance throughout the movie forms a fathomless black hole, that left me wishing for Kiefer Sutherland to promptly transform into Jack Bauer and ‘interrogate’ her out of her somnambulant slitherings. Sutherland, as a typically vague Von Trier rendering of a monied man, was all overbearing logic and golfing arrogance, yet in spite of this his performance was one of the few encouraging points amongst the lead performers. Gainsbourg, who inexplicably continues to return to Von Trier, delivers another delicately dissembling performance, but I longed to see her presented with some dialogue, some material, actually worthy of her considerable talents.
Von Trier appeared to be aiming for grandiosity, a heady brew of arch-Romanticism and decadent misery, replete with ornate renderings of painterly scenes (the ridiculous Dunst blue-bathed nude nymph sequence) and Wagner soundtracked portentous tableaux. Yet, much like Terence Malick’s far more ambitious The Tree of Life, the movies epic scale was somewhat reduced by the myriad failings of dialogue, plot and story. At least with Malick’s work we were left with moments of breathtaking beauty, in amongst the silliness. Von Trier doesn’t even leave his audience with that, with perhaps only the aerial shots of the sisters out horse-riding proving in any way visually stimulating. Splitting the movie into two distinct halves, named after each sister, served no real purpose, particularly as the first section of the movie meanders its way through the most uninteresting sequence of non-events I have ever witnessed anyone try to consign to celluloid. The seeming randomness of such things as a bean-counting game might compel the viewer to think of the ending to Casablanca and the ultimate futility of existence. Once again though such vaunted sentiments would require a little more in the way of aesthetic stimulation to even begin to be properly evoked. By the time Von Trier has dragged his audience into the little house of sticks at the films close, there has already been a strong affinity established between each audience member and Udo Kier’s cameo as a pernickety and melodramatic wedding planner, a desire, nay an impulse, to place a hand in front of one’s eyes shielding oneself from the abject horror of an utterly pointless piece of film. As the rumbling planet Melancholia (how crass) careers into Earth and all sound diminishes, I was sure that I heard the faintly audible sound of Lars Von Trier’s rectum pressing out the air from an over-inflated whoopee cushion.