I have a problem with Lars von Trier’s movies that is probably overdone. I found the two of his films that I had seen (Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark) to be interesting art films that were completely offset by the ways the female leads were treated like Job, with misery after misery piled upon them. It bothered me enough that I never saw another after Dancer in the Dark from 2000. The last time I discussed von Trier at length on this blog was back in 2004, upon the release of Dogville, which I had no desire to see. So I am as surprised as anyone that I finally got around to watching my third von Trier movie.
The reason was typical of my attempts to constantly challenge my fossilized notions about what movies to watch. In this case, it was the website Criticker, which was featuring the late John Hurt. I went down the list of his films (sorted by Criticker’s AI opinion as to how much I would like them) and quickly came to Melancholia. I decided it had been long enough ... time to take on Lars von Trier once again.
And amazingly, I liked Melancholia. A lot.
My friend Kim Nicolini, a long-time fan of von Trier, wrote an excellent essay, “Freedom in Oblivion: Post-Feminist Possibilities in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia”. She writes:
To be sure, there are those who find the film profoundly depressing and see it as yet another exercise in Lars von Trier’s distinctive brand of sadistic cinematic provocation, but in this case those people are a distinct minority. Many people who have seen the film feel just the opposite and have described feeling a kind of exaltation and release from this apocalyptic piece of cinema. Even some critics who have a reputation for disliking the films of Lars von Trier have found Melancholia to provide a nearly transcendental experience. They respond to this film about the claustrophobic prison of depression and the ultimate end of the world by feeling a tremendous sense of relief and even renewal at the end of things.
What I like about Kim’s piece is that she details the things going on just beneath the surface. This is useful, at least for me, because my enjoyment of the film exists mostly on that surface. While I don’t agree with all of her interpretations, her various takes are always illuminating.
Although Kirsten Dunst is gradually putting together an impressive resume, my sense is that, other than her pre-teen performance in Interview with the Vampire, she was primarily known more for her appearances in Spider-Man movies than for her acting. (Of course, she had many strong performances in those years.) Melancholia changed this ... as Justine, she won the Best Actress award at Cannes. I came to this in a backwards way ... I thought she was great in Season Two of Fargo, which I saw first, so her work here didn’t surprise me. She dominates the first half of the film, as she climbs inside the part of a woman with depression. (She is quoted as saying, “I definitely destroyed everyone else's lives for the first half of the movie.”) There is a lot going on in that first half, but I was mostly overwhelmed by Dunst, enough so that I wasn’t always paying attention to anything else. Von Trier suffers from depression himself, and Dunst is said to have also had her battles. Whatever inspires it, I have seen very few performances that so accurately define the emotionally wrenching experience of depression as Dunst does in Melancholia.
And I don’t think von Trier is able to treat Justine as another of his "Job" Women. No matter how many perils he tries to stick to Justine, her torments are her own. You get the feeling she was depressed long before the movie begins, long before von Trier got ahold of her. Others fear the end of the world, but she already fears. Von Trier can’t work his shtick on her. Of course, this grows out of von Trier’s writing and directing ... when a film features as many strong performances as does Melancholia, the director must get some of the credit. I never felt like Dunst was abused by the process of making the film. In some odd way, Justine’s depression gave her strength, even as it worked its debilitating worst on her.
Which is why the second part of the film, which focuses on Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is especially interesting. Claire has it together for the first half of the film, but as the world’s end comes closer, she falls apart. But Justine seems to thrive in the apocalyptic moment. It’s not that she loses her depression, exactly. It’s that the impending end of the world shows that her depression was “correct”. Thus, she has little fear at the end.
Ironically, the most beautiful thing in the movie is the mystery planet that is bringing on the end. (It, too, is called “Melancholia”.) And the most beautiful moment for that planet is the literal end, when it crashes into Earth. It’s stunning, and, as Nicolini says, “It is about the end of the world, yet people leave the film feeling as if their world has opened up. Perhaps they are liberated from the prospect of hope itself.”
Melancholia seems ripe for multiple viewings, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I visited it down the road and liked it even more than I do now. #486 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #30 on the Top Films of the 21st century list.