Two years ago at Cannes, Lars Von Trier premiered his film Antichrist. Despite loving most things Von Trier, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the film due to its plethora of tortuous (quite literally) and sexual depictions that made even Cannes critics cringe. I’m no philistine, but the impression I got from reading dozens of reviews was that Antichrist had little to offer beyond its shock value and, consequently, I was more than happy to give it a miss.
Last May, Von Trier premiered Melancholia at Cannes but this time the hubbub surrounding the film had nothing to do with its content. As is my geeky wont, I watched the Melancholia press event online shortly after it was conducted. After being asked about his German roots, the Danish auteur careened into a joke about his similarities to Hitler and as you can imagine, the punchline didn’t sit well with most everybody, including the two Melancholia leading ladies Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Unsurprisingly, the words “I sympathize with him [Hitler]” and “OK I’m a Nazi” were two particularly damning pieces of evidence against the keenness of Von Trier’s sense of humor; shortly thereafter, Cannes declared him persona non grata, effective immediately.
Von Trier has always had (and enjoyed living up to) a reputation of being an enfant terrible. The problem arises not necessarily when this reputation precedes his cinematic offerings, but when it eclipses them. And speaking of eclipses, I started out towards Melancholia with Antichrist and last May’s Cannes-scapade weighing on my mind, uneasy about what I would behold and, more importantly, whether it would be worth it. I was also expecting to be wowed by Kirsten Dunst’s performance, since it won her the Best Actress award at Cannes.
The cheerily-titled film was released in Hong Kong this past week, and I went to ye olde Broadway Cinematheque for an afternoon screening this past Friday. Cinematheques are a deep love of mine, and when BC sends me a complimentary movie ticket for my birthday each year, I reaffirm that love. And then I see a film.
Melancholia is about a planet that is on a collision course with Earth. The film opens with some sumptuous painterly sequences in slow-motion set to Wagner’s prelude to Tristan and Isolde. And right from the beginning, in the vein of the greatest tragedies, you know what’s going to happen. Initially doing away with the what ifs surrounding a denouement frees you to more fully experience pathos since, at least in theory, your attention is focused more on character than plot.
Melancholia’s characterization is the film’s agony and ecstasy since the two women who Von Trier scripted (Justine and Claire) and enlisted (Dunst and Gainsbourg, respectively) to heave the apocalyptic tale produce entirely different results. To put it kindly, Justine is blandly written, especially in comparison with Claire, and the only real achievement of Dunst’s acting is that it is reminiscent of her work in Spiderman. Gainsbourg, however, is an absolute tour de force and according to anyone who has a brain (exempting, apparently, the Cannes jury), should have easily won Best Actress. My guess is that winning the accolade two years prior for another Von Trier film was the mitigating factor against her winning last year. Either that or the Cannes jury is made up of a few primates who, on breaks from picking ticks from each other’s hair, choose recipients for the awards by throwing bananas.
The film isn’t Von Trier’s best work by any stretch of the imagination. There are moments when you are absorbed into the anxiety of Earth’s impending demise, but overall, it’s what you know is going to happen that preoccupies you rather than a sense of empathy with the characters or their story.
Having said that, as with much of Von Trier’s filmography, I found the hand-held camerawork and the cinematography riveting. The Great Dane is usually masterful with his leading ladies (Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, Nicole Kidman in Dogville, and even Bryce Dallas Howard in Manderlay) and casting Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire proved to be no exception. Had the film been solely about her, Melancholia would have been stunning. For now, though it’s not the end of the world if you don’t see Melancholia, I’m happy to put the film down as a decent experience. Even more, I’m desperately curious to see which festival (if any) Lars will choose to premier his next film.