AT THE CINEMA: MELANCHOLIA

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Lars von Trier's new film starts like a glossy ad for the end of the world, but for Ian Jack it eventually finds its grip ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2011

Lars von Trier is cinema’s great self-harmer. Long before the critic arrives with his sharp little razor, the director has been stabbing himself with the scissors. 

His new film, “Melancholia”, begins with a sequence of ominous images and swelling music. A horse shivers as it falls on its haunches; a small boy struggles to cross a golf course, where the grass conceals quicksand; in the blue realm of space, two planets collide; and all the while the prelude to “Tristan and Isolde” nags away, never quite finding a resolution. These are beautiful sounds and pictures, but a little too full of themselves. “Looks like a glossy ad for the end of world,” I scribbled in the dark, followed by the phrase “borrowed grandeur”, which is how Woody Allen described his trick of matching Gershwin and Schubert to human frailty in “Manhattan” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors”. 

I needn’t have bothered. Von Trier has anticipated the reaction. “It’s kind of like a music video that way,” he told an interviewer. “It’s supposed to be vulgar.” And if you think that the film that follows is too perfect in its scenery (it was shot in the grounds of a Swedish castle), too lush in its characters, too smooth in the lifestyle it portrays—why, von Trier has got here before you, too, wondering in his Director’s Statement if all he has created is “cream on cream” by surrendering to romanticism, which for him is the lowest of cinematic common denominators. And if this leads you to suppose that von Trier is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a tosser, there he was at Cannes proving you spot-on by admitting to a slight sympathy for Hitler. But then he’s happy to concede his tosser status, as he more or less did the next day in his apology. 

This is an unusual and possibly revolutionary approach to bringing a product to market. Imagine a novel that conceded its flaws in the blurb or an author who gave a pre-publication interview disclosing her unhappiness with chapters three to six. The promise is always one of perfect achievement, even when all concerned know different, deep down, and are keeping their fingers crossed for a generous reception. Von Trier’s self-criticism may suggest insecurity. More likely, it shows abundant self-confidence allied with the need to show off a depressive personality. Depression has its up sides, after all: nothing outside yourself can ever be more damaging than the savage despair within. 

This is the message of “Melancholia”. The story has two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst, pictured) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as well as two planets. Justine is getting married in a sumptuous country house owned by Claire and her rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), where the lawn sweeps down to the sea and the night sky is host to an unusually bright star. The wedding party doesn’t start well—the bride and groom are hours late—and quickly goes downhill. The bride’s divorced parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) are equally ghastly in their different ways: a prankster father, determined to be lovable, and an embittered mother, careless of how much she’s loathed. Sister Claire has her hands full looking after a bride who doesn’t actually want to be there and is soon disappearing into bathrooms and bedrooms to avoid the social rituals which she imagined would secure her stability and happiness. Justine is a depressive beyond salvation, but Claire has done her best to heal her and bring her through. 

Wedding parties that go wrong are a cinema staple, and the excellent acting and camerawork of this one can’t prevent a sense of listlessness, despite a few moments of comedy. Only after halfway does the story begin to grip. There are now only four people in the household: the sisters, Claire’s husband and her small son. The planet Melancholia, ten times bigger than Earth, begins to fill the horizon. Will its irregular orbit take it clear of the world, or will it hit? Claire’s husband, an amateur astronomer, takes the reassuring line, but the depressive Justine knows better. She’s now the psychologically stronger sister, accepting, almost welcoming, the fate that Claire struggles against. Now’s not the time for the saving lie and Justine has the depressive’s instinct for the unbearable truth. “Life on Earth is evil,” she says as Melancholia looms ever larger in the sky. “Life is only on Earth and not for long.” 

No skyscrapers crumble, no hysterical crowds loot and burn—in that sense, as Stanley Holloway says in “Albert and the Lion” (“no shipwrecks and nobody drownded”), there is nothing to laugh at at all. This is an end-of-the-world film played by a chamber ensemble rather than an orchestra in the Hollywood Bowl. You can carp at the implausibility of the physics and several lines in the plot, as well as at the faults advertised by its own director. But “Melancholia”, eventually, is intelligent, absorbing and terrifying. When I came out into the early evening, I was relieved to find people alive and well in the streets. My advice would be to ignore Lars von Trier and see it. 

"Melancholia" opens in Britain and Ireland on September 30th; Germany, October 6th; Italy and America, November 11th. Scandinavia and France, out now.

Ian Jack is a columnist for the Guardian and former editor of Granta. His last piece for Intelligent Life was "Five Boys", about a famous photograph often used to illustrate class division in Britain.