Lest anyone mistake the man who made Antichrist as a purveyor of feel-good entertainment, Lars von Trier has opted for truth in advertising by titling his new film Melancholia. The Danish filmmaker enjoys courting controversy, and some of his films seem deliberately designed to provoke and upset audiences…but he’s also made some fascinating pictures like Breaking the Waves andDogville, so I try to take each movie as it comes without any preconceived notions.
To my mind, Melancholia is both absorbing and absurd. It opens with a visual prologue that turns out to be a précis of the film that is to follow. Kirsten Dunst (who won the Best Actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) plays a beautiful bride who arrives two hours
late for the wedding ceremony her sister, Charlotte Gainsbourg, has painstakingly planned for her and the groom, Alexander Skarsgård. Von Trier disarms us by opening on a note of humor as the couple’s stretch limousine tries to navigate a severely winding road. (This turns out to be the only light moment in the entire picture.) Early or late, Dunst is destined to be unhappy, even on this ostensibly joyous occasion. Why her groom expected anything else from her is just one of the movie’s many unanswered questions.
With a nasty mother (Charlotte Rampling), a light-headed father (John Hurt), a domineering boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and a wealthy but imperious brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), the setting is ripe for misery. Add to that one more pesky problem: an obscure planet may be on a collision course with Earth. That prospect suits the bride’s dismal mood to a T. This aspect of the story is explored in the second “chapter” of the narrative, which builds in intensity to a furious climax, set to the strains of Wagner.
Melancholiais fascinating, to a point, but full of frustrating, unexplained behavior by its downhearted cast of characters. I realize that this is a metaphoric tale, but there still ought to be some internal logic. Von Trier orchestrates his twisted story with great skill, and generates considerable dramatic energy, but it’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing.