Lars von Trier is not a brother who provokes a neutral response: there are those who feel he can do no wrong, and then there are naysayers like me. Although I consider Dancer in the Dark one of the best movies of the last decade, I swore I’d never sit through another of his films after suffering through the school-play machinations of Dogville. A guy who so unilaterally criticizes America without ever having stepped foot on its soil deserves a similar boycott, I declared.
But now that he’s taken psychological projection to unprecedented proportions, he’s become downright fascinating.
More navel-brandishing than navel-gazing, his last two films have served as gorgeous canvases upon which his worst fears and miseries are writ so large that they articulate the human condition with a grandeur normally only achieved by Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman. In 2009’s Antichrist, for example, von Trier makes literal that most scorching of Freudian themes – castration – and his latest is by far the cleverest rendition of the strain of pre-2012 apocalyptic films circulating through cinemas. In it, he not only globalizes his own depressive and suicidal tendencies but renders them universal in the form of a deadly asteroid dubbed Melancholia hurtling directly toward planet Earth. Subtext as supertext; subconscious as supercosmos. Not to mention supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
She’s always been a more nuanced actress than is widely recognized, radiating a weary patience that elevates even her most flatfooted projects (Marie Antoinette, Elizabethtown). But as Justine, the melancholic in question, she mines new colors in her work. This would be ironic since, like most depressives, von Trier’s film is usually monochromatic in tone if not in its often-lush cinematography. But Dunst, who’s been open about her own struggles with depression, seems liberated by the dark material – much like her character as she prepares for the end of a world she finds so painful.
The film is divided into two sections; the first, “Justine,” consists of the character’s horrific bridal party at the palatial estate of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, as green at the gills as most of L.v.T.’s heroines). From the first scene, in which she and her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård, so housebroken that he’s virtually unrecognizable from his True Blood incarnation), get stuck on a country road in their garishly large stretch limo, the point is clear: this girl doesn’t fit in the materialistic (or arguably even the material) world. And yet, also like Lars himself, she’s not terrible at manipulating these slick surfaces, a reality which only seems to exacerbate her self-loathing. (I've alway found it amusing that this pronounced anti-materialist makes films that look like Obsession commercials.) In fact, she’s such an advertising whiz that her cad of a boss (Stellan Skarsgård) weasels for her help even in his wedding toast. Capitalists being von Trier’s second-favorite scapegoat after bad mommies, this is one of the clunkiest notes of this film. Her tight smile is not.
By the beginning of “Claire,” the film’s second section, Justine is so catatonic that she can’t keep her eyes open, let alone bathe or feed herself. Claire and her ever-irked husband (a brilliantly cast Kiefer Sutherland) do their best to prop her back up, but they’re unhinged by the threat of the potentially lethal asteroid rushing toward Earth.
In what very well may be one of the loveliest moments in 2011 cinema, a panic-stricken Claire trails her sister as she steals into the woods. There, Justine offers her naked body to the moonlight like a sylph, like a siren, like a sister of no mercy. Only what is wild, what is wholly undoctored, is real to her. The rest, all of what humankind has created, is bullshit that deserves to be put out of its misery – including herself. No wonder she surrenders to the coming maelstrom with ecstasy.
In Melancholia, von Trier has created a mission statement of a masterpiece, one that reminds us that nihilism itself can serve as a legitimate form of creation, a means as well as The End. It’s the ultimate inversion of the old hippie phrase “think global, act local,” and, against all odds, it works.
Lisa Rosman writes the indieWire film blog New Deal Sally and has reviewed film for Marie Claire, Time Out New York, Salon.com, LA Weekly, Us Weekly, Premiere and Flavorpill.com, where she was film editor for five years. She has also commentated for the Oxygen Channel, TNT, the IFC and NY1. You can follow Lisa on twitter here.