Someone recently wrote – and I wish I remembered who and where I read it – that for someone to make the end of the world all about their depression is an incredibly narcissistic feat, but only a genius could pull it off. While the word genius does get thrown around too liberally, this sentiment does capture what Danish director Lars Von Trier achieved with his latest effort “Melancholia,” a psychological end-of-days disaster picture which is both not his best effort and yet one of his most ambitious. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier and Brady Corbet ("Funny Games"), “Melancholia,” is almost two movies in one. The film centers on two sisters (Dunst, Gainsbourg) who find their already strained relationship challenged as a mysterious new planet threatens to collide into the Earth. Chaptered into two sections, the first half of the film is practically a comedy of manners, a wedding where everything goes wrong and it’s some of Trier’s most arch and wry work in some time. The second half centers on depression, fear, panic and whether or not this mysterious new planet will indeed destroy the Earth (Skarsgård joked, “[R.E.M.’s] ‘It’s The End of The World As We Know It’ should be the anthem. Put it in the ads!”).
Not to mention there’s a gorgeous prologue arriving in some form of still-photography meets slow-motion tableau set to haunting opera music. While this sprawling picture may not always work, there’s no denying its lofty, beautiful and impressive aspirations.
Over the past few weeks Playlisters Rodrigo Perez and Jennifer Vineyard sat down with three members of the “Melancholia” cast including Dunst, Gainsbourg and the younger Skarsgård. While Lars is no longer doing press because of his misconstrued, amplified and exaggerated Nazi comments out of Cannes (alas, such a pity), the three actors almost made up for his lack of presence. Here are the highlights from our various conversations.
Skarsgård’s father has worked with him six times and his advice was always, “If you ever get the opportunity, just do it, it’s the most amazing thing,” so the son jumped at the chance when he got the call. “I said, ‘What do you want me to do, make your breakfast? I’m in.’ ” he said. “I’m a huge fan. That’s why when I got the call, I said yes, even before I read the script. I was like, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’ I’m not going to turn down an opportunity to work with him.”
“It was Lars completely,” Kirsten Dunst said when asked what enticed her into the project. “I’m always drawn to directors first and he’s one of our great directors of all time and also the only one writing roles like this for women too and so it’s just an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often for anyone.
“I’m always up for an adventure,” she said, noting she would have dealt with it one way or another. “Whether this film would have not been fun, a weird experience, whatever it would have been, I’m not someone who suffers unnecessarily and I would have dealt with someone who wasn’t in a good way or whatever.”
Another good sign was the fact that after “Antichrist” Gainsbourg had already signed on for “Melancholia.” “We talked about it in Cannes but Charlotte was clearly doing another film with him,” she said, intimating that was enough for her. “I [also] talked to Bryce [Dallas Howard who starred in 'Manderlay'] on the phone, she had a really nice time with him so…”
3. Charlotte Gainsbourg said the experiences of shooting “Antichrist” and “Melancholia” were like night and day.
The director was going through a distinctly different period in his life during the making of the two films. “Lars was so different on this film, he was so happy whereas on 'Antichrist' he was suffering a lot so it was different, a different character, different feel,” she said. “He was suffering depression and anxiety and it was difficult but that’s the way I knew him so for me that’s the way he was, I didn’t question that.”
“My first time with Lars was going to meet him for ‘Antichrist’ and I didn’t know if I wanted to be chosen or not,” Gainsbourg continued candidly. “And he was in such a bad state, shaking, and I was going to portray this very troubled woman and I thought he’s never going to chose me because I’m too normal, So my relationship to him was then just observing him to take whatever I needed to the part. But I like him very, very much as human being now. I’m getting more and more attached to him and touched by him.” Asked if “Melancholia” was the manner in which the now-contended filmmaker worked his way through his issues, Kirsten Dunst laughed and quipped playfully, “His happy is still weird.”
But sometimes, Trier would dial it back unexpectedly. “We were doing the bedroom scene, and Alex is starting to take off his clothes, it’s the wedding night,” Dunst recalled with a smirk. “And he took off his shirt, and Lars was like, ‘Keep your shirt on!’ He was like, ‘You look too good. Keep your shirt on!’
5. Dunst struggled with her own depression before making this movie, but she doesn’t believe it helped inform this role.
“I feel like most people have kind of gone through their own version of that, it’s a very normal thing,” she said of her public struggles with depression. “But I feel like to play someone like this you have to be in a really good place because you can’t play depressed when you’re depressed, you can’t do anything.”
The actress also has some theories about her character that you might not see on the surface and why her sadness might have been attuned with the impending disaster. “There’s a very kind of ethereal quality to the whole film, it’s really beautiful and I feel like she definitely had some…'psychic' makes it seem kind of cheesy but I thought maybe she came from the planet that’s going to hit her or something. I kind of had to rationalize in some way why she has this intense connection with this planet. Maybe it’s her alien ship or whatever. I would think, ‘OK, maybe I came from this planet.’ I definitely thought, 'OK, this is my mother earth,' so I could feel like a longing for it, like I’m rejoining some kind of kismet fantasy.” While she and Lars both suffered from depression, neither Dunst nor the filmmaker dwelled on it much.
“Lars doesn’t like to talk much about things,” Dunst said. “I do my homework before a movie and kind of throw it all away but I like that he’s not one to talk much or rehearse much. We talked a little bit about how sometimes when people are depressed the most horrendous things make them kind of step up to take care of everyone more than anyone else,” she explained. “And there could be a lot of reasons for that. Maybe when you’re in a depressed state having something really bad happen gives you a life again.”
6. The opening wedding section of the film also provokes strange responses, people don’t know whether to laugh or find it uncomfortable, cruel and or painful to watch. “It’s really funny. I think people are uncomfortable to laugh because you’re in a theater watching it with people; it’s a critical group watching it so you feel embarrassed if you laugh. I always feel weird if I laugh at certain things but I thought the beginning was really funny.”
“I thought Charlotte’s character was hilarious,” Skarsgard said. “She was so obnoxious it was funny. I don’t’ know. How did you read it on the page, as funny?"
“I thought it was full of humor,” Gainsbourg agreed with a smile.
“Melancholia” is available now on VOD. The film opens up in limited platform release this Friday, November 11. – Reporting by Jennifer Vinyeard and RP