A world of hurt
The point of art being to get a rise out of people, Lars von Trier is anyway a great artist,* as attested by the fact that he's probably better than anyone else in cinema at tricking critics (both pro- and anti-) into writing down their opinions and reactions rather than analytically judge his movies. My full disclosure for the evening is that, by custom, I have absolutely no use for the man: my feelings for his work has ranged anywhere from grudging admiration (Dancer in the Dark) to profound irritation (Dogville), and my feelings on his last picture, Antichrist, are not so very different from "loathing". But the trailers for Melancholia made it look like the god-fucking-damnedest pretty movie that ever was, and that was enough to sand the edges off of my resistance; in the end, I sort of liked it, which is the closest to a gushing, fanboyish rave that I am ever likely to attach to a von Trier feature.
(Full disclosure 2: I love The Five Obstructions, but will plead that it is a special case).
This much is certainly true: Melancholia is, very nearly, the god-fucking-damnedest pretty movie that ever was, or at least of 2011; only The Tree of Life can compete with it on that front, which is sort of funny, because Melancholia and The Tree of Life, which debuted a scant two days apart at Cannes, are as like a twins, thematically and even, to an extent, formally - both of them languorous, frequently dialogue-free studies of the place that mankind has in an infinite universe of creation and destruction, anchored by the first really elaborate visual effects work in their respective directors' filmographies. Except that they are also twins who are diametrically opposed, like Spock and Evil Beard Spock: TOL, befitting the kindly spiritual humanist Terrence Malick, is a story of love as the motivating force behind everything, and it ends with a vision of a paradisaical state that is or maybe isn't the Christian heaven; Melancholia, coming from the mind of a well-established agent provocateur and all-round showboating misanthropist like von Trier, suggests that depression and hate are, in fact, the chief emotions underpinning everything, and he ends his movie with the death of absolutely everything. I am thus inclined to say that the pictorial beauty of TOL is profound and moving, while the pictorial beauty of Melancholia is shallow and troweled atop the film with no real sense of "why", but I am in this case being a bigot.
The film bills itself as being in two parts, but it's really three - the one labeled, "Part 1: Justine", is actually the second, and it is about an hour long, and describes the events of a single afternoon and night, over which Justine (Kirsten Dunst) goes to her wedding reception, held at the gorgeous country manor (complete with golf course and horse barn) owned by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Throughout the evening, Justine keeps staring at the night sky and observing a red star that she doesn't recognise, and sinking further and further into a funk, while around her a collection of dysfunctional people start to break down: her drunk father Dexter (John Hurt), her vindictive, shrewish ice-bitch mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), her nasty boss, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), who is also, as chance has it, a close acquaintance of her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård, confusingly not playing Stellan's son). This part of the movie is very loosely assembled with its handheld camera and hard yellow lighting, and it very much recalls the quintessential Dogme 95 film The Celebration, which does not happen to be a comparison that puts me in a very good mood.
The third and final part is much better; titled "Part 2: Claire", it picks up some time after the disastrous fall-out from Justine's breakdown, and we see that she and Claire and John and their son Leo (Cameron Spurr) are sitting around quietly, while in the sky a new planet is heading towards Earth, so close it can be easily seen even during the daytime. This new body, christened Melancholia, is expected to clearly zip right on by our tiny globe without causing any damage, but some internet naysayers have calculated that it will, after passing, conduct a sharp parabolic turn and come right back to destroy everything. Claire is horribly worried about all of this, John is working overtime to calm her down, and Justine has reached some kind of peace, having passed through to the other side of depression during the long dark night of her wedding, and she accepts the destruction of humankind with equanimity.
The best part of the movie, however, is the eight-minute prologue, a series of shots slowed down almost to the point of stasis, depicting our characters (who we have not yet met) in the final moments of their existence as the horrifying environmental effects of a giant planet slamming into Earth explode around them (the immaculate opening shot is of Dunst staring drowsily into the camera; after about a minute, she is surrounded by a veritable rainfall of dead birds). It's disorienting, scary, and beautiful: every image is digitally tinkered with so that it looks completely artificial, and the overall effect is sort of like an Annie Leibovitz advertisement for the Gap's new "Apocalypse" line. In fact, the opening is so great that it renders the rest of Melancholia mostly redundant: everything that will happen in the rest of the movie is already here (death, insanely gorgeous images so heavily processed that calling it "cinematography" feels like a cheat, wedding dresses, the screamingly obvious use of the Prelude from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde - and while I do adore me some Wagner and some Tristan especially, it gets positively absurd how much von Trier relies on that music to create emotional effect as the film goes along), and in the best form it ever takes for all of the film's 135 minutes. Not good to make the last two hours of your movie an anti-climax.
So anyway, the usual complaints apply: Lars von Trier is full of hate for everybody, but especially women (Charlotte Rampling is much too great an actress to be saddled with a cameo as the Queen Bitch of all the world, but even that undersells the degree to which the filmmaker delights in despising her character), and his active disinterest in his characters leaves a game, talented cast boldly playing parts to their best ability, each in their own vacuum (especially Gainsbourg and, surprisingly to me, Sutherland - her Cannes win aside, Dunst is not up to much interesting). And I genuinely can't tell if he's taking any of this seriously whatsoever: some bits, like Udo Kier's campy wedding planner, feel like they must be the comic relief, but von Trier plays nothing for comedy, and he plays it all so very much not for comedy that it seems really apparent that the whole thing is meant to be a farce, if you follow me; though nothing here is such obvious bullshit as the "chaos reigns!" fox in Antichrist.
But oh my God, is it pretty, and the film has the extreme fortune to begin with its absolute best sequence (and, despite it's over-the-topness, one of the most arresting and unforgettable sequences I've seen in a movie this year), and end with its second-best sequence, the fifteen minutes in which the fear of "are we all going to die?" are replaced with the eerie calm of "we had all better prepare to die, imminently" in a perfect choreography of image, blocking, and Wagner. The jagged editing charges even the most irritating moments during the endless wedding half of the movie with a sense of danger and possibility; and it's really pretty. I'm powerless in the face of that sort of thing, but don't expect me to feel good about it in the morning.