In his “Now and Then” column this week, Matt Brennan examines two visionary directors’ takes on the end of the world as we know it — controversial Dane Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (on VOD now, in theaters Friday) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling 1999 classic Magnolia.
Melancholia, the bright blue planet heading for Earth in Lars von Trier’s film of the same name, arrives with showers of ash and jagged white lines of electricity sparking across the sky. Appropriately, Melancholia builds gradually to a fevered pitch; even the title is emotional. Of Von Trier’s films, which range from the heartbreaking and daring Dancer in the Dark to the exercise is misery-making called Manderlay, Melancholia dispenses most fully with Dogme 95 asceticism in favor of lush, melodramatic romance. It is mesmerizing, beautiful, and accomplished.
The film stars Kirsten Dunst as Justine, just married and so unmoored by it — or by the niggling feeling that something terrible is about to happen — that she slips into a kind of trance, unable even to bathe herself. Eyes heavy-lidded, skin so pale it seems on the point of evaporating, Dunst has always been adept at playing waifs and worriers (Interview with the Vampire, The Virgin Suicides). By the end of the film Justine comes to seem a kind of crazed prophetess, and Dunst moves subtly from joy to anxiety to a frightening calm with mere flickers across her face. Yet for all the accolades Dunst has received (including the Best Actress prize at Cannes), Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Justine’s older sister and caregiver, Claire, lends the film its emotional heft. Her arc is a mirror image of Justine’s, her assuredness melting away in the face of doubt. How close will Melancholia pass?
Von Trier, whatever you may think of his politics or personality, is a filmmaker with palpable ideas and a strong sense of film form, and it’s a credit to his skill that he easily leaves behind the tense familial bickering of the wedding party and cedes the last hour of the movie to his heroines. Though her reaction in the end is, understandably, one of panic, Claire’s moment of revelation is quietly startling — just the opening and closing of a locked drawer, with a sharp intake of breath. It speaks to the meaning of “apocalypse,” from the Greek for “lifting of the veil.” As Melancholia suggests, the end of the world may come with a bang, but it will be full of cries and whispers.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s third film, Magnolia, isn’t about the end of the world per se, but its sprawling, Altmanesque story of interwoven lives in unhappy Los Angeles gathers to a Biblical intensity. Buoyed by a stellar ensemble, including Julianne Moore as the pill-popping wife of a magnate, Tom Cruise as a slimy motivational speaker, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a hospice nurse, it is an affecting, if sometimes maddening, film. And while its allusions and overwrought denouement now seemed forced, I remember catching it for the first time unexpectedly on television, and being captivated by its world. That captivation remains: even with those doubts, I watch the sequence in which all the characters sing Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up,” a connective thread akin to the earthquake in Short Cuts, with awe.
I see echoes of Magnolia in Melancholia. The latter film’s first image, for example, a close-up of Dunst with chickens falling from the sky, recalls the former’s much-noted rain of frogs; their very titles have a euphonious quality, as though they were varying interpretations of the same story. To some extent, they are: while the consequences of Magnolia’s central event are less dramatic, it asks the same question Melancholia does. When things fall apart, what’s the appropriate reaction? Should you kill yourself? Resign yourself to fate? Rage, cry, run away? Perhaps what makes both films seem so smart in the face of such questions is their refusal to moralize. When the world is beyond our command, everything, and nothing, is possible.
[Melancholia image and trailer courtesy of Zentropa; Magnolia image and trailer courtesy of New Line Cinema]