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.
That said, this isn’t just Lars’ world that we’re living in this time. It’s also Kirsten Dunst’s. Women cast in the Danish writer/director’s films rarely fare well, as they’re typically limited to only one of the three faces of Mommy von Trier: wan, hysterical or brutal. (Should this sound hyperbolic, consider the 2009 New York Film Festival videoconference in which von Trier claimed that not even the psychotic, castrating mother of Antichrist “compared to [his] mother.”) Here, Dunst is cast as a stand-in for von Trier himself, and she sinks her famously crooked fangs into his despair but good.
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.
All the bridal toasts put Justine under the table. The more others urge happiness upon her, the more she visibly cringes. (I couldn’t help but recall my Israeli ex-shrink’s words to me: “Happiness is so America! Better to aim for truth!”) Worse, her divorced parents use their toasts as a platform for skewering each other in front of an audience. A lethal contrarian masquerading as a mere nonconformist, her mother (Charlotte Rampling sporting tie-dye!) is so solipsistically scathing (“I don’t believe in marriage!”) that Justine crumples into a state from which she, and ultimately everyone around her, cannot recover. She disappears from the wedding party in order to take a bath, reappears to take a piss on the lawn as well as on her boss (only slightly less literally) and, finally, fucks a corporate lackey out on the golf course for all to see. There’s no wedding cake in the world sweet enough to take the edge off that move.
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.
Ironically, by helming a film that basks in the depressive’s view on life, von Trier finally has created a film that legitimately allows for other perspectives as well. Claire may also recognize the weakness and selfishness of the world around her, but she still embraces its blessings. She may have been as unnurtured as Justine (and may have chosen a sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing husband to provide cold comfort) but she can still love her son and sister as well as life itself. So it makes sense that, faced with its extinction, she now needs care-taking, while Justine, whose depression has previously rendered her as cruel as her black hole of a mother, can finally exhibit compassion and vitality. She can afford to. Since she views Earth as an extension of the squalid emptiness roaring within her, the prospect of its demise is enthralling.
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.