After its much-praised prologue of mostly stills that prefigure the film’s narrative arc, Melancholia becomes a brilliant study of how the troubled, disintegrating state of mind of one character, Justine (a brilliant Kirsten Dunst), echoes the demise of the world as we know it. With his characteristic jump cuts and ellipses, and seemingly random camera movement, augmented by rich Wagnerian music (the prologue to Tristan and Isolde), von Trier shifts from what begins at a wedding dinner as a family tale to an original approach to capturing the state of the cosmos. I had to go out of town to do this interview, to the beautiful town of Mougins, where we spoke in the garden of a well-known villa-like hotel. Going into Cannes itself during the festival, with a couple of necessary exceptions, is too irritating for a claustrophobe like von Trier who refuses to fly, so in fact has never been to the U.S. where he so often sets his projects.
[Editor’s Note: This was originally published during Indiewire’s coverage of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. ‘Melancholia’ opens this Friday, November 11 through Magnolia Pictures.]
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As with many of the questions and answers we exchanged, he seemed surprisingly relaxed, as if he were taking this all in stride, and not in an arrogant way. He was very open and frank, and as you will see, doesn’t shy away from anything, even when it has to do with Nazis. The F-U-C-K tattoo on his fingers is visible, resembling Robert Mitchum’s “love” and “hate” tattoos on his hands in “The Night of the Hunter.”
Melancholia is divided into two parts, “Justine” and “Claire.” Part One takes place on Justine’s wedding night, when she and new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) are being honored at a post-nuptial dinner at the sprawling mansion-cum-hotel owned by her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). Justine is radiant, but as the evening wears on, evidence of her failing mental state, which her family has been trying to mask, becomes more and more apparent. (Claire is the one totally in control.) She is pretty isolated by the end of the evening; even her new spouse departs.
Part Two begins with a completely dysfunctional, nearly catatonic Justine returning to Claire’s home for nurture. At the same time, more and more information comes out that the planet Melancholia just may come out from behind the sun and smash the earth. The roles reverse: Depressed Justine displays some seer-like qualities; her mental state has some had some benefits. Claire’s cool façade cracks, and she panics. Justine takes over as they and Claire’s young son await the imminent catastrophe.
Why do you think your comments have caused such a huge reaction?
Well, if I had said it in Danish, it would have been much more nuanced. I was naive and stupid. I had thought, especially after I saw Bruno Ganz in that film about Hitler, that there is a little Hitler-like man inside of all of us. It’s like with Mao and Stalin, sometimes there is a no-go zone.
I was extremely stupid, but on the other hand we should worry about not being able to talk about certain things. At the press conference, I was in a good mood. It that room, with so many people and tv cameras, it was like a big blank audience; I was talking to the world. Here I am not, sitting with you, and I can see your face. It’s totally different. As my aunt used to say, “You can’t wash your hands in ink.” (laughs)
What about the festival’s declaration that you are persona non grata?
As far as I’m concerned, I still have two good friends here, Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux.
Do you think that you hit a nerve in France, given its history of anti-Semitism and collaboration, and specific laws created to punish for expressing it, that we do not have in the U.S. or Denmark?
Yes (nods). I think this was not the best place to do it.
What is it about you that allows you to say what you yourself term “stupid things?”
The force in me that makes me say and do stupid things–I get overexcited–also allows me to make my kind of films. I can tell you one thing: I will never do a press conference again.
Do you think this will affect your planned remake of “The Five Obstructions” with Scorsese?
I don’t know. I haven’t been in touch with Marty.
Did you know that (fellow Danish filmmaker, also in competition with “Drive”) Nicolas Wending Refn said he was repulsed by what you said?
I’ve known him since he was a kid! Fuck him.
Will you come back to Cannes?
It’s up to Cannes now. I’m not allowed to come within 100 meters of the Palais.
What do you think about political correctness?
It’s dangerous, but one doesn’t have to be stupid about it like I was.
Let’s talk about the state of melancholia. You have said many times that a severe bout of depression you suffered was the genesis of the project. In the film, Justine, a depressive, has special gifts that others don’t possess, sometimes almost like a seer.
It was believed in the old days that melancholic persons can do more than ordinary people. The film is based on psychologists’ findings that in a crisis like the one in the film, a melancholic person would act in a more practical manner, because they’ve been there before. I have some relatives who have experienced melancholia in their lives, and they said the film hit them as correct.
In German Romanticism, for example, melancholia is associated with a profound sense of longing.
Melancholia is kind of a sweet pain, like falling in love. That’s what the clash between the planets Melancholia and Earth symbolizes.
I know that you had a change in actresses when Penelope Cruz became unavailable.
When there is a schedule change, I just can’t wait. I don’t know what to do with myself. You’ve done the script, so you have nothing to do.
So you ended up casting Kirsten Dunst, who gives a great performance. Had you seen her in something like “Spiderman”?
I have seen her in several things, but I had had a long discussion with Paul Thomas Anderson years ago about this project, and he suggested her. And she was available.
I have heard that she has firsthand experience with depression.
I don’t know how severe a depression she has been in, but she understood it very well. We could talk comfortably and easily about depression.
Is her name Justine a reference to the Marquis de Sade?
“Melancholia” is divided into two sections.
All my trilogies are two films, so in that sense, this is a trilogy! (laughs)
You have a new cinematographer, Manuel Alberto Claro. You didn’t use Anthony Dod Mantle as you had in earlier films, like “Dogville” and “Antichrist.”
For “Antichrist” I would have preferred more roughness. I was happy with Anthony, he was more theatrical, and he wanted to show me he could do it. Normally I can say what I need 10 times, but at the time of “Antichrist,” because of my condition, I could only say it two times. He kept buying me gifts, and I told him I didn’t need that. So there was tension.
Some people say you are moving more toward the mainstream.
There are parts of Melancholia that I wish had been less commercial. But mainstream? I was irritated, even angry when Gilles Jacob wrote in his book that I came to Cannes for the first time in a leather jacket and the next time in a tuxedo.
What ever happened to Pussy Power, your attempt to produce porn films for women directed by other females?
No female directors were interested in doing it.
Doesn’t your next project involve female sexuality?
Yes, if some of the financing doesn’t fall out after all this outcry. It’s called “The Nymphomaniac”. It’s a discussion about the word itself. It’s about the erotic evolution of a woman from the age of 12 to the age of 50. If you know the works of the Marquis de Sade, it’s partly sex, partly intellectual thought.
Is it porn?
Because I’m a cultural rebel, I couldn’t make a porn film without a dick and a condom. So it will have to be soft-core.
You use the Prologue to Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde” to strong effect.
I’m a big fan of many of his operas. When I was younger, I read the first half of Proust. They are discussing the perfect work of art, and “Tristan and Isolde” was the answer.
Weren’t you involved with a production of “The Ring”?
I worked on it for two years, then pulled out. I was being shown around by Wagner’s grandchild. Then on the internet I saw photos of him leading Hitler around. And the singers were all like this (does a physical mockery of pretense) I felt like a concentration camp prisoner that was allowed to come to the party. Maybe you shouldn’t write that. (laughs) Isn’t it strange how all this relates to what happened at and after the press conference?