Melancholia the planet is convicted of being drunk while orbiting.
Lars Von Trier is an asshole. Someone who has let his incomparably defined view of his awesomeness almost derail his entire career, to the point where he's almost as renowned for his antagonistic stunts and quotes than he is for his work. But this antagonism has bled into his movies too, from Antichrist, a fairly vapid and smug attempt to be controversial for controversy's sake. To setting Dogville, what almost certainly should have been his masterpiece, on a chalk-outlined sound-stage. I still love that movie, but it would be undoubtedly in the best movie of all time conversation if it's very making wasn't an act of petulant arrogance. Von Trier is an incomparable talent, but he's incomparable saboteur too, someone who seems to delight in not allowing himself to be as good as he could be, and indulging his stubbornness over creativity.
Melancholia feels like his first attempt to make a film without some extra-textual stunt worked into the mix in quite a while, and I have to say that it is nice to be reminded what an excellent film-maker Von Trier is, and to see all the things he's so good at that seem to get lost in the hysteria. For example, he always gets career-best, near revelatory performances from his leading ladies, to which this film is no exception. Kirsten Dunst has always been a very one-note actress, not a bad one necessarily, but one with a very limited range. I don't think her performance is flawless here, but it is undoubtedly her most bold attempt to challenge herself and she does show a lot of depth we've not seen before. Particularly in the film's first segment, which sees the manic depressive Dunst slowly but surely sabotage her wedding, I was very, very impressed by what she did. I still wouldn't say she's capable of all that much nuance really, but this is certainly a different shade.
Charlotte Gainsbourg meanwhile, who went through proverbial and literal hell for Von Trier's Antichrist (What a waste of a great performance that was) gets a real chance to shine here, and gives a performance as good as anything else I've seen this year. I think Dunst is the much more likely to get awards recognition for this, but it's Gainsbourg who amazed me. In the role of the person who gives a shit, incidently the role who Von Trier traditionally most likes to punish and deride, she's appropriately heartbreaking, but in such a quiet, understated way. It's difficult to say that she's not one of the best actresses around at this point, and I think how good she is really isn't acknowledged enough. The film also found room to give Kiefer Sutherland a prominent role, which I appreciated seeing. I think he's Jack Bauer for life now, but he is capable of more than that, as he proves here.
The film itself is the same kind of fatalist study of depression and the inevitably of death we've come to expect, except this time Von Trier makes things a little more literal with a giant, hitherto undiscovered planet on a collision course with Earth and there's nothing for us to do but well, wait. The film creates a great sense of powerlessness, an aura of how small, pointless and pathetic we and our worries all are. It's misery porn, to be sure, but Von Trier is a steady hand at this kind of thing and while his films can be guilty of lacking a little life on occasion, this film is punctuated by some truly beautiful imagery, from the hypnotic opening sequence to it's climactic image, which is to my mind, the most horrifying shot I've ever seen at a cinema. Wagner's Tristan and Isolde is used to terrific and devastating effect, and it gives the thing a tremendous sense of the operatic, and makes the tragedy that little bit more soaring. Best use of classical music in quite a while I'd say.
I do feel the film is perhaps a little overlong, and there is some sag in the back-half, with the message and the metaphor superceding the characters just a little bit, but regardless, Melancholia is an involving and occasionally beautiful study of despair. Not the director's best, I would still call that Dogville, but a great movie, by anyone's standards.