‘Melancholia’: Lars von Trier makes a despairing gesture, and this time he has a point

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Alexander Skarsgard and Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia. ()
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Screening some of the most highly anticipated films of the season, along with special programs and series focusing on directors and avant-garde work, the 49th New York Film Festival starts on September 30 and runs to October 16. Take a look at the schedule and purchase tickets here.

The opening of Lars von Trier's Melancholia is magnificent, reminiscent of a high-concept couture spread in Vogue Italia, with excruciating slo-mo and a parade of surrealistic tableaux, all to the bombastic accompaniment of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde." There is an intensifying burn as the film builds to its apocalyptic second half, a powerful and dreamy statement of the inevitability of disintegration and destruction, as seen through the deadened-by-sorrow eyes of Kirsten Dunst as Justine, whose wedding sparks a cloud of despair in her so deep that she cannot be reached.

Danish director Lars von Trier is most often called a "provocateur" because of his bold visual style and often in-your-face storytelling, but the only thing von Trier has provoked in me in the past has been boredom and mild annoyance at the contempt he has for his audience. His many defenders claim that if you feel this way you simply "don't get it," or are afraid of the implications of his films. None of that is true for me. I just find him rather silly.

But there is one thing to be said about von Trier's films: They are 100 percent personal statements, and he approaches his projects with an uncompromising single-mindedness. In an industry ever more completely dominated by corporations, with cineplexes filled with pumped-up sequels and mindless superhero franchises, a director like Lars von Trier is a bracing tonic, and a reminder that cinema is, after all, an art form.

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In Melancholia, he strikes an elegiac tone, shot through with mystery and nameless loss. The film is quite strange, and was about half an hour too long, but on the whole it was compelling, and hard to look away from.

It's beautifully shot, with a blend of warm tones and chilly blacks and greens, every frame packed with interest and detail. The pretentious graduate-student philosophies of his Antichrist and the childish need to "provoke" in Breaking the Waves were nowhere in evidence here. Melancholia is a dark dream, a gritty fairy tale (it even stars two sisters, one blonde, one brunette) with a tone that reminded me of the fever-dream of Edvard Munch's paintings or the surrealistic hand-made boxes of Joseph Cornell.

During the aforementioned opening, we see Charlotte Gainsbourg struggling to run through the grass, holding a child. Her feet plunge into the ground up to her knees. She screams in terror. We see Dunst, in gleaming wedding garb, moving in slow motion through a forest, with ropes of heavy grey yarn clinging to her limbs, impeding her movement. We see three solitary figures standing on a giant lawn under a Gothic full moon, and combined with the Wagner, there is a feeling of impending doom. Giant events are conspiring to wipe the light right out of the sky.

Melancholia is split into two parts, one devoted to Justine, and one devoted to Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who was the gynecologically enraged lead in von Trier's Antichrist). The first part of Melancholia unfolds over the course of Justine's wedding to Michael (True Blood's Alexander Skarsgård). It is an expensive and lavish wedding, paid for by Claire's husband John (Kiefer Sutherland, in a very funny performance). Things do not go according to plan. Justine and Michael are hours late to their own reception. Justine's participation in the reception rituals seem forced, and in moments of solitude a look of despair floods her eyes like an outside force.

Justine's mother, Gaby (the magnificent Charlotte Rampling), has contempt for the entire affair ("I don't believe in marriage", she says during her toast), and Justine's father, Dexter (John Hurt) is a bit of an eccentric buffoon. Justine is an ad exec with a company run by a corpulent and smug Stellan Skarsgård, and she is marrying her boss' son. There is a strange sense that all of this has been arranged for her, or at least foreordained.

Could that be the cause of her melancholia? Or could it be somehow connected to those anxious, yearning glances she throws up to the starry night sky from time to time? Justine, glimmering in her wedding gown, late to her reception, stops and stares at the sky. Something up there doesn't seem quite right. Her eyes scan the heavens. "What star is that?" she asks Claire. Claire is too annoyed at her sister's lateness to answer, instead hustling Justine inside to the waiting guests.

Lars von Trier, with his mainly hand-held camera, films the reception as a riot of noise and movement, providing us with almost no backstory for any of these people, and the slo-mo opening haunts every frame. Melancholia, like Malick's Tree of Life, is both an intimate story of one family as well as a contemplation on what the speck of humanity might mean in the grand scheme of things.

The second part of Melancholia belongs to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine has come to live with Claire and John following her wedding, and she has disintegrated so precipitously that she needs help undressing and bathing. Claire is worried. John is too, but he is more taken up by a celestial event that seems to be happening, an event that Justine had already noticed on her own. She had glanced up at the dawn sky and saw that a star is suddenly missing from Scorpio. Antares, the brightest star in the constellation, is no longer there. Apparently, a planet is now blocking Antares, a planet no one had heard of before. It is named Melancholia, and the scientists predict that its trajectory may very well end up interfering with the earth, although it may well miss the Earth, too. No one is sure what will happen.

John spends his time either scouring the Internet for information, or on the vast patio staring up at the sky through a telescope, excited at his front-row seat at a once-in-a-lifetime event. Claire is in a barely controlled state of panic. Justine, who seems to have been aware of the approaching planet's existence long before the rest of the world was, accepts it all as inevitable. The planet begins to grow in the sky. Every day it looms larger. It's supposed to start retreating any day now, according to the scientists.

The grittiness of the special effects portraying the approach of Melancholia adds to the dazzling look of the film, and to a sense of intensifying horror and doom. The sound drops out of the picture in the second half, and the air is filled with a barely concealed dull roar, the roar of the planet's approach. It's very eerie. Claire weeps for the inevitable destruction of the planet Earth, weeping for herself, for her son, for the end of everything.

Justine says to her sister flatly, "The Earth is evil. We don't need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it."

This is the kind of line that has always annoyed me about Lars von Trier, but in this context, and in Dunst's performance, it is the heart of the battle going on between the two sisters. Claire doesn't seem like a very happy person, but when she realizes that all of it may be taken away in a fiery apocalypse, she mourns her life. Justine, whose depression brings her closest to accepting her own insignificance, is the only one who doesn't fight the implications of Melancholia. She already knows she is insignificant. She already knows she is not in control of her own fate. Depression comes like a vast wave from the deep, and nothing can stop it. Its effect is not emotional, but physical. We remember the image of Justine from the opening, a bride with grey yarn circling her limbs, impeding her progress through the dark forest. The image doesn't seem so surreal anymore. It seems accurate.

Dunst, whose persona on film has often been effervescent and humorous, is a revelation in Melancholia. Her depression is tangible, seen in the dark shadows in her eyes, the flatness of her affect. She portrays a woman in the grip of something she cannot even name. In one scene, she goes into John's study, where there are art books on display along the shelves. The pages are all open to colorful abstract paintings, cheerful blocks of reds and blues. In the grip of Melancholia, she flips through all of the books, looking for paintings that more accurately reflect her mindset, dark disturbing images of death and torture. Dunst goes very deep in Melancholia, and her performance is mysterious, compelling, and emotional. It is her best work yet.

We place a high premium on optimism in our society, so much so that pessimism is not socially acceptable. We are supposed to say things to one another like, "Everything happens for a reason" and "Time heals all wounds," even when experience tells us that these bromides are untrue, or at least incomplete. "Melancholia" was thought by the Greeks to be caused by an excess of "black bile", one of the four humors that ruled the body: too much black bile, and despondency occurs. In his 1514 engraving entitled "Melancolia I," German artist Albrecht Dürer portrays winged Melancholy sitting dejectedly, surrounded by the tools of geometry. On the horizon is a bright gleaming star, with the words "Melancholia I" unfurling on a white banner in a black sky. Being melancholic is no fun, but it pushes us to greatness. Kirsten Dunst, representing her own version of Dürer's winged Melancholia, is dejected, yes, but is also drawn to looking up, to looking out.

The tables have turned. Capable Claire has shattered, and Justine takes on more strength and power the closer Melancholia gets to earth.

Sci-fi elements aside, Lars von Trier has crafted a very personal, intimate story, and his small cast creates a microscopic sense of the airless bell jar in which this family lives. When the sound of the approaching planet begins to fill the air, a peaceful resignation comes over Justine's face.

She had been listening to that roar for weeks, but nobody else could hear it. Now they can. At least she's not crazy. Lars von Trier, a gloomy Dane, has heard the roar, too. Melancholia is unnervingly powerful from beginning to end. The pursuit for knowledge and transcendence is never easy, and the rewards are few and far between. The world is dark and chaotic. But that gleaming light on the horizon, beckoning us on, calling us to it ... what's over there? What would it be like to stand in the full glare of that light?

Who among us could bear it?