Leave it to maddeningly wayward Danish provocateur Lars von Trier to sabotage the chances of what is his best film in two decades (for my money at least, since 1990's Europa) through his infamous "OK, I'm a Nazi" tirade at Cannes 2011. True to form, said tirade threatens to overshadow the actual qualities of the film but is in line with Mr. von Trier's well-known taste for petulant provocation. And, in some way, the sublimely silly act of self-sabotage in Cannes is the equal of Melancholia's depressed heroine, Justine (a superb Kirsten Dunst), whose lavish wedding night at her sister's (Charlotte Gainsbourg) country estate is spent under the spell of a darkening cloud that renders her entirely unable to enjoy the proceedings.
In fairness, there isn't much to enjoy: her separated parents (brief cameos from Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) don't get along, her materialist brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) keeps reminding her how much the evening is costing him, her loutish boss (Stellan Skarsgård) keeps badgering her for a tagline. It's the imperious mother that best sums it up while addressing her distaste of marriage: "enjoy it while it lasts". Because, in a short while, there won't be anything to enjoy: the mysterious red planet Melancholia is approaching fast and, indeed, may even collide with Earth, extinguishing life as we know it. And, according to Justine, "life is only on Earth, and not for long".
So, yes, Melancholia is what Mr. von Trier defined as "a beautiful film about the end of the world", a micro-disaster movie entirely set in a lush country estate, playroom to the rich and powerful, where the disaster happens first inside the mind. Surprising as it may seem, it is also the director's most accomplished film since Europa, simultaneously naturalistic and fantastical, smartly combining the handheld visuals he brought into modern art film grammar through the Dogme 95 movement with lavishly hyper-romantic frames rendered with high-speed digital cameras. It is also, undoubtedly, his most personal and sincere - written in the throes of a dark depression, surrendering to nihilism, pointlessness, despair, it practically eschews his usual techniques of narrative manipulation and mischievous attachment to shock tactics. This is Lars von Trier as "what you see is what you get" filmmaker, putting people face to face with the imminence of death and letting the story play out from there.
Granted, there isn't much of a story in the first place. Only the slow-burn awakening of Justine's depression on her wedding night as Melancholia first comes into sight, balanced in the film's second half by sister Claire's gradual surrender to panic as she realises the planet might be more than just a fly-by. The wedding half plays too much like a retread of Thomas Vinterberg's seminal Festen, the second wallows a bit too much in Scandinavian existential cliches, and both could use some trimming. But both Ms. Dunst and Ms. Gainsbourg turn in stunning performances, suggesting that the Danish director, for all his bad-boy reputation, remains a formidable director of actors capable of leading them to new heights (and Ms. Gainsbourg is on her second collaboration with Mr. von Trier after Antichrist). And, much as Melancholia might be an irresistible magnet for a sniggering intelligentsia desiring nothing so much as the provocative filmmaker's comeuppance, the truth is the film's obvious sincerity and nakedness bring out the best in a director whose work has been for far too long buried underneath self-sabotaging stunts. Here's hoping that the witless Cannes tirade won't turn people away from a real, if far from perfect, achievement.
Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård, Brady Corbet, Cameron Spurr, Charlotte Rampling, Jesper Christensen, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier; Kiefer Sutherland.
Director/writer, Lars von Trier; cinematography, Manuel Alberto Claro (colour, widescreen, processing by Nordisk Film Shortcut); production designer, Jette Lehmann; costume designer, Manon Rasmussen; editor, Molly Malene Stensgaard; visual effects supervisor, Peter Hjorth; producers, Meta Louise Foldager, Louise Vesth (Zentropa Entertainments27, Film i Väst in co-production with Memfis Film International, Zentropa International Sweden, Slot Machine, Liberator Productions, Zentropa International Köln, DR, ARTE France Cinéma), Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany, 2011, 134 minutes. (World sales, Trust Nordisk.)
Screened: screener DVD, Lisbon, November 29th 2011.