I saw Melancholia (2011), Lars von Trier’s latest piece of provocation, in Łódź's Kino Charlie back in July. And while it would be an exaggeration to say that it’s taken me over two months to formulate a response, it’s certainly true that von Trier’s film is a tough one to sort out your feelings about. I think that’s because what’s good and what’s not so good in Melancholia is very close indeed, sometimes to the point of being indistinguishable. For that reason alone, I’d place von Trier’s movie alongside Terrence Malick’s recent evolution opus The Tree of Life (2011). Like Malick’s film, von Trier’s variously lush and stately, urgent and contemplative offering often teeters on the cusp of being a ludicrous, pompous folly as it scores the end of the world, ever so picturesquely, to Wagner. But, also like The Tree of Life, Melancholia is possessed of an ambition, audacity and singularity of vision that it’s hard not to admire and, ultimately, embrace. (And, boy, what a truly cosmic double-bill these two pictures would make!)
One of the exciting elements of von Trier’s output has been the way in which it has fused literary and theatrical elements into a thoroughly cinematic form. Melancholia’s thoughtful, elegant structure divides the film into two chapters that focus on two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). We encounter Justine on her wedding day to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) - at a reception that, even from the opening moments, fails to go as smoothly as planned. After all, the presentiment that a planet called Melancholia may be on a collision course with earth is hardly likely to get a girl in the mood for her nuptials, though in truth there seem to be a few reasons other than the prospective end of the world for Justine’s sudden dose of cold feet. The second section then shifts the focus to Claire, who, some time after the wedding, is attempting to deal not only with Justine’s melancholia but with her own increasing anxiety about the planet Melancholia’s approach.
For all the exasperating, contrived and over-obvious elements present in this scenario, the assurance of von Trier’s handling of the material comes as a relief after the risible art-film-meets-torture-porn miscalculation Antichrist (2009), a true folly. Indeed, even as you’re stifling groans, you’re likely to find yourself caught up in Melancholia, an “atheist’s On the Beach” - to borrow Michał Oleszczyk's brilliant description. Felicities abound, not least in the performances of the cast, from Charlotte Rampling’s caustic cameo to amusing bits of business from Udo Kier and John Hurt, neat work from Kiefer Sutherland, and the wonderfully intense characterisations offered by both Dunst and Gainsbourg. (This is another only-in-von-Trier ensemble if ever there was one.) It’s debatable that the movie’s portentousness adds up to any kind of profoundity: perhaps the director is doing little more than working out his own depressive condition here. Melancholia makes its impact, though: it certainly feels quite unlike any other film released this year. See it, love it, hate it, argue about it. But do see it.