World Beater

Director Lars von Trier threatens earthly greed with a cosmic catastrophe in Melancholia
ZAPPED: In 'Melancholia,' Kirsten Dunst never has to worry about the battery life of her iPhone 4 again. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

THE World's Greatest Film Critic, Slavoj Zizek, addressing Occupy Wall Street on Oct. 9: "It's easy to imagine the end of the world—an asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism."

In his new film, Melancholia, Lars von Trier tries to imagine just that by killing two birds with one planet. Melancholia isn't as doctrinaire Marxist as Dogville but does go beyond the typical peek-a-boo populism of the disaster movie—the callous rich mending their ways because of a massive quake or a bad volcano.

In such cases, the system doesn't need wiping out, it just needs remedies. It needs teepees, as the joke went in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks. One of these most sincere of sincere dwellings isn't enough to ward off the end in Melancholia.

The first half wittily observes a wedding so stinky with lucre as to pale the Kardashians (they're Star Trek villains, yes? I know, I don't watch enough TV). The setting is a chalet on a lake. Sweden substitutes for the United States—Lake Tahoe or the Adirondacks—and von Trier gives a better sense of the country than in any of his previous films. Wedding planner Udo Kier runs the show, scowling deliciously at the lack of propriety on all sides.

The encircled bride (Kirsten Dunst) has the de Sadean name Justine. The father of the groom happens to be the bride's boss: Stellan Skarsgurd at his most swinish. Justine's sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland with a previously unheard, cigar-toned bass note in his voice), shelled out beaucoup bucks for the big event.

Why, on the happiest day of her etc., has Justine gone feral with sadness—hiding from the company, ducking her husband to go pee on the lawn of the golf course?

The second half reveals why. There is cosmic trouble, which some are willfully ignoring, having to do with a newly discovered planet. A few fanatics are suggesting that this new globe is in a "Dance of Death" orbit with Terra.

Von Trier hides some evidence but flashes other parts: the pre-title sequence gives us coming-attraction previews of an angry blue planet. It's named, for some linguistically indefensible reason, "Melancholia," and it's heading for us like a giant billiard ball.

Dunst ensures that her part is not a hole in the screen. With her particular cross of intensity and impassivity, she's the least like a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale sufferer of any of von Trier's heroines—and the most like an imprisoned woman forcing her way out. The desperation Justine feels is tangible. She tries to go along with social rituals that disgust her. You don't squirm at her; you squirm with her.

In Melancholia's second part, the estate has been cleared of guests and staff. The two sisters try their best to function as the inevitable starts to occur. And there is the consolation—unusual in von Trier—of a child, Justine's nephew (Cameron Spurr).

Melancholia only sounds like a Scandinavian bummer. Made by a man who suffered through a major depression, the film communicates what it feels like to have the weight of the world crushing you. Its cosmic qualities harmonize with Terrence Malick's views of the beginning and the end of Earth; Melancholia might be von Trier's Stump of Death to Malick's Tree of Life.

Melancholia makes poetic sense if not sense as science fiction. The official story is that the planet will make a pass by and maybe suck a little atmosphere. It'll be pretty. Justine Googles the topic of planet Melancholia hitting earth; this worrisome possibility has only scored a couple of million hits. And von Trier almost petulantly snatches away the chance of ultimate hope; God, or life, doesn't figure in this scheme.

Does von Trier feel life itself is evil? That seemed to be the idea in Antichrist. And yet Melancholia itself is much easier to take seriously because of its clarity and stillness, and because of Dunst's wistful, frightening acting. Von Trier is probably a madman, but every madman has at least one lucid argument in him.


R; 136 min.

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