Despite a Cannes premiere overshadowed by controversy, director Lars Von Trier has returned with arguably his finest film.
It explores the relationship between two sisters at a large country house: Justine (Kirsten Dunst), recently married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who along with her husband (Kiefer Sutherland), has organised the wedding and reception.
Split into two parts, the first involves an extravagant wedding reception, filled with misery; whilst the second focuses on the two sisters as they stay in the same location, as a large blue planet called Melancholia threatens to collide with the earth.
Opening with a stunning slow-motion overture, set to Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, it blends intimate drama with grand, apocalyptic disaster and the end result is a stylish and – unusually for Von Trier – heartfelt film.
In the past the director’s sneaky, contrarian could be both a blessing and a curse, making his films boldly inventive, exasperating, or sometimes both.
His last film Antichrist (2009) displayed some of his undoubted gifts as a director before collapsing into a ludicrous orgy of violence and hysteria, which scandalised the audiences at its world premiere in Cannes.
After the climactic scene of the film – which was one of those genuine ‘is Von-Trier-taking-the-piss?’ endings – a bizarre dedication appeared to Andrei Tarkovsky.
Why? I’m not exactly sure, other than the Danish director seems like a big fan.
Here he seems to be channelling two very different films: Solaris (1972), with its exploration of a ‘living’ planet affecting human emotions, and The Celebration (1998), Thomas Vinterberg’s hellish depiction of a family gathering, which still stands as the highpoint of the Dogme movement Von Trier helped create.
But Melancholia has its own unique charms and manages to capture the Dane at his very best – he never takes the material too seriously, but also isn’t afraid to indulge in big, bold strokes.
The wedding section is filmed with his puckish sense of humour that often drives his detractors crazy: not only do the happy couple struggle to even reach the party in their limousine, but when they get there, discover that no-one is really happy anyway.
Opting for a handheld shooting style, after the slow-motion imagery at the beginning, the director has a lot of fun with the tacky misery of the event: the meaningless counting of beans, unhappy relationships and fruitless driving around in golf carts create a tangible atmosphere.
Rarely has despair been so joyously captured on screen.
But there is something more here than Von Trier just having a cheap dig at the shallow pretensions of the rich: he is making a wider point about human emotions, our capacity for self-delusion and the wisdom of despair.
If we are going to die and life is meaningless anyway, surely it is the natural condition?
As the second half of the film progresses, Christine appears to grow stronger as her misery gives way to a higher wisdom about her situation and that of the planet.
This could have been what he was aiming for in Antichrist, in which nature was a chaotic force that ‘reigned’ over the humans (we know this because a fox told us).
But here he seems a little more focused as wider cosmic forces in the shape of a rogue planet come to affect the central characters – but instead of shrill hysteria and genital mutilation we get a richer reflection on life and existence.
Both films could be seen as a therapy double-bill for the director – who has talked about his battles with depression over the last few years – but with Melancholia he seems to be taking his foot off the accelerator and his work feels all the better for it.
Coming across as a darker, more subversive version of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (2008), it is a perfectly pitched antidote to the traditional ‘movie wedding’ (frequently a virus-like staple of US romantic comedies) and sprinkled with a pleasingly arch mood.
This is matched by some great locations and production design: the use of Tjolöholm Castle in Sweden is inspired, providing a visually interesting backdrop, with its immaculately tendered golf course, claustrophobic interiors and frequently stunning exteriors, which revolve around atmospheric night scenes of the ever encroaching blue planet.
Dunst gives a career-best performance, convincingly showing her character’s descent into depression and subsequent stoic acceptance of impending global doom, whilst Gainsbourg is equally strong as a more naïvely empathetic character.
Their chemistry as sisters is physically unlikely, but emotionally believable and as the film progresses they provide some of the best acting in a Von Trier film since Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves (1995).
Although he often gets criticised for torturing his female characters, he frequently manages to draw emotionally brave performances from them, unlike many directors working in the mainstream.
In the supporting cast, John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling have small but juicy roles as bickering parents whilst Kiefer Sutherland brings considerable depth to his delusional rich, husband who struggles to keep up the veneer that everything will be OK.
The film could be seen as an extended metaphor for the depressed artist (namely Von Trier himself), in that no-one really believes Justine when she is ill and her advertiser bosses are always asking what her next project might be.
That is one valid interpretation, but its hard not see the film as Von Trier pointing out the craziness of polite society (ironically the people who go to see his films) and how it is the seemingly unhinged who cope the best when truly bad things happen.
Given that there is no evolutionary reason for depression, an ailment which often leads to self-destruction, perhaps it is a painfully valuable reminder of our mortality?
Such heady ideas are expressed with considerable skill as Von Trier interchanges a rough and ready visual style, with some stunningly beautiful sequences, which include helicopter shots and slow-motion tableau.
It almost provides a snapshot of his own career, as the rough Dogme aesthetic of his earlier work blends with a lush beauty that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro assists with some stunning digital images throughout – this was one of the first films to shoot on Arri’s Alexa camera – whilst the visual effects of the encroaching planet supervised by Peter Hjorth evoke an appropriate sense of wonder and awe.
All this marks a highpoint in Von Trier’s career, which is all the more shame that he undid a lot of that hard work by making some foolishly ill-placed jokes at the launch of the film in Cannes.
He clearly wasn’t being serious when he jokingly called himself a Nazi, said he understood Hitler and made some inappropriate remarks about Susanne Bier, as well as ‘planning a hardcore porn movie’ with Dunst and Gainsbourg.
But given the particular sensitivities still felt in France about the Holocaust and the instantaneous nature of modern news, it was an ugly episode in which Von Trier’s bad-boy act came back to haunt him as he was banned from the festival.