November 13, 2011
Lars von Trier is psyched for the end of the world
After sitting through that interminable implement of character/audience torture that is Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, I thought I swore off his movies for good. They're so disturbing and sadistic they make my stomach hurt, and he seems to equate bad lighting, awkward camera angles, and no score with cinematic virtue.
But I broke down and watched 2009's Antichrist on streaming video--all those reports of psychosexual anguish, talking animals, and genital mutilation made it sound like Lars von Trier had actually out-Lars von Trier'ed himself. I still can't figure out if that movie is pro-woman and anti-misogynist, or anti-woman and anti-misogynist, or anti-humanity. Whatever it is, it's ridiculously graphic, and it's really something to behold. I can't tell if it's good or not.
Anyway, Melancholia is better in pretty much every way. When von Trier decides to use some decent production values, he can make one gorgeous movie. The opening scenes that show the end of the world are spectacularly beautiful, sort of an apocalyptic bookend to Terrence Malick's dawn of the universe sequence from The Tree of Life earlier this year. And that soundtrack! (Here's a video with some of it.) The movie is available on demand, but if you watch it at home, be sure to use the good speakers and turn the stereo up really loud: Wagner works best at maximum volume.
Von Trier says he made the movie as a reflection on a period of severe depression, as represented by sad bride Kirsten Dunst. She's really good. As grimly fascinating as it is to watch her depression destroy her reception, career, relationship with her family, and brand-new marriage, all in the space of a few hours, the cooler part is the second half of the movie, when rogue planet Melancholia threatens to destroy Earth and kill everyone in the world. Kirsten Dunst handles impending doom with impressive calm, while everyone around her is losing their minds. If you already believe that life sucks and the whole world is total bullshit, who cares if the end is nigh?
The movie is one big vindication of being incredibly depressed. There's a righteousness in depression: as long as the end of the world is at hand, it's actually the correct state of mind. It reminded me of Take Shelter, another movie that seems to argue that being mentally ill, in that case delusional and paranoid, is a pretty reasonable way to be.
Kiefer plays a rational, scientific, resolutely non-depressed brother-in-law (a lot like Willem Dafoe's character in Antichrist), and things don't go so hot for him. One thing we learn about Lars von Trier is that he can't stand rational people who wish their depressed family members would just cheer up already.
Another thing Lars von Trier hates: big elaborate weddings. Kirsten Dunst's total lack of interest in her own hugely expensive wedding is a little gleeful and rebellious, and in a few scenes he makes it look perversely fun to be depressed, because then you can bail on your wedding and drive off in a golf cart with your poofy dress spilling out the sides and not care. Then when the end of the world comes, you can watch in wonder as cool electrical filaments start twisting out of your fingertips before the planet explodes in fiery obliteration.
It makes for a good movie, but I doubt von Trier's therapist would say this counts as a breakthrough.
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