A movie that’s taken something of a mauling from certain critics. “Narcissistic, humourless” – The Observer. “Absurd… staggeringly tiresome and facetious” – The Guardian. Obviously I’m cherry-picking here, but they’re words that would hardly look enticing on the promotional blurb.
And yes, this is a flawed film. A film whose pretentiousness arrives pre-planned, and whose execution is strangely devoid of empathy. It’s a wee bit flaccid in places, pushing the duration towards the over-long, whilst the macro element of the storyline – rogue planet pops round to say hello – is seriously short on scientific integrity.
And yet, and yet… if art is all about the acknowledgement of imperfection, something its most successful proponents know how to exploit, then Lars von Trier has created a film that’s resplendent in spite of – or even because of – its flaws. This is cinema as something breathtaking, as haunting as it is highly articulate.
It’s tempting to suggest that much of the criticism is demonstrative of the animosity von Trier attracts. Like Michael Haneke, he’s a director who revels in triggering discomfort, of using the audience’s preconceptions against them – as with all agents provocateur, the scope for detraction is pre-ordained (and that’s without von Trier’s habit of saying extremely dumb and offensive things in public). Even the criticism of a pending apocalypse let down by inauthenticity is misplaced. Von Trier hasn’t set out with sci-fi intentions in mind; rather, this is a dense film that concerns itself with the equilibrium – the skew, the fluctuation – that underpins relationship. As such, the possible end of the world scenario acts as a fulcrum around which the mechanics of interaction pivot. It’s this annihilation-as-backdrop that implies any strain upon plausibility to be irrelevant. It adds mood and texture, but to suggest that this is the focus of the narrative is folly.
Melancholia is a film in two chapters, from two perspectives. The first – Justine, centred upon a wedding celebration of increasing and arch disfunctionality – intelligently explores the dynamics of clinical depression. The second – Claire – is different in tone, focusing upon the subtle shiftings of sibling interaction as the allegorical planet Melancholia grows corporeal. There are traces of von Trier’s Dogme 95 heritage in all of this, with the wedding chapter in particular reminiscent of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen, but that’s only one element of the film; that it stands out so prominently from the ambient cinematic white noise is due to several wonderfully-executed components. Visually it is utterly compelling, the setting (Tjolöholm Castle in southern Sweden) exotic and baroque, the cinematography startling. The score utilizes a sole piece of music (a trick repeated from von Trier’s challenging Antichrist), in this instance Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde, which adds to proceedings a sheen of unsettling, ethereal menace. The acting is sharp and nuanced, with Kirsten Dunst in particular worthy of all recent praise.
But there’s one other element, an astonishing few minutes or so that’s one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever witnessed in a cinema. A preface of sorts, a series of slow-motion tableaux juxtaposing scenes from the narrative with images of planetary synchronicity. Not only is this a clever (if unorthodox) trick, betraying the film’s heavenly climax in order to focus attention upon interplay of character later in the film, but it’s a montage that’s simply jaw-dropping in its beauty. The approach is that of the living photograph, computer-engineered to fuck but no less for being so. Some of these images contain obvious artistic references, but even the appropriation of Millais’ Ophelia doesn’t arrived as clichéd.
So yeah, a complicated film. An unsettling film, highly imperfect. But it’s also a beautiful film, moving, specifically visual. The type of movie I’ll need to watch again, just to ensure I’ve taken everything in.
Richard Wagner / Prelude To Tristan und Isolde