I’ve been a follower of the Danish director since his Dogme 95 days and despite his being “very sarcastic and very rude….very Danish” (Lars’s own words!), my adoration of his work only continues to grow. I put off seeing Melancholia until a few days ago because Dunst was the lead. I should’ve known better. von Trier would never let a 20-something (30 this year) American Hollywood sweetheart still his spotlight.
Lars von Trier is the beginning and the end of all his films. He writes his own screenplays and even remotely controls the camera. In many ways his actor is another piece of equipment, the same way that Marlene Dietrich was Josef von Sternberg’s “marionette,” his “spot of color.” Most of Lars’s films begin with a female protagonist standing in front of a downward spiral and deliberately jumping into it. The actress playing her is set amidst a cast of highly talented individuals portraying moderately to seriously dysfunctional characters.
Melancholia is the story of two sisters Justine and Claire (Dunst and Cannes Award winner Charlotte Gainsbourg) symbolized by two planets (Earth and the wayward celestial body, Melancholia) and the events leading up to possible collision. Set on the night of Justine’s wedding celebration, it is an emotional seesaw. Kiefer Sutherland plays Claire’s resiliently flawed husband while eye-buffet Alexander Skarsgård plays the simple groom trying anything in his limited imagination to help his manically depressive beloved. Small, intensely memorable cameos are given by brilliant Brit John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Papa Skarsgård, and the human leif motif, Udo Kier. But if Lars is the King of the show, the Queen is Gainsbourg. Her man-sized physically is tempered by a British accent and rolling voice, smooth as honey. She is Patti Smith on film, a Beat Punk actress. Gainsbourg is classy and sophisticated one moment, messy and boyish the next. It is her authentic performance which earns her the title of modern Pre-Raphaelite. I can watch that woman nap, run, drink coffee, and make pancakes all day long.
Dunst is what I call an LvTD, a Lars von Trier device. Like von Sternberg, von Trier’s films are often faux-naturalistic illustrations of the characters in his mind. He shoots in a grueling style with little breaks for the actors, continuing to manipulate them throughout the scene and editing out the directions in post (resulting in many jumpcuts). He aims a wrecking ball at the actor, eventually breaking the ego down into raw materials to be recycled. The less developed the actor and the smaller her experiential memory, the easier she is to manipulate. He has many other LvTDs – Bryce Dallas Howard (zzZZzz) supported by Danny Glover, Willem Defoe in Manderlay; Björk (a sleeper hit-woman whom Lars drove halfway to the looney bin during shooting) supported by Peter Stormare, Catherine Deneuve, etc. He has a knack for taking non-actors and making them work for him.
On a non-Kirsten note, I’m glad to see von Trier moving comfortably from pure realism to SFX and back again. The astrological phenomenon was naturalistic and minimal, blending with the isolated locale of Västra Götaland, Sweden. Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde underscores lonely vistas, disintegrating family and social roles. The depiction of chronic depression in Justine’s character was genuine (I recall all the times I’ve stood people up due to my own personal battle with depression and fatigue). Lars also suffers from chronic depression.
Synchronicity…the film was released on 11/11/11. The primary reason I gave this film a chance was an encounter with a friend, a student of C.G. Jung and his theory of synchronicity [which was an answer on Jeopardy two nights ago] who’d kept seeing 111111111…..It’s a phenomenon that’s been around for a long time, but it seems to be exponentially growing in occurrence. The people I know experiencing this phenomenon are also those who suspect imminent doom. We, like Justine, welcome death while others around us struggle to fight it.