Despite swearing off being a film critic, going to a film festival brings it right back out of me. And since I'm spending pretty much all week at FilmColumbia, you'll forgive me a few critical indulgences.
Lars Von Trier is a provocateur, plain and simple. And he is very good at it. I have a strong reaction to every film of his that I see, mostly negative. Melancholia is a bit tougher to place than his previous work but it still managed to wind me up. The movie starts with a long section of surreal slow motion shots, mostly featuring Kirsten Dunst staring moodily into the camera while something bizarre occurs, like birds falling from the sky or electricity rising from her fingers. And then the segment concludes with an impressive shot of a rogue planet slamming into the Earth and destroying it. Then the movie backs up and starts over at the wedding of Justine (Dunst).
I found this part of the movie fairly maddening. It has moments of great charm and great humor. But it also has moments of pure acid rancor and self-destructive behavior. By the end of the wedding, I know with great certainty that Justine is someone I don't want to spend time with. Clearly she's suffering great mental pain, but because the style of the film is to jump into the middle of Justine's story, I couldn't find a place to get a grip on her. Similarly, her family is tough to figure out and I needed more than half the movie to make sense of them. This isn't me complaining about not being able to sympathize with the characters. I don't need that. I don't even need to like them. I do need to find a way to get a handle on them though. Something I can sink my teeth in, a point to build from. I've read a few reviews of the movie and from them I learn that Von Trier has suffered from severe depression and that fueled his previous film Antichrist and this one. With that in mind, Justine starts to make a lot more sense to me. Without it, I spent much of the movie wondering what the hell was wrong with her. Her character was opaque to me.
The second half of the movie switches the focus to Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). This part worked a lot better for me but at the same time I found it much less engaging. Justine was intriguing, even if I couldn't understand her while Claire was much easier to understand and subsequently less interesting. This section has a lot more to do with the rogue planet and has some interesting stuff about how people process disasters and the inevitability of death. But this is also where Von Trier started to get under my skin. There is an unpleasant nihilist streak running through it that I find it impossible to relate to. He's taking such a polar opposite to my own world view that he might as well just show a photo of himself flipping me off. Same effect. I'm going to avoid discussing this in detail, because you should discover it for yourself, but there is a scene that feels like Von Trier giving us his view of things that turned me off completely.
Von Trier knows exactly what he's doing here. This is a filmmaker in complete control of his medium and from a technical view, I can admire the hell out of that. I can and do disagree with some of his choices, most notably the handheld camera style, but I'm not putting his work down, merely voicing a difference in taste. What strikes me as most odd is that last night I watched Roland Emmerich's Anonymous, made entirely without world ending vfx, and tonight I watched Von Trier make prominent use of world ending vfx. The world has gone mad.