Initially, this small piece was meant to be part of my next “Viewing Diary” entry, but because that may be a little far off in the future I couldn’t resist from posting this sooner rather than later (which is fitting with its reactionary nature)
My reaction to Lars von Trier’s latest film is ambiguous to say the least. To say whether I like or dislike it seems moot and in all honesty I wouldn’t be able to make such a statement with any certainty. Perhaps it is complimentary to the film to speak of my complex reaction to it. If I stand at a distance from Melancholia and assess its aims, successes and affect (and specifically, the effect it had on me personally), it could begin to sound like I am discussing von Trier’s best film, but the difficulty lies in gauging to what degree the film’s successes and affect constitute a good or even great film. So yes, Melancholia is successful but wholly unpleasant, and it is this very unpleasantness that marks its achievement. I can’t recall a more miserable viewing experience, aside from watching A Clockwork Orange a few years back while I was home sick and getting increasingly ill as the film went on. I did feel ill during Melancholia, but this time I didn’t have a bug to blame but instead the palpable misery of von Trier’s and Dunst/”Justine”‘s universe. The film is an extreme suicide fantasy from a depressive mind that equates fatalistic cynicism with being realistic and accepting the true way of things, in other words the film and its protagonist express a sublime pessimism and presents it as something to embrace. Contributing in no small way to this is Dunst’s drained expression, her increasingly erratic mood swings, and her cold physical presence, all of which compose one of the most impressive performances von Trier has ever elicited.
Melancholia is a clear aesthetic companion to Antichrist. Von Trier has retained the chalkboard title, the extreme slow-mo opening, a hyper-hyperbolic climax, and with “raw” human drama in between. I prefer the black and white opening of Antichrist and its manic psychosexualism (rendered beautifully to morally grey complexity) but that film’s two-character drama was almost intolerable: its characters were annoyingly sarcastic/ironic mouthpieces for von Trier’s sentiments on therapy and whatever else. For me, the highlights of Antichrist were the stillborn deer, the talking fox, the clitoridectomy (don’t judge me), and all the depraved images that vividly evoked the depth of von Trier’s anxieties. I thought von Trier sounded buffoonish on the film’s commentary track when he blamed the stilted drama on his cinematographer (who is also on the commentary) for not going far enough with shaking the camera around to make it more “real”, but von Trier switched cinematographers and the new and improved extra shaky camera work actually pays off in Melancholia. It also helps that the dialogue isn’t just veiled, tongue-in-cheek nonsense (for the most part) and the characters aren’t just banal caricatures (the exception proves the rule, though…). However, in spite of all these reasons I can’t even confidently label Melancholia the better film. I had trouble sleeping after watching it, but is that a mark of its genius or just evidence that, quality filmmaking or not, von Trier can get under one’s skin?
I would sooner return to the dull drama and fanatic grotesquery of Antichrist, or the brutality inflicted on Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, or the smug anti-smugness of The Boss of it All, or the immorally moral tale of Dogville (my favourite of his works), or even its lesser sequel before returning to Melancholia. This isn’t a critical judgment. Melancholia is Lars von Trier’s purest expression. It stands perfect in its misery. Its flaws, qualities, beauty and ugliness lie in the eye of the beholder.