Oh, Lars Von Trier. If your films weren’t so consistently awful, you’d be my hero. However, I have yet to see a film from that man that I didn’t hate. By far the most pretentious filmmaker working today, he is great at cultivating positive reviews from equally pretentious critics that see something that just simply isn’t there.
Take his latest film, Melancholia. Set around the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) at her sister Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) country manor, the film revolves around the relationship of the two sisters, and their mutual fears about the world around them, and each other. Many will claim that those who don’t like Von Trier’s films simply don’t understand them, but I think it’s exactly the opposite. Those who actually understand them realize that they’re pretentious trash. The first half of the film focuses on the marriage between Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), a couple with obvious problems that are apparent at the beginning of the reception party.
Alexander Skarsgard shows a bit of his acting chops as the defeated but affable Michael, and his brother Stellan Skarsgard shows up in a small but pivotal role as Justine’s asshole boss. He’s great as the overbearing boss, but when is he anything less? Oh yeah, Mamma Mia! although it was funny to watch him dance. Justine begins a breakdown in the first half of the film, labeled by Von Trier as her chapter. The cinematography is meant to disorient but it’s so filled with Cops–on crack verite cinematography, and especially the hard, jump cut editing does more than its intended effect, and is so overbearing to the final product that it’s hard to watch. I suppose this is Von Trier’s intention, but it’s cheap trickery to make a supposedly grand point. As Justine melts down, Michael is left to sulk, John (Keifer Sutherland) is left to worry the cost of it all, as Udo Kier walks around quietly as the wedding planner. John Hurt is the standout of these great actors playing small roles, as Justine’s father, one of the many inspirations for Justine’s ultimate sadness.
Many reviews of this film have said it’s about depression, but I disagree. It’s about the general unhappiness of all people, and the individual experiences of sad and angry people, with Justine as a focus point. This becomes clear in the second half of the film, where Astronomy expert John explains that Melancholia, a new planet with its own orbit, will pass Earth, just as it passed all of Earth’s neighboring planets. This second half of the film is Claire’s chapter, with about the same runtime. Claire’s unhappiness is focused outwardly, her fear rises quickly as Justine’s unhappiness affects her physically. John has accepted his fate, but he neglects to tell his wife for fear of what she might do with the truth.
As Claire and Justine come to face a possible apocalypse together, they can never come to terms with their lives. The biggest problem with all of this is the film runs nearly 2 hours 15 minutes. Von Trier’s obsession with the form of making films gets in the way of his thin narrative, which would have been better told in a short film. His experimentation with the way film is shot and cut, slow-mo is used for no real reason, I’m sure in Von Trier’s mind, he had some magnificent plans as to what it all meant, but he didn’t bother to make sure that fit all the really long scenes that make a minor plot point and then meander in a field for 10 minutes. Stretching a minimal plot can sometimes work, here the plot gets lost among these scenes, ultimately making them truly pointless.
I understand the point Von Trier is making about his use of the cinematic medium to tell such a personal story, the problem becomes I just don’t care. So much effort went into making sure those scenes were that long, meaning there could never be a 90 minute cut of this film, which would probably be a lot better. There is at times beautiful slow-mo photography, and hillside helicopter shots, but the handheld verite style imposing itself so hard on the viewer is not distracting in a visual sense, it becomes distracting in a plot sense, you begin to ask “Does this film have so little to say he had to resort to this style?” Von Trier is a showman, of course, his greatest act being to rile up the foreign press with his comments about Hitler during the press junkets at Cannes for this film, but I really now believe that was all to take focus away from how distractingly bad this film really is.