Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia: Homage Without Artistry

Posted by @ 2:33 pm on February 2nd, 2012

Not this time.

In the opening extreme slow-motion shots (the only appetizing thing in the Melancholia, though these brief scenes seem to be leftovers of his style in Antichrist), Lars Von Trier pays homage to no less than four masters: Ingmar Bergman (the close-up of Kirsten Dunst), Alan Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (the giant hedge garden, with tree shadows this time), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (the slow planetary movements to classical music), all of Andrei Tarkovsky, but specifically Solaris (the Breughel painting) and The Mirror (objects falling in slow-motion, a fire seen through a window)the end of the world scenario while people bob and weave around an opulent country house is right out of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. Von Trier’s whole opening sequence mirrors the opening to his Antichrist (using Handel’s music instead of Wagner) which scintillatingly displayed intercourse and the death of a child. One can only hope that Von Trier will go beyond homage and create something compelling, but it is not to be.

What follows is an empty work. Whereas Von Trier’s brand of nihilism has worked before (Dogville and The Five Obstructions are last decade’s best examples), here the brisk “fuck you’s” of the mother of the bride at the wedding have no resonance, nor do the bloviating comments of the boss of the bride. His asking her to come up with a tag-line for an ad displaying naked women during her wedding (she doesn’t) is quite ludicrous as is the entire set-up with a “mysterious” man he hires to follow her around for a while in order to get the tag-line. If this is a critique of America (and the film is explicitly set in America) it is shallow, crude, unconvincing, and not even worthy of our semi-spineless country.

The sloppy hand-held camera work Von Trier has employed before to great effect (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark) is only off-putting here because what the camera films is Von Trier’s own hackneyed solipsism, which has mostly successfully been fought by his being in touch with his unconscious (a place of no ego and a place where I’d argue his best scenarios and images come from), until now. It feels like Von Trier’s conception of the film was inhibited by the subject matter—his thinking that the end of the world might be compelling enough to carry a film is a grave misjudgment. It’s fine to have depressive characters (many of the most compelling in movies and books are) but they have to be artful and interesting in their melancholy (see Bergman and John Hawkes). If a character can’t seem to communicate why he or she is depressed to other characters (Dunst’s attempts to her parents consist of “I have to talk to you,” and to her husband “I need some time”) or the audience through facial expression and if a director can’t create a compelling mise-en-scene to swaddle this, the audience loses. In Persona, Bergman created a character (the actress played by Liv Ullman) who utters one word in the entire film, yet Bergman’s cinematography, editing, sound, and Ullman’s amazing face generate one of the most compelling studies of melancholy.

In Antichrist, the two main characters were given enough space (in terms of images and the screenplay*) to counter their mordant and morbid tendencies. The images worked with the actors to create something dynamic, whereas in Melancholia, because Von Trier has nothing to say (being afraid of the end of the world qualifies as that—the question “Why is one afraid of the end of the world?” is not asked), neither do the characters and by extension, the actors, who are often wooden and don’t seem to know why they are acting the way they are, specifically newcomers to the Von Trier stable, Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland.

Late in the film the Charlotte Gainsbourg character asks her now unwed sister to have a glass of wine on their veranda before the end of the world. Dunst simply answers that she thinks her idea is a piece of shit and walks away. The Gainsbourg character retorts that she hates her sister. This of course would be at least a little powerful if one cared about the characters, but the film’s vapidness precludes that and it makes any attempt at human feeling false, with Von Trier coming off like a floundering, churlish auteur who needs to again make art that communicates, and pays homage to, his own psychosis.**

**The news that Melancholia has won the most prestigious US critical prize (in my opinion), Best Film from the National Society of Film Critics, only sours this bitter film experience. Melancholia joins past winners like Blow-Up, Persona, Blue Velvet, as well as Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves

GREG GERKE’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Denver QuarterlyQuarterly West, Mississippi Review, Rain Taxi, Brooklyn Rail, The Review of Contemporary Fiction and others. There’s Something Wrong with Sven, a book of short fiction has been published by Blaze Vox Books.

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