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Cannes Review: ‘Melancholia,’ Baby

Happy endings, insists master provocateur Lars von Trier, have no point in our myths and our movies

Searching for answers, waiting for miracles – these seem to be the themes of many of the best films so far to play here at the Cannes Film Festival. And Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" is certainly one of the best. 

You still won’t find any answers to life’s biggest questions here: This is a film about the end of the world, or it’s a film about the end of a family, a marriage, stability or sanity. Interpret it as you will.

Also read: Cannes: Lars von Trier Jokes About Nazis, Apologizes

Kirsten DunstThe plot is broken down in two distinct sections. The first is called "Justine," and is about Kirsten Dunst’s marriage to Alexander Skarsgard. We enter their world after the wedding; as the guests begin to celebrate the union, it becomes clear that something is wrong.  The mother of the bride (Charlotte Rampling) can’t bring herself to say anything nice. No one seems happy for the young marrieds except Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who has arranged everything perfectly – even the cutting of the cake is timed to the minute.

But the bride’s depression, or melancholia, starts to topple all of the best-laid plans. Still, the film is not as morose as von Trier's "Breaking the Waves," leavened with humor and by the supporting turns by Rampling, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt and Udo Kier as the wedding planner.

The second part is called "Claire," and takes place more from Gainsbourg’s point of view. And here, supernatural elements surge as a giant planet of sorts, called Melancholia, makes its way towards earth. What it’s doing to the geography, the weather, the horses and the people remain a mystery. There is a definite force, and it’s far beyond anyone’s ability to control. 

The way this plays out shouldn't be spoiled with more detail, so we’ll leave it at that. The bottom line, though, is that when things finally do come to an end it’s most definitely with a bang, not a whimper.

In "Melancholia," templates for happy endings are upended. Von Trier seems to be saying, quite emphatically, that happy endings have no business being in our myths, movies and other comforting fictions because they do not exist in real life. It is more likely tragedies large and small will ensue, one after the other, with happiness coming in bursts here and there.

This fatalist approach is nothing new, of course – not in von Trier’s work, and not in many of the films at Cannes, except for the notable exceptions which deliver a healthy dose of pleasure ("The Artist," "Le Havre"). For those of us who do tend to take a dark view of things, this movie simply nods its head in our direction:  See? It all kind of sucks, doesn’t it?

Von Trier’s outlook, though, may give people pause, as they begin to wonder, what is the point of this movie?  There might not be any point, except that it’s compelling to watch up until the very last burst of genius by a director who seems to enjoy the irritants he slips between our toes.

There are shots in this film that are so breathtaking that still frames could work as stand-alone art. While this is true of many great films, of course, it is especially true with this one. In one particularly memorable shot, Kirsten Dunst is laid out naked in the blue moonlight of the approaching object, her cheekbones, perfect breasts and hip bones all catching the ethereal light as her sister Claire gazes upon her.

Claire is the practical one: the planner, the wife, the mother. Her life is orderly. Her sister Justine’s is anything but. Justine is falling apart, living a life of apparent chaos; she can’t seem to land anywhere.  She is the wild, out-of-control planet off its orbit, where Claire is the stable one, staying where’s supposed to, keeping the solar system running smoothly in counterbalance.

As in "Tree of Life," you sense you are dealing with character archetypes here, not real people.  As women, Claire and Justine seem to represent opposing pulses of nature that drive the wildness and the chaos.  The men are always wanting to capture heir magic in little bottles, to tame those forces, but are inevitably undone by their spirit, weak in the face of their energy, and unmatched by their power.

Kirsten Dunst shines in the role of Justine.  Von Trier, with his hand-held camera, is always shooting her from below. We follow her nubile frame, with its long, thin legs, until we rest on her face and find the turmoil.  She looks as though she’s aged 10 years from the inner pain, and she doesn’t ever release that tension. Dunst has never really been sewn up this tightly.

The churning turmoil in the film is undercut by brief moments of levity.  They bubble up from of the characters suddenly and unexpectedly, the same way they do from the writer/director himself, who said in the press conference, “I'd like to talk about my next film, which Kirsten insisted was a porn film. We made this really nice beaver shot.”

Either way, there seems to be a lot of talk about the end of the world lately. Hysterics assumes that it will come suddenly, but true fatalists know that we’ll never get that lucky. Life drags on and on. So we must take our cue ultimately from Samuel Beckett: “I cannot go on. I’ll go on.”