Cannes 2011: Melancholia



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No sooner had the furor over Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life died down to a kinder, gentler jet-engine roar (that faint boom you heard early Monday, by the way, was the sound of Twitter exploding) than another existential rumination on shuffling off this mortal coil was hurled into the festival's mix: Melancholia, Lars von Trier's art-house disaster movie about the end of the world. Finally, a subject that can match the dour auteur's own profound pessimism pound for pound! The press corps may have been primarily preoccupied about their write-up's potential titles prior to the film's 8:30am screening—think R.E.M. song titles and Francis Ford Coppola war movies—but once we all walked out dazed two hours later, all anyone seemed to be interested in was comparing/contrasting Von Trier's enter-the-void musing to Malick's epic affirmation. One wag has already begun repeatedly referring to this slow march to nothingness as "The Tree of Death."

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Cannes Film Festival

Indeed, the fact that two films touching on le grand mort are showing in competition here at Cannes is one cosmic coincidence, and it's easy to see the weird ying-yang conversation happening between the movies. Despite all the apocalyptic tidbits that pop up in Malick's latest, it's still takes an overwhelmingly positive view on this great experiment burped up by the universe: Grace can be achieved, we can grow as individuals and as a species, and all of your loved ones and dead pets are waiting for you in heaven when you die. Von Trier's vision of negation almost feels like a chuckling rebuke: No, this is what life is really like, a circus maximus of pain, anxiety and darkness that weighs you down until it's snatched from you by the indifference of fate.

It's a downer, surely, albeit a beautiful one whose opening salvo sets a museumworthy mood of nightmarishness. Slo-mo tableaus abound: Kirsten Dunst's depressed heroine, Justine, stares dead-eyed into the camera as birds suddenly drop out of the sky en masse around her. (Chaos rains.) Charlotte Gainsbourg runs across a golf course while clutching a child, her legs sinking deep into the muck with every step. A bride in her white wedding dress floats Ophelia-like down a black river. A courtyard is ominously lit up at night by what appears to be two moons.

From this prologue, we're dropped into the film's first chapter, a matrimonial farce in which the nuptials of Justine and her groom (Alexander Skarsgrd) are thwarted by bitchy parents, power-playing bosses, stressful relatives, inept limo drivers and the bride's own crippling bouts of melancholia. That last one is the real deal breaker, forcing Justine to abandon her own reception and driving her sister Claire (Gainsbourg) around the bend. As the whole affair devolves into a screwball melodrama of angst, we begin to see the extent of this illness and the toll it takes on everyone in the vicinity; Justine may be called "Auntie Steelbreaker" by her nephew, but she's a typically broken Von Trier heroine.

And that's just the warm-up for chapter two, when a giant planet named—prepare your groan—Melancholia is predicted to be heading within close proximity of Earth. Don't worry, says Claire's dickwad of a scientist spouse (Kiefer Sutherland): It's a "flyby." The minute his theory is disproved, and gosh, it sure does seem a little too close for comfort, the control-freak sister starts falling apart—and like Dr. Strangelove, the near-catatonic Justine suddenly springs into life once death draws near. This is where the movie turns into a showcase for the actresses, with Gainsbourg modulating panic and teary manicness with aplomb and Dunst working an eerie calmness. But it's truly Von Trier's film, from the baroque style he employs to the personal aspects of the protagonist's straight-outta-DSM-V symptoms. It may take a self-loathing egomaniac like this cinematic Dark Prince to turn his own well-documented depression into a such an all-encompassing metaphor (can you project onto anything bigger than the complete destruction of the world?). But it takes a warped, singular artist, and I emphasize that last word, to have the end go out not with a bang, but with some Wagner.

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