With this morning’s premiere of Lars von Trier’s stunning Melancholia, there may be a critics’ face-off of cosmic proportions brewing here at Cannes. Two years ago, von Trier arrived at the Festival armed to shock les bourgeoisie with Antichrist, a howling gyno-nightmare of a cinematic provocation born of the black depression into which the restlessly creative Danish trickster-filmmaker had admittedly sunk. In contrast, although Melancholia, by its very title, declares a mournful state of mind, the movie is, in fact, the work of a man whose slow emergence from personal crisis has resulted in a moving masterpiece, marked by an astonishing profundity of vision.
The title, by the way, refers to a celestial body as well as a state of mind: In von Trier’s galaxy, Melancholia is a planet that, scientific calculations confirm, is on a catastrophic collision course with Earth. As such, the impending doom fits perfectly with the mindset of Justine (an alabaster Kirsten Dunst, digging deep), a bride sinking deeper and deeper into her own terrible depression on the day of her sumptuous wedding party. (Her handsome, bewildered groom is played by True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgård.) Even her protective sister, Claire (Antichrist‘s Charlotte Gainsbourg, safely returned from Antichrist‘s harm/Cannes acting prize), can’t calm Justine’s mounting terror and foreboding. And Claire, of all people, has something bigger to worry about: Keeping a telescopic eye on the situation, she and her astronomer husband (Kiefer Sutherland) know that Melancholia is literally coming closer and threatening to destroy everything. Everything.
I’m not giving away a plot twist: von Trier provides a breathtaking prelude to the coming temporal and psychological apocalypse, set to the grand romanticism of Wagner’s famous “Prelude” from Tristan und Isolde. The lush music blends so completely with the swooning, dreamscape cinematography of Manuel Albert Claro (a galvanizing new member of the production team) that sight and sound truly melt into one. (Von Trier has said that Antonioni, Bergman, and Tarkovsky are among his influences.)
The result is a movie acutely attuned to feelings of despair that nevertheless leaves the viewer in a state of ecstasy. All this and Stellan Skarsgård, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, and Udo Kier in the cast, too.
Melancholia arrives two mornings after the premiere of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, offering von Trier’s meditation on The End in direct contrast to Malick’s meditation on The Beginning. And suddenly, the Cannes Film Festival is electric with competing critical passions. Is there room in the cosmos of ardent Tree of Life supporters to acknowledge the genius of von Trier? Having experienced the fresh, focused vision and the tormented humanity spilling forth from von Trier, do those same vociferous defenders think Malick’s screensaver-friendly imagery and emotionally distant style still pack as much punch?
I hitch my critic’s stars to LVT.