“Melancholia” – Lars Von Trier

When NASA launched the first of its Voyager missions in 1977 they sent it into space with a vinyl record produced to give alien life an idea of what man was capable of in the 20th century. The music they chose stretched from Bach and Beethoven to Johnny B Goode, and offered a cross section of world music that ranged from Australia to Zaire. There was no need of course. If you want to demonstrate the depth of feeling and sheer visceral force that music is capable of generating and offer it up to the heavens as evidence for what life is capable of, there is only one piece of music you need ever conceivably consider. Wagner’s Tristan.

The music that Lars Von Trier drowns his latest offering Melancholia in, is quite the best thing about it. It’s drenched in the prelude to Tristan. And in fairness to Trier, he makes considerably better use of Wagner than Terrence Malick did in The New World, which the latter made before the similarly apocalyptic The Tree of Life (see below), both of which screened at Cannes last year. Trier though is an infinitely superior craftsman. And for the opening ten minutes or so, he treats us to the same dazzling technical brilliance that he gave us at the beginning of Antichrist in 2009, and throughout much of Europa in 1994 and Breaking The Waves in 1996.

As with Antichrist though, what follows is two hours of un-remitting tedium. This time around we get to spend them in the company of two neurotic women who have their own particular melt-downs, as once again Trier resorts to that twitchy, hand-held mode that was so invigorating in The Kingdom in 1994, but feels so tired nearly two decades on. The first half sees Kirsten Dunst gently implode at her own wedding, the second has her sister, Charlotte Gainsbourg slowly fall to pieces as the planet Melancholia hurtles inexorably into our own.

The problem is, the people who inhabit the world that Trier looks down on are all so thoroughly un-likable. He sees the world through the same misogynistic spectacles that his fellow Scandinavian Lukas Moodysson views them through. And although the guests at the wedding that Trier gives us are none of them quite as plainly unpleasant as the characters who inhabit, say, Lilya 4-Ever, neither is there any of the joy or mischief you get in Altman’s A Wedding.

Trier’s defence is both genuine and disingenuous. Whatever you might think about my attitude toward my characters, it’s nothing compared to the loathing I feel for myself. So all of his protagonists are female to give him the distance he needs to be able to vent what he sees as self-criticism. Hence the appalling treatment of all of his leading actresses. But you can’t excuse your treatment of others on the basis that you’re even harsher on yourself. That’s not a condition. That’s just wilful myopia.

As every parent knows, that’s just the way I am is not an explanation, it’s just an excuse. Ultimately, Trier really is the enfant terrible of Danish cinema, and little else beside. He’s a dazzlingly bright child, and the idea of expressing the state of melancholia imagistically, as a nearby planet hurtling headlong towards us really is a brilliant one. But he ruins it all by refusing to look up and around him to see anyone else in the room.

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