MIFF 2011: Melancholia

Music is blaring, drinks are fizzing and the indifferent hum of conversation surrounds me. It's been less than 30 minutes since I saw Lars Von Trier's latest depression opus, MELANCHOLIA and I'm still unsure of my response. Earlier this festival I labelled Sion Sono's COLD FISH the most misanthropic film I had ever seen. I'm not so sure about that statement anymore. As I look around right now, watching various social butterflies flitting about, I am filled with a sense of profound despair. MELANCHOLIA is imbibed with such a hopeless world-view that I cannot help but be overcome by a sense of depressive angst. Surrounded by these simple people who are drinking, making inane, pointless conversation I am struck with the thought, “Who cares?”. If the world really did end right now would any of this really matter? Does it matter at all what we do? Why do we even bother being 'good' people? Thanks Lars, you win this round...
MELANCHOLIA is truly the apex of Von Trier's career. His existential misanthropy has never been better conveyed that it has here. As Kirsten Dunst says in one of the film's penultimate moments, “The world is shit. Would anyone grieve if it was gone?”. Von Triers answer clearly is, 'No!'.
While the film is ostensibly about depression, there is something truly elative in watching MELANCHOLIA. Something liberating that sits between the sprockets and hovers just out of frame. Something that defines the triumphant core of existential thought. With MELANCHOLIA one feels that Von Trier finally has come out the other side of his depression, a man (and filmmaker) born anew. All it took was the literal destruction of the planet and all humanity upon it.
I have long had a contentious relationship with Von Trier films, frequently finding him to be a vacuous, childish provocateur. With MELANCHOLIA he has made his most literal, most straightforward and least 'controversial' film in years. The metaphor at work here is clear and defiantly unsubtle too. From an individual and subjective perspective, one's depression literally 'is' the end of the world.
Von Trier cleverly gives us the money shot right at the beginning with a stylised prologue - similar to what he did with ANTI-CHRIST – that culminates in the grand image of a giant planet crashing into our small Earth. We then are given a drastically bifurcated film with the first part following Kirsten Dunst's Justine through her wedding reception. We are immediately allied with Justine's depressive, disassociated state through the privileged knowledge that the world is about to end. Nothing matters, these pretentious rituals are nothing more than redundant human trivialities, much like the drinking drones that surround me right now.
The second half of the film more literally deals with the onset of the end of the world as the blatantly named planet, MELANCHOLIA, barrels down on our Earth. At this stage Justine is near-comatose with depression and the film shifts to her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, one of the few Von Trier actresses who was willing to work with him on consecutive films), who struggles to deal with Justine, her stoic husband (a really great turn from Keifer Sutherland) and their innocent child.
This second half will be the most divisive part of the film as Von Trier cheekily takes his time drawing the inevitable out and even dropping a little fake-out in the midst.
Cumulatively MELANCHOLIA is an ecstatically depressive experience reaching a genuinely impressive crescendo before leaving you with a devastating final shot. Von Trier exorcises his demons by destroying the world and while for some that moment won't come fast enough, I for one found MELANCHOLIA to be his most complete, mature and restrained film yet. I still hate most of his prior work but now live in hope that this signals a new stage for a clearly talented filmmaker.
MELANCHOLIA is the spiritual antithesis to Malick's TREE OF LIFE, a rich comment on humanities collective modern day existential depression, and ultimately just a brilliant piece of filmmaking. Damn you Lars. You made me hate people just a little bit more and you made me actually like one of your films. I honestly didn't see either of those things coming.