The grand George Cukor, after such works as The Women, Camille, and Sylvia Scarlett were released, was branded a "women's director." There's no question he knew how to make his female leads shimmer as if they were residing in the firmament and not just on the screen. That's one rumored reason why he was released from Gone with the Wind. Apparently, Clark Gable was afraid he might be overshadowed by his female lead if Cukor did the helming.
Gable would no doubt have had a similar jitteriness with Lars von Trier, who after Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Antichrist, has merited the moniker of "depressed women's director." No one else since Ingmar Bergman and Chantal Akerman has so consistently and illustriously particularized the disintegration of females stuck in an interminable, patriarchal dystopia.
Sounds glum? Have no fear. Watching the despondent despond is not a joyless experience when a master is in control, and Von Trier is a visual genius who exhilarates those willing to envelop themselves in his carefully crafted images. And Melancholia, if nothing else, is meticulously conceived.
The film is divided two into two sections, three if you count the nearly hallucinogenic opening montage that gives Terrence Malick's Tree of Life a run for its money.
Part One, entitled "Justine," chronicles the Titanic-like nuptial celebrations of the picture-perfect Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). Arriving over two hours late for their own party at the country estate of Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), the couple appear truly in love and ready to frolic.
But as the toasts are made, the cracks begin to appear. Dexter (John Hurt), Justine's self-centered dad, who's surrounded by his mistresses, all named Betty, starts chatting bitingly about his ex-wife Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), who stands up and denounces marriages: "Enjoy it while you can." Quickly, Justine, who works in advertising, by the way, starts crumbling and loses control of her manic depression. In need of a breather, she leaves the party, crouches, and pees on a nearby 18-hole golf course in her wedding gown. Soon after, she takes a bath, has a liaison with a stranger, and returns to the festivities to dance her little head off. Any bets on whether the marriage will last the night?
Part Two, which is christened "Claire," occurs in the future. Claire, John, and their young son are awaiting a visit from the clinically lethargic Justine. But now Claire, who's always been the sane foundation of her side of the family, is experiencing mounting agitation. The cause is nothing psychological though. It seems a planet, Melancholia, which has been hiding behind the sun all these centuries, is on a pathway to crash into Earth. John swears it won't happen, but....
So, internal woe or external desolation; are those the two options for modern man?
The novelist Anatole France avowed, "All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another."
Von Trier, with his brilliantly acted, gloriously shot entertainment, seems to be arguing that there is no other life to enter. If so, get out the antidepressants and the cabernet. - Brandon Judell
Melancholiais a true highlight of the current New York Film Festival.
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Gay Identity in Literature" and "The Arts in New York City" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).