Cannes Film Festival: Lars von Trier's stunning 'Melancholia' -- the end of the world (and a challenge to 'The Tree of Life')


Image Credit: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

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.

Read more:
Cannes: The best at mid-fest, including ‘The Artist’
Terrence Malick’s ‘Tree of Life’ is part luminous evocation of boyhood, part cosmic woo-woo
Cannes: A new year, a new provocation from ‘Michael,’ the Pedophile Movie

Comments (44 total) Add your comment
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  • enchanting

    oscars in the cards anyone?

    • Nick T

      Von Trier deserves one. Im so jealous of critics. Tree of Life and Melancholia within days of one another. What a life.

    • bfd

      Not after his dazzling press conference.

  • lindsay

    Really glad to hear a great review; been looking forward to this. Unfortunately von Trier had to go on a weird tirade and pretty much dooms this film to oblivion right off the bat. Poor Kirsten Dunst.

  • GHB

    The fact that Von Trier just publicly admitted that he can “understand” Hitler, likes Albert Speer, and when discussing the matter, called Israel a “pain in the @ss”, does not bode well for him.

    • Celimene

      Von Trier gets off on offending the establishment. I wouldn’t put too much stock in it. I can’t speak for him, but from what I understand he was trying to poke fun at Susannae Bier’s brand of populist sentimentality. Didn’t quite work, but I don’t think he’s meant to be taken literally.

      • Celimene

        And I can’t wait to see this film. When Von Trier’s on, he’s magical. When he’s not, you get Antichrist.

      • rls3us

        …and even when it doesn’t quite work, as with Antichrist, it is still thought-provoking and infinitely more interesting than most of the crap that comes out of Hollywood. And Antichrist is worth watching for the Charlotte Gainsbourg performance alone.

      • hmmm

        try lookin at the entire interview. he also went on to say he is a nazi, and understand hitler

      • Celimene

        hmmm, I’m married to a Dane. Danes have an odd, very dark sense of humor. I think Von Trier was trying to be funny and a) wasn’t and b) whatever humor was in there didn’t translate for a lot of other people. He’s a brilliant director but a VERY strange man – I have several friends who work and have worked with him – and any of his quirks won’t stop me from seeing his films. I completely agree with rls3us – even when they don’t quite work, Von Trier’s films are fascinating.

  • Justin

    I’m dying to see both films!!

  • mia

    This movie looks magically. I am not a big fan of K. Dunst. But I will see this for sure.

    • KEVIN

      She is in the midst of a career resurrgence I believe. Her work in All Good Things is mezmerizing, she owns the first 3/4 of the movie. I was pretty shocked.

      • nana


  • asdf

    Normally I’d get excited when a critic calls a movie a “masterpiece.” But this is the same critic who rates the Twilight movies a B.

    • gustiq

      you’re officially blase. that tired argument is soooo weak.

      • ree

        It doesn’t make the point any less valid. I am skeptical as well based on her past reviews.

    • Julie

      don’t compare Twilight crap to LVT work please.

    • DJ

      Yawn…try saying something original for a change.

    • Matt

      Have you seen the movies, and could you recite the gist of the review, or are you just focusing on the ‘B’, and what you think you know from Twilight? I do not like Twilight at all, but I can understand the appeal; and you may not like the books, or be confused by the social phenomena of Twilight, but that doesn’t necessarily have much to do with how smoothly the movies themselves run.

  • Tajah

    At least Dunst gets to marry Askars before the planet is doomed? Maybe its worth it? I mean, ASKARS.

    • Michelle


    • ang


      • Chris

        Love it!

  • jared4ever

    I spoke to my good friend Udo Kier and he says it’s the finest film Von Trier has made. I can’t wait to see it.

    • jax

      Aren’t you special! And he’d have no bias whatsoever.

      • jared4ever

        He’s been in almost every single film made by von Trier, so no, he has no agenda. He’s just an honest guy telling me what he thinks. Sorry i said anything , i guess it bothers you. I thought people might like to know what he said, He’s a pretty awesome actor in my book.

    • hmmm

      i just spoke to my good friend Richard, he said suck it

  • Ben

    Great to hear BUT how is the acting, specifically from Dunst and Sutherland?? I’m just dreaming I know but to hear Sutherland’s name announced for a Best Supporting Actor nomination would be the highlight of the film year for me…

  • Shakespeare

    Anyone who would sit through any of films must be insane!

    • Ella

      Then call me crazy…

    • jared4ever

      I’m cuckoo for cocopuffs!

  • Michelle

    I’ve been excited for this film since ASkars was cast. I just hope it plays around here!

  • Doris

    Does Stellan play Alexander’s father?

    • Krystyna

      it all just look at those expressions!! Melissa and Bart wlkniag away together holding hands is a real favorite! All the pictures were wonderful and the photographer captured the feelings of this very special occasion!!!

  • amy

    Prediction: IFC Films will pick it up in Cannes, it’ll play the fall festival circuit (Telluride, Toronto, New York), open on 30-40 U.S. screens in October (while being available on PPV if you happen to live in a cable market that carries IFC), then d hit dvd sometime next winter where most people who really want to see it (myself included) will get the our first chance.

  • amy

    dug; that should have read:
    then hit dvd sometime next winter where most people who really want to see it (myself included) will get our first chance to see it.

  • Emma

    @Amy – Magnolia already has distribution rights, it’s getting a release on November 4th, and they did a good job distributing I Am Love so I think this one will get a semi-wide release.

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