As much as I’d love to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the waves made by Lars von Trier’s instantly infamous Cannes press conference are simply too big to ignore. First, I have to wonder why you’d invite cinema’s enfant terrible to your festival and then ban him for making the kind of comments he’s notorious for making? Second, and much more importantly, it’s a sad day in film culture when a few mangled, albeit potentially offensive, remarks grossly overshadow the release of a major film from one of the most provocative and engaging directors working today. What is truly infuriating is that the points to which von Trier was heading with his comments can reasonably be inferred, yet most of the press, hopped up on self-aggrandizing political correctness, jumped all over the easy story with their “OMFG, can you believe LVT said he was a Nazi and understood Hitler and bashed Israel!?” headlines, attempting to merely generate buzz and garner hits on their own unimaginative, short-sighted attack articles rather than, I don’t know, use the powers of inference and reason to interpret what von Trier was attempting to say or perhaps, god forbid, attempt to contextualize these remarks and engage with them rather than stepping immediately up on their soapboxes to be the first journalist to scold von Trier for uttering anything even remotely sympathetic about the Nazis as part of the frustratingly pervasive tendency to reduce film and cultural criticism to Twitter-sized nuggets of NEWS.
Like von Trier, I now find myself stuck in the middle of a rant I can’t get out of, having veered dangerously close to the self-aggrandizing brand of journalism I decried. But onward I march towards the point, which, like Lars’, I have taken my sweet time to arrive at. The point being not that von Trier’s comments, at least half of which were made in jest once he realized the hole he’d dug himself into, contain no questionable content, but that the reactions they provoked, much like those of his films, often reveal more about the critic’s own inability or unwillingness to examine the contradictions, enigmas, and, yes, at times, the offensiveness of von Trier’s material (why not count his press conference as a performance piece at this point?). Has empty moral indignation replaced journalism? Does simple criticizing now qualify as criticism?
While Melancholia may not be top-tier von Trier, neither as bitingly ironic as Dogville nor as bracingly enigmatic and terrifyingly mythical as Antichrist, von Trier once again presents the audience with a number of fascinating questions and the sort of provocations (a rather brutal beating of a horse, an extended scene of a nude Kirsten Dunst being forced into a bath, which practically begs for more absurd accusations of misogyny, etc.) that some will latch onto as the film’s raison d’être, despite its bold attempts to tackle the micro- and macrocosmic levels of existence in a way that only Terrence Malick’s incomparable masterpiece The Tree of Life has managed to do in recent years. Just as with his press conference comments, there will be those who will see von Trier’s provocations as dead ends rather than jumping off points.
Despite its sci-fi premise and air of apocalyptic doom, Melancholia, surprisingly enough, is a small film, locating both its terror and its humor (Udo Kier, John Hurt, and even Kiefer Sutherland all turn in wonderful comic performances) in two sisters’ inability to cope with situations seemingly beyond their control — the first half focusing on Dunst’s Justine going through with a marriage simply to appease her family and prove to everyone that she’s happy, the second half focusing more on Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Claire just prior to the possible collision of planet Melancholia with planet Earth. Von Trier’s deliberately bifurcated structure not only exists to mark a shift in the balance of power (à la Death Proof) from one sister to the other, but to examine how much of our behavior is driven by fear and helplessness, and how much of our everyday reality is shaped by following conventions and expectations that serve not to make us happy but to create a sense of order and control.
This notion of control, specifically perceived control, plays a role in much of von Trier’s work, but here it operates as a centrifugal force that seems to destructively unite mankind. The two halves feel imbalanced, the strangely humorous and mostly subdued family drama opening up into a quietly devastating apocalyptic vision; however, this is indicative of the shift in concerns from human control to cosmic control. Where Malick’s film is about a struggle between nature and grace, von Trier’s is about nature’s tendency to bend everything to its iron will — first, man’s desire for conformity and order as an attempt to caste out, in Werner Herzog’s words, “the vast indifference of the universe,” and second, nature’s indifference crashing man’s delusional party called existence and crushing it on a whim. Unlike Dogville, Grace will not get her revenge in the end.
I didn’t say this wouldn’t be some depressing shit, but neither is it as soul-crushing, or manipulative, as Dancer in the Dark (another flawed but ambitious and singular von Trier film). Fortunately, von Trier lightens the load with a considerable amount of humorous anxiety both in the various familial conflicts in the first half and in the increasingly bizarre trio of Justine, Claire, and Claire’s husband in the second. The tone even occasionally veers towards outright satire, almost mocking our feeble attempts to conceive the order and purpose of the universe, be it through little things like social outings and rituals or big ones like science. But the sharp teeth of his earlier films is absent, its bite leaving only teeth marks, no blood. I don’t mean to suggest that this is watered-down von Trier, but rather it’s a more approachable and, dare I say, friendlier von Trier. The von Trier who can make you see the humor in misery while still allowing you to feel and think about it — unless of course you’re one of the assholes who thinks von Trier’s a Nazi and provokes people for no reason. Then you’re fucked.