In 'Melancholia,' a Director Finds an Appropriate Outlet for His Madness

Controversial auteur Lars von Trier's new film, starring Kirsten Dunst, presents a gorgeous, provocative vision of depression and the end of the world

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Magnolia Pictures

With eight words, Danish director Lars von Trier earned himself a place in film history: "How can I get out of this sentence?" The statement came last May in the middle of his debacle of a Cannes International Film Festival press conference—a debacle that threatened to overshadow his latest film, Melancholia, which sees its American release today. At Cannes, he spoke about Hitler, stating "I sympathize with him a little bit." Emphasizing that he didn't dislike Jews, he made matters worse by taking a dig at Danish-Jewish filmmaker Susanne Bier. After a string of non sequiturs and bad, insensitive punch lines, he summed up his flow of words with "I am a Nazi."

'Melancholia' doesn't romanticize depression, but suggests that von Trier found something positive in his own experience of it

Watching footage of the press conference on YouTube, the Hitler monologue looks more like a series of jokes gone very awry than a serious display of anti-Semitism—the kind of material that perhaps only Louis C.K. or Sarah Silverman could have gotten laughs out. His line of conversation stemmed from von Trier's recent discovery that he was not of Jewish descent, as he had grown up believing, but that his biological father was actually German. It's possible that von Trier still thought of himself as culturally Jewish, since the man who raised him was Jewish, and thought that fact gave him license to be flippant about Hitler and the Nazis.

In any case, though, the backlash was swift. Cannes banned him from the festival (while inviting the seemingly more problematic Mel Gibson to give a Q&A) although Melancholia was still eligible for prizes. Indeed, its lead actress Kirsten Dunst deservedly won the festival's award for best actress.

But the moment had precedent: Von Trier has a history of making dumb, provocative statements at Cannes, like when he called himself the world's best filmmaker and Roman Polanski a dwarf. Von Trier's over-the-top outbursts fit in with his film oeuvre, which largely deals with over-the-topness, including in films like Antichrist, which depicts a woman cutting off her clitoris and a penis ejaculating blood. His work has suffered from a provoke-at-all-costs mentality, as well as a penchant for degrading women: In Breaking the Waves, he showed a woman prostituting herself in hopes of healing her paralyzed husband, while Dogville depicted rape.

Happily, these traits are missing from Melancholia, a somber drama that seriously examines depression in a science-fiction context. Von Trier usually seems to identify with his heroines, but he tends to create women who are masochistic martyrs or basket cases. In Melancholia, he finally manages to present troubled female characters who aren't completely defined by their neuroses and who find an inner strength greater than that of the seemingly more rational men around them. In most of von Trier's work of the past decade, his self-defined role as a provocateur has completely dominated his films, especially when he's engaged in a critique of American politics and history. Dogville and Manderlay ran photos of poor Americans set to David Bowie's "Young Americans" over their closing credits, in case anyone missed the films' point. In Melancholia, provocation informs the film in a more healthy, less blunt way.

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Steve Erickson is a freelance writer who lives in New York. He has written for Gay City News, The Nashville Scene, Film Comment, the Tribeca Film Festival's website, Fandor's blog, and elsewhere.

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