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

The controversial director's new film presents a beautiful, provocative vision of depression

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."

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.

In an eight-minute prologue, set to Wagner, Melancholia presents beautiful slow-motion images of life on Earth, just as it's about to be destroyed by the impact of a larger planet called Melancholia. Part one of the film takes place at the disastrous wedding of Justine (Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). The second part occurs during the final few days before the destruction of Earth, as the depressed Justine stays with her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland).

When selecting takes to use in Melancholia, von Trier opted for powerful performances over whether the camera happened to be in focus. Aggressive handheld camerawork has become a cliché these days—an easy signifier of "reality"—but this film reminds one how expressive it can be. The film alternates between shakycam naturalism and stately grandeur, expressed in long shots. It depicts a drama of cosmic scope by showing how it affects four people. The final image is a haunting combination of love and despair, worthy of von Trier's idol Andrei Tarkovsky.

Von Trier has made no secret of his problems with depression, anxiety, and a host of phobias. While he's made four films set in the U.S., he's never traveled here because he's afraid of flying. In creating the character of Justine, he clearly drew on his own experiences, and ended up making some provocative suggestions about depression. Even in the film's first act, Justine's illness leads her to rebel against the institution of marriage and against her boorish boss. This rebellion may not be entirely healthy, but one senses that the film is on her side. Later, she blossoms as death approaches. Melancholia implies that depression may be a coping mechanism against mortality. The characters who don't share her experiences of constant dread and fear of the future turn out, ultimately, to be more frail.

Von Trier's controversial 2009 horror film Antichrist now looks like a dry run for Melancholia's themes. However, it inadvertently insulted sufferers of depression by implying that they'll go crazy in the most lurid way imaginable if deprived of their meds. Melancholia certainly doesn't romanticize depression—especially in its first half, it shows how difficult it makes Justine's life—but it suggests that von Trier may have found something positive in his own experience of the illness.

With an artist like von Trier, it's tempting to say "trust the tale, not the teller." The understanding the teller's personal life makes the experience of watching Melancholia all the richer. Thankfully, he's restrained his desire to get a cheap rise out of the audience this time around. Even Johnny Rotten grew tired of wearing swastika armbands by the time Sex Pistols broke up. One hopes that von Trier will realize that provocation, especially the kind as badly thought-out as his Cannes meltdown, has its limits.