Lars von Trier artfully presents the end of the world

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Kirsten Dunst as Justine in ‘Melancholia.’

Kirsten Dunst as Justine in ‘Melancholia.’

Jonathan Demme gave audiences Rachel Getting Married with its melodramatic depiction of the pre-wedding battle royale between two sisters and complex relationship matrix that weaves among the larger clan and nearly derails the celebration. There would be blood drawn, but there would also be absolution and an inevitable resolution for all parties. Dogmatic director Lars von Trier artfully proposes no such thing. His presentation of impending nuptials wanders into Grimm territory. His female siblings, the bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and maid of honor Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), are granted no silly love song for their montage because with von Trier, the wedding isn’t the beginning; it is the end, of everything.

Everything. It is depressing, a melancholy affair, but this wedding celebration will be the glorious end of the whole affair. The human affair.

And to that end, von Trier sees power. He envisions an expression of the attraction of bodies drawn together, smashing into each other. The sisters, their divorced parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling), the fevered clashes with Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) who is paying for the wedding and hosting it at his treasured golf manor and thus, as field marshal, finds himself at odds with everyone; the first half of the film lives and breathes epic conflict, a veritable clash of the titans, all before the mythic fall that takes place in the second half.

And at the center of it all sits the willful Justine. It is her wedding, and so she believes, hers to destroy. She is the unhinged fury who must destroy everything – that is her duty, her burden, her very destiny – and Dunst lets us see the effort. She hides none of it. Not the petulance. Not the depression. Not the tiny hints of joy that come from the dashed expectations of others. We also see this reflection in Claire, in the brittleness that Gainsbourg offers. In many ways, they are mirror opposites of the sisters in Demme’s film.

But Melancholia is not about the wedding, remember. This is the end, like Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life took us back to the beginning, although here this is no prayerful intention. This is brutal art, pure and simple. Sutherland has that hard rough edge that Pitt brought to Life, but von Trier makes you wonder and wish for the grace that Jessica Chastain gave us. There is no grace. There is only depression and Dunst. How wondrous and elemental!

Quite possibly though, there is a better comparison than those that I have made between Melancholia and Rachel Getting Married or Melancholia and Tree of Life. Maybe we should view Melancholia, and this phenomenal Dunst performance through the lens of Martha Marcy May Marlene and the revelation to be found in Elizabeth Olsen’s work there because both Dunst and Olsen capture young women with startling degrees of self-possession, struggling with power and perception, but operating at superhuman levels. With more film experience under her belt, Dunst, in particular, by the time Melancholia strides towards its conclusion, knows the end is within reach and rather than merely accepting the fact, she, through this character, shows us how powerful one can feel in the grip of this knowledge.

So much attention will be paid to Meryl Streep, Michelle Williams, Glenn Close and Viola Davis this Oscar season – all worthy targets, to be sure – but years from now, after reaching much-needed distance from this point, we will hopefully look back on 2011 and remember the emergence of Dunst and the next generation of leading ladies.

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