When Lars von Trier joked about his German heritage and Nazi tendencies at the Cannes Film Festival press conference for Melancholia, his defenders passed it off as a characteristically savage bit of neurotic self-sabotage, and an unfortunate distraction from the film. But Lars’s compulsion—looking over the transcript of his press conferences, there’s really no other word for it—for giving offense, for presenting himself in the worst possible light, all with a hard twist of self-awareness: this is key to what he’s doing with Melancholia.
Lars understands his own capacity for weaknesses and meanness; he doesn’t see human evil as something easily, politely disassociated from—and he finds it hilarious, that the non-Lars von Trier segment of the population is so comparatively reluctant to acknowledge its own pathology. (“I think one reason [I was declared ‘persona non grata at Cannes] is that French people treated the Jews badly during World War II. Therefore, it is a sensitive topic for them.”)
In Lars’s films, his view of human nature is a given: every single man in Dogville rapes Nicole Kidman (or at least wants to, in the case of Paul Bettany); it’s inevitable that Bjork’s neighbor will steal the money for her son’s eye operation. In his films, he plays God: his aesthetic strategies are magisterial—for Dogville, he quite literally creates a world from scratch on a soundstage—and his plots are manipulated to fulfill his notions. Some have called his films antihumanist. Which they are!
The wedding reception that takes up the first half of the film is full of his customary frank, stylized depictions of selfish, venal people; in the second half, Lars, ever the vengeful god, like Nicole Kidman in Dogville, destroys the world. “The world is evil, we shouldn't grieve for it,” says the suddenly visionary depressive Kirsten Dunst. Melancholia is an ode to the bleeding-edge clarity of misery—the way that coming to see life as unredeemable seems like the most brutal, and thus most truthful revelation imaginable.
Because in Melancholia, it does turn out that our life’s work—love, family, the pursuits of money and pleasure—really is all for naught. Both Lars and his protagonist effectively declare: “You see, I was right, all along, to feel this way.” (I could have done without the bean-counting bit, in which Dunst is proven to be actually psychic—her evident possession of an animal sixth sense makes the same point more subtly.)
J. Hoberman notably described his feelings of giddiness at the end of Melancholia, which catharsis is very much by design. Lars’s apocalypse really earns the term “rapture”: the Wagnerian tableaux of the prologue, of course, but then the splintering of Earth itself: the lens flare, the rumbling subwoofers, the rising music, the sense of anticipation, the huge money shot and then the almost instantaneous incineration—it’s long and throbbing and then fast and mean, it’s fucking sexy, is what it is.
But: when the end of the world comes, Dunst’s character is in a shelter that she built with her nephew, waiting out the end of the world and holding hands with him and with his mother, her sister. When I interviewed Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays Dunst’s sister, we agreed that the second half of the film is more centered around her character so that we see the end of the world through the eyes of a character who, as Gainsbourg said, “has everything to lose.” (Literally everything.) What it falls to the depressive seer to do, then, is to prepare those closest to her for the end in some way—to, as gently as possible, welcome the more sheltered of us into the place she’s long lived. This is not a bad metaphor for art, really, and if Lars von Trier is a less gracious host than Dunst proves to be, he’s not unaware of his obligations.