Lars von Trier is a highly talented artist. He is also a bit of a troll – not due to this Nordic origin but his obvious enjoyment of getting a rise out of people in often obnoxious ways. I’ve found the handful of his films that I’ve watched a mixed bag: at turns intriguing, affecting and annoying, as well as manipulative in ways that are skilled but a little too obvious at times.
Melancholia lacks the impishness of some earlier works of his, except perhaps on an aesthetic level – I’d be surprised if von Trier hadn’t banked on the slo-mo beginning of the film raising a few eyebrows and tempers (and prompting some people to ask for their money back because they felt they’d ended up in Zack Snyder’s movie adaptation of Millais’ “Ophelia”). For a von Trier, Melancholia is remarkably sedate, not to say mature (a word I expect the director would not be too happy with). It lacks the borderline sadistic, “Let’s see how far we can take this” showiness of, say, Dogville, but it is no less intriguing for this.
To a fan of the director’s work, does Melancholia feel like a compromise, an appeal to more mainstream audiences? Both von Trier and his fellow European provocateur, Michael Haneke, received praise from the critics’ establishment for their most recent works, yet at least in the case of the former there was a faint note of disappointment: if we can’t trust the vicious jester of cinema to irritate us in inventive ways, who will do it instead? As a non-fan who has rarely felt the visceral annoyance that some people get from von Trier, nor the equally visceral enjoyment that others feel, I found Melancholia intriguing, beautifully acted and absolutely gorgeous to look at. Without going for a conventional aesthetic, von Trier brings an evocative, painterly eye to the film, playing especially effectively with the haunting light the eponymous planet threatening Earth throws on the film’s protagonists and scenery. In terms of cinematic apocalypses, this is one of the more subtly effective ones, evoking an intimate sadness that is miles from von Trier’s sometimes tendency to, well, troll his audience.
P.S.: As far as end-of-the-world movies are concerned, my favourite may still be Don McKellar’s Last Night, a film that couldn’t be much more Canadian if it tried and that gives the wonderful Sandra Oh a blessed chance to shed her hospital duds.