Lars von Trier is the latest in a long line of auteurs to tackle such weighty matters. His approach: imagining Earth's extinction as a result of a catastrophic collision with a mysterious planet. In Melancholia, which the National Society of Film Critics just named the best film of 2011, a rogue planet that has been hiding behind the Sun approaches and eventually annihilates Earth. Everybody dies, including poor Kirsten Dunst, whose character has finally snapped out of her depressing funk just in time for a gigantic mass to come crashing down on all of humanity.
Unfortunately, during press for the film at the Cannes Film Festival last May, Von Trier made increasingly bad-taste jokes about Nazis and "understanding Hitler," therefore guaranteeing that any mention of Melancholia would also require mention of his stupidity.
Luckily, with the recent NSFC honor, we can try to push Von Trier's film back into the spotlight for all the right reasons: its compelling characters (Kirsten Dunst, battling depression and her wedding; Charlotte Gainsbourg, dreading the end of the world and the thought of life without her family; Kiefer Sutherland, balancing his fascination with space and his horror at what the approaching planet could mean) its impending sense of doom, and the question of whether all these people are either miserable human beings or just helpless individuals confused about life and death. Then there's the stunning mise-en-scene of Melancholia -- spectacular shots set against Tjoloholm, a 19th-century Swedish castle. Von Trier employs a canvas of starry skies, foggy woodlands, one luscious green golf course, and a frightening, cathartic shot of the planet, Melancholia, sinking Earth and vaporizing everything on it. All of it adds up to unforgettable cinema. Some people have a soft spots for rom-coms or B-movies or anything starring Paul Rudd; mine is for films that resemble works of art. The first teaser clip for Melancholia, showing Dunst's evolution from beautiful bride to depressed wanderer, was set against gorgeous shades of green, black and blue, and scored to Richard Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde." To me, that's movie-trailer bliss.
In the end, however, asking the "big" questions isn't enough. The films I really love are the ones that ask them in an inventive way, challenging your thoughts and dreams and assumptions about the world. Melancholia asks how you would react if a planet twice the size of Earth were heading toward you at this very moment. I have no idea how I would react, and that's the point: It's the unknown that frightens us, and, at the same time, keeps us coming back for more, hoping the answer is right around the corner.