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Lars von Trier talks about MELANCHOLIA

Though Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA doesn’t come out in wide release until November 11, 2011, the anticipation for his seemingly more accessible follow-up to 2009′s ANTICHRIST is mounting. (For me, it’s the combination of the end-of-the-world theme/people looking up at outer space in wonder, the mystery of melancholia and my girl crush, Charlotte Gainsbourg.)

In case you have no idea what movie I’m talking about:

In this beautiful movie about the end of the world, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are celebrating their marriage at a sumptuous party in the home of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Despite Claire’s best efforts, the wedding is a fiasco, with family tensions mounting and relationships fraying. Meanwhile, a planet called Melancholia is heading directly towards Earth.

The first screenings are already underway, but to whet your appetite here’s a not-so-brief excerpt from Nils Thorsen’s considerably longer interview with Lars von Trier. Nils Thorsen is the author of The Genius – Lars von Trier’s Life, Films and Phobias.

In MELANCHOLIA he grapples with melancholia itself. More than cataclysms. But even though his take-off is his own depression, the idea developed during a conversation and a letter exchange with actress Penélope Cruz who wanted to make a film with him. She spoke of her fascination with the play “The Maids,” by the French dramatist Jean Genet, in which two maids kill their mistress.
“But I don’t do anything that’s not born by me, I said. So I tried to write something for her. The film is actually based on the two maids whom I turned into sisters in the film. Penélope can ride. So I used that, too.”

Before the shooting started, Penélope Cruz cancelled because of other engagements and Kirsten Dunst got the lead instead. And the collaboration, says Lars von Trier, was a pleasant surprise.
“I think she’s one hell of an actress. She is much more nuanced than I thought and she has the advantage of having had a depression of her own. All sensible people have,” he says.
“She helped me a lot. First and foremost she had taken photos of herself in that situation so I could see how she looked. How she was present and smiling, but with a completely blank stare. She really pulls that off rather well.”

We follow two sisters till the bitter end. Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst. A melancholic by the grace of God, she has a hard time finding her place in the world and assuming all its empty rituals, but feels more at home when the world draws near its end. And then her sensible big sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who thrives in the world and consequently finds it hard to say goodbye to it.

“I think that Justine is very much me. She is based a lot on my person and my experiences with doomsday prophecies and depression. Whereas Claire is meant to be a … normal person,” laughs von Trier, who has been haunted by anxieties all through his life and believed that the Third World War was breaking out every time he heard an airplane as a boy.

Lars von Trier is a melancholic incarnate. He drags himself through the times when he is not making films and could actually just enjoy life, but is at his best when the shit hits the fan. “My analyst told me that melancholiacs will usually be more level-headed than ordinary people in a disastrous situation, partly because they can say: ‘What did I tell you?”  he laughs. “But also because they have nothing to lose. And that was the germ of MELANCHOLIA. From then on, things were speeding up. Less than a year later, the script was written, the actors found and the crew in the process of shooting. “I had more fun making this film, and I’ve been far more present. But then again, I was going through a bad time during ANTICHRIST,” he says.

As in ANTICHRIST, MELANCHOLIA opens with an overture – a series of sequences and stills which, to the overture of ‘Tristan and Isolde’, partly shows Justine’s own visions of the wonderful end of the world, partly the most dramatic grand-scale images of the cosmic collision.

“I’ve always liked the idea of the overture. That you strike some themes. And, typically, we would have made an image of special effects of something we found would happen at such a collision, even though the plot itself just hints at the disaster in close ups. I thought it would be fun to take the images out of the context and begin with them instead, “he says and adds with a smile: “That gets rid of the aesthetic side in one full blow.”

NT: What sort of aesthetics did you want in the film?

LVT: I’d like a clash between what is romantic and grand and stylized and then some form of reality. The camera is handheld, for the most part. But the problem was that we had a magnificent castle in Sweden, and when you add a wedding with all the guests in gala and tux, it can hardly avoid becoming … beautiful.

NT: And that was not your intention?

LVT: Well, it’s hard to smuggle in a bit of ugliness. So I think the film is slightly on the edge of plastic. Here and there. Would you please write that?

After the initial doomsday ballet, the film falls in two parts. The first part is called ‘Justine’ and deals with the melancholic sister and her wedding. The other bears the title ‘Claire’ and covers the countdown to the end. As the director puts it: “If everything has to go to hell, it needs to start off well.”

The melancholy Justine is determined to become normal, he explains. So now she wants to get married. “She wants to end all the silliness and anxiety and doubt. That’s why she wants a real wedding. And everything goes well until she cannot meet her own demands. There is a recurring line: ‘Are you happy?’ She has to be. Otherwise, the wedding is silly. You must be happy now! And they all try to bring her ashore, but she doesn’t really want to be part of it.”

NT: In the film she seems unable to engage in the situation. Isn’t she serious about it?

LVT: She’s not serious about the wedding. In the start she is toying with it all in an off-hand manner, because she feels so on top of things that she can poke fun at it. But slowly, melancholia descends like a curtain between her and all the things she has set in motion. And when she gets to the wedding night, she simply can’t cope. She is seized by that doubt.

NT: Doubt about what?

LVT: If it’s all worth it. A wedding, after all, is a ritual. But is there something beyond the ritual at all? There isn’t. Not to her. It’s a great shame that we melancholiacs don’t value rituals. I’m having a tough time at parties myself. Now we’ll all have fun, fun, fun. Perhaps because melancholiacs set the stakes higher than at just a few beers and some music. And there’s more of a party if we have colored festoons. It seems so phony. Rituals are, you know. But if rituals are worth nothing, that goes for everything, you know.

NT: That, I suppose, is the view of the melancholiac – that everything’s hollow?

LVT: If there’s some value beyond the rituals, that’s fine. The ritual is like a film. There has to be something in the film. And then the film’s plot is the ritual that leads us to what’s inside. And if there’s something inside and beyond, I can relate to the ritual. But if the rituals are empty, that is: if it’s no longer fun to get Christmas presents or see the joy of the kids, then the whole ritual about dragging a tree inside the living room becomes empty.

NT: So, in a way that’s the eternal question of the melancholiac: is it all hollow?

LVT: Is the emperor wearing any clothes at all? Is there a content? And there isn’t. And that’s what Justine sees every time she looks at that fucking wedding. He isn’t wearing anything. She has submitted to a ritual without a meaning.

NT: And the others don’t feel that?

LVT: The others don’t mind, they just go around and feel that the ritual is nice.

If you ask Trier what he thinks of the film, it is more difficult to get an answer. “When I see it, I feel good about it. But I’ve seen it so many times that I can’t see it anymore,” he says and hesitates for a moment or two. “Charlotte Gainsbourg said something that pleased me very much. It was: It’s a weird film,” he laughs. “That was lovely, because I was worried that ‘weird’ was somehow lacking a bit.”