First World Problems

Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia.Photo: Christian Geisnaes/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Only an egomaniac like Lars von Trier could turn the notion of a planet on a collision course with Earth into a metaphor for his own depression, and only a mad genius could make it sing. Melancholia, which is also the name of the party-crashing planet, is a lyrical ode to the end of the world—a world Von Trier plainly loathes, in which family can’t protect you, marriage is a sham, and capitalism poisons all. The vision is as hateful as it is hate-filled, but the fusion of form and content is so perfect that it borders on the sublime.

The film is two large acts and a stunning, slow-motion prologue scored to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, before Von Trier repeats the same bars so often they wear out their welcome. Birds drop, one after another, from the sky. A bride (Kirsten Dunst) emerges from a forest trailing leaves and vines. A mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) runs with a child in her arms across an ominously darkened golf course, never making headway. In a view from outer space, another world (Melancholia) slowly smashes into a smaller one (ours). How can Von Trier follow that?

With a wedding. The film’s first section, a flashback, is called “Justine” after its bride (Dunst), a palpably depressed ad copywriter engaged to a palpably uninteresting but handsome man (Alexander Skarsgård). They’re getting hitched on a lavish country estate courtesy of John (Kiefer Sutherland), the wealthy husband of Justine’s sister, Claire (Gainsbourg), but after their limo gets stuck, they’re hours behind schedule. For a while, Melancholia plays like one of those nightmares in which time stretches maddeningly out and nothing is ever consummated, the vibe not just bad but rank. Justine’s father (John Hurt) is a drunken lech who’s barely present, while her misanthropic mother (Charlotte Rampling) is all too there, her wedding toast a curse on the institution of marriage. Justine’s noxious boss (Stellan Skarsgård) orders a hapless underling (Brady Corbet) to dog her for a tagline to an ad campaign, but the bride is elusive. Now she’s in the stable with a precious horse, now out of her dress in the tub while people wait and wait to cut the cake, now on the lawn seducing someone other than her husband. Justine explodes her world before our eyes—as a prelude to the world itself exploding.

The second section, “Claire,” has much less drama, being a long wait for the end in which John stares into a telescope and insists that Melancholia will pass by Earth, Claire becomes increasingly agitated, and Justine feels her heart beginning to lighten. It’s as if the sisters were trading places, the stable one racked with grief, the mad one serene. Dunst’s Justine is less naked, more self-possessed than you’d expect from a Von Trier heroine (his lead actresses usually look as if they’re being tortured), but it’s the self-possession of a woman who has more or less stopped fighting her tragic worldview. Gainsbourg, having been broken in by Von Trier on Antichrist, goes with evident ease to the worst place inside herself and makes the last scenes quake with fear. Sutherland gives the film’s most unexpected superb performance. Famously intense on the set of 24 (to which his drunken antics offscreen were a corollary), he plays John as a man so tightly wound that the first indication of calamity breaks him.

In the final scenes, Von Trier the Wagnerian emerges, moving inexorably closer to the Big Bang without ever accelerating, drawing out the long melodic line until you feel as if your heart might burst along with the planet. It’s a cruel but strangely comforting climax. What can you do but surrender to Melancholia?

Cackle, I guess. People did at my screening, when the director’s credit finally appeared after a postapocalyptic interval of darkness and silence. Believe me, I wanted to join in. But Von Trier’s vision is too fully realized to laugh off. Having moved with Antichrist out of his kindergarten-Brecht formalist stage, he’s back to rough textures and open frames, but with a new control. Melancholia is a raw psychodrama with the unnerving drone of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its angst giving birth to the ultimate cosmic correlative. It’s a great, awful movie, a nihilist masterwork that settles over you like a shroud.

We hear the voice first, high-pitched, the vowel sounds swerving between Boston and Brooklyn, neither of which was home to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. It’s not a promising start for Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar, and the first appearance of his face, egregiously rubberized to age him decades, adds to the element of camp. Who’ll be playing Eleanor Roosevelt—Kristen Wiig? DiCaprio is a good, sometimes great naturalistic actor, but his transformations have always been hit-or-miss, and the opening of Dustin Lance Black’s script could be a biopic parody. When Hoover began to dictate his memoirs (“It’s time to tell my side of the story!”), I was embarrassed for the actor. Is Hoover meant to seem so stiff and ludicrous?

Armie Hammer and Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar.Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

It turns out that he is, in part, having hidden his true, homosexual nature for so long that he’s phony through and through. The thrust of J. Edgar is that many of the U.S. government’s most dangerous tendencies—among them flagrant disregard for civil liberties—are rooted in a closeted gay man’s terror of being exposed, especially to his mother. From that terror came Hoover’s obsession with ferreting out other people’s secrets, amassing private files on presidents and using them as leverage to remain in power. And the man who made sure that his bureau projected an aura of manly fitness struggled with the impulse to sashay around the house in dresses and pearl necklaces.

You might wonder: “Who is the gay, pinko, subversive director behind this Tommy-gun assault on our national security and masculinity?” Clint Eastwood, of course. J. Edgar is the latest chapter in Eastwood’s never-ending project to deconstruct the macho, jingoist, homophobic, right-wing archetype he once embodied—and prove himself an artist whose simplicity of style belies the most sophisticated understanding of the dual nature of the American character of any living filmmaker.

That’s the theory, anyway. It’s too bad J. Edgar is so shapeless and turgid and ham-handed, so rich in bad lines and worse readings. Not DiCaprio, though: As you get used to (and correct for) his artifice, you appreciate his guts and honesty. There’s something appealingly straightforward about the way he physicalizes Hoover’s inner struggle, the body always slightly out of sync with the mind that vigilantly monitors every move. The same can’t be said, alas, for Armie Hammer as Hoover’s beloved Clyde Tolson. He’s fine as the smugly entitled pretty boy but hopeless under speckled makeup that makes him look more like a burn victim than a senior citizen. Is there a merit badge for self-effacement? Give it to Naomi Watts as Hoover’s lifelong secretary, who has few lines but is frequently held in the frame so we can register her conflict between loyalty to her boss and to the Constitution of the United States.

Direction this ponderous exposes all the contrivances in Black’s script, like surrounding the aged Hoover with agents who, while taking dictation, interrupt to query the legality of his methods. Those damn liberals are everywhere! The bleached-out scenes in the teens, twenties, and thirties strongly suggest that God had yet to invent color—but late in the film there’s a postmodern twist that reveals our narrator as unreliable. With direction as unvaried as Eastwood’s, you can’t tell what’s purposefully bogus and what’s inept. And does Black’s gay through line get in the way of the story? Apart from one derisive line about Joe McCarthy, there’s nothing about HUAC or the blacklist, when the FBI and Congress worked hand in hand to trash the First Amendment.

I did love Judi Dench as Mrs. Hoover, who at one point announces, “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son”—to which J. Edgar replies, “Yes, mother.” A carriage that formidable would scare anyone straight.

See Also:
Armie Hammer on Playing Clyde Tolson in J. Edgar

Directed by Lars von Trier. R.

J. Edgar
Directed by Clint Eastwood. R.


First World Problems