When that giant asteroid did a fly-by of planet earth the other day, it might have been a cosmic PR stunt for Lars von Trier's Melancholia. Even the infinite, accelerating universe, it appears, has a thing for movies. And with this film, Earthly cinephiles are in for a mind-blowing trip.
Probably von Trier's most accessible work, the classically crafted Melancholia imagines the end of the world, drawing on both grand-scale sci-fi tropes and intimate family drama. Von Trier has the chutzpah to draw a parallel, in his mad, self-aggrandizing way, between the demise of the planet and the crushing depression of his heroine (Kirsten Dunst, who won best actress in Cannes, despite the director's dreadful remarks about Nazis in the press conference). The opening scenes of Melancholia, a sort of prelude that telegraphs the entire story, are set to the prelude of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," and include some of the most gorgeous images ever committed to film. Diving deep into "the abyss of German romanticism," in von Trier's phrase, they include haunting dream-scapes of a moon-lit estate marked for doom, Dunst floating Ophelia-like among the lilies á la John Millais, standing among falling birds or with live current streaming from her fingers, and dragging a bridal train weighted down with nets and debris -- an inspired metaphor for depression.
Von Trier segues from these exquisitely composed and manipulated images to a nervous hand-held camera capturing the wedding of Justine (Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) at her brother-in-law's castle-like spread in Sweden. The nuptials are sabotaged as Justine unspools, taking baths, telling off her boss, crazily driving a golf cart by moonlight, and abandoning her husband to seduce a guest. Meanwhile the universe is also preparing to unleash mayhem, as the planet Melancholia keeps its appointment to collide with earth. In a fascinating reversal in the film's second panel, Justine's sensible big sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg), much attached to her luxe life, is now the one who derails, while Justine herself -- who may or may not be a figure from outer space -- makes peace with the world's demise. Though the message is dark -- "the earth is evil," says Justine, "We don't have to grieve for it" -- the film's denouement, with its teeth-rattling sound effects, will send you out of the theater ecstatic.
I recently sat down with Melancholia's stars, Kirsten Dunst, Alexander Skarsgard, and Charlotte Gainsbourg (who speaks in so whispery a voice, I could scarcely hear her). They are all a lot prettier than you or me. I usually avoid interviews with actors because they talk about going on a "journey" to some new "place" -- when for me, a place is Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. But these guys were a swell bunch.
Erica Abeel: How did you get involved in this movie?
Kirsten Dunst (who has other-worldy blue eyes and looks like she bathes in milk): I literally got an email: just read this script, Lars wants to talk to you tomorrow, he's really interested in you for this movie. And we skyped and it was so simple. I know that two director friends of his had recommended me for the role -- it was supposed to be Penelope Cruz at first. We barely even talked about the script. We just talked about The Night Porter and Charlotte Rampling. Yeah, it was really simple for me.
Alexander Skarsgard: It's the first and only time I said yes to a project without having read the script. I just got a call and I was, alright, I dunno what he wants me to do, but I'll do it.
EA: When you did read the script, what were your reactions?
Dunst: I knew that whatever journey I was going on it would be an interesting one and I'm always up for a challenge.
EA: How does working with Lars von Trier differ from other filmmakers?
Skarsgard: It's very unconventional, such an interesting vibe and atmosphere. We all kind of lived together in the middle of nowhere in southern Sweden. You're kind of used to blocking a scene, then you have tape marks, then you shoot a master, and the lights come from here, so you gotta find that light. But with Lars, you show up and he's just like, alright, let's see what happens. That was great. Or that sucked. Let's try again. He doesn't care about continuity. He wants to be surprised. He's like, oh, that was interesting, I didn't expect that to happen. Yet you feel like he's editing it in his head as he's watching it. And if there's something he needs he'll just come over and whisper, try this or try that. It's one of the most amazing experiences of my career
EA: Did you rehearse?
Skarsgard: Yes, and he shoots that. And it's usually a disaster. But then there are these moments that will happen in rehearsal -- something awkward and real that you won't be able to recreate, and he'll be there with his camera and capture that. You'll do it again obviously and you'll fix what didn't work, but then you'll have those little moments that you can put in.
Charlotte Gainsbourg: It's interesting to be off balance a bit. And that's what Lars works with, trying to push you off your ground a bit.
Skarsgard: It makes you real. If you come and you're like, alright, I'm an actor and this is what I'm going to do and I plan it in my head --
Dunst: [laughing] That's not fun.
Skarsgard: It's kind of great to do it differently and see what happens and just be there.
Gainsbourg: Now it's very difficult to work in any other way.
EA: How was the atmosphere on set?
Skarsgard: There were parties on weekends and a lot of fun. Because you need that. You can't spend two months with that darkness.
Dunst: Everyone was like cooking, meeting for a delicious meal.
EA: Justine's fiance, Michael, seemed to have unrealistic expectations of her. Were you just dumb as a character?
Skarsgard: No, I'm just dumb as an actor, it's all real. [Everyone laughs]. Justine is like a little fragile wounded bird. And Michael believes he can make it better and take care of her. But she slowly drifts away. There's a scene that didn't make the movie, where Michael's telling Justine, no one's happy. I'm not looking for happiness. We'll have a pretty good life. Let's just stay together and it will be alright.
EA [to Gainsbourg]: How was Melancholia a different experience from making Antichrist?
Gainsbourg: The first one felt so intimate, with a tiny crew, and going to ... extremes. With this character everything is more subtle. It was more difficult for me to understand and to know where I was going because it was less extreme. I was nervous before I started the second film because I enjoyed myself so much in the first.
EA: You mean to say you enjoyed Antichrist? [a grim affair involving self-mutilation]
Gainsbourg: Yes, very much. In a troubled way. I think Lars was not well when he shot Antichrist [in a deep depression, by his own admission]. He'd say he didn't know if he would be able to finish the film. It was really hard for him, so we suffered looking at him, not being able to cope with anything.
EA [to Dunst], Do you see this role pointing your career in a new direction?
Dunst: I did The Virgin Suicides and then Bring it On, so I've always mixed it up. There aren't many roles [like Justine] that are so unconventional for women. For me, though, it's not a new direction personally. It's just the movie I chose to do next. It came from a very honest and exciting place.
EA: Did you feel the film had a happy ending?
Skarsgard: I did, in a weird way. Because the sisters finally connected. Of course, then we all die [laughter]
Dunst: I like that everyone has so many different reactions to the film. It's the hardest movie I've ever had to talk about.
EA: How would you all react to the end of the world?
Dunst: I'd feel bad if I never had kids. But I'd probably just, like, drink with my friends.
Skarsgard: I'd go hang out with my family.
Dunst: But we don't have to worry about that.