Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
It’s not much of our concern here to talk about Lars von Trier’s comically inept persona as a long-winded oaf who goes off his nut at press conferences. You’ve read enough about that guy anyway. Trier’s always been a master storyteller, and we know him as the director of one of the only movies ever to leave us absolutely speechless, Dancer in the Dark. Well, his latest project has the opposite effect: I haven’t been able to stop talking about it since I saw it with a decidedly skeptical audience in February. Haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, turning it over and over in my head. It doesn’t feel like a movie anymore, more like a vivid dream whose images and themes have stuck with me perpetually for a month. The foremost points to make about Melancholia will inevitably sound like hyperbole: it’s certainly the best science fiction film I’m aware of since Children of Men, metaphorically rich and emotionally overpowering, and easily the most convincing, harrowing, empathetic portrayal of depression I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen.
Trier and actress Kirsten Dunst, an unlikely partner and artist, create a stirringly vivid and complex sufferer / character in Justine; it’s a sign the movie’s doing something right when those in the audience who’ve never known depression first or second-hand find it impossible to comprehend her actions and motives. Typically the opposite is true; the great filmmaker makes a broad audience care about things they’ve no personal interest in… but for this movie it seems a mark of deeply felt truth. In an entire career of major and minor parts, Dunst has never had an opportunity of this caliber, with the sole exception of her knowingly adrift read of the title role in Sofia Coppola’s brilliant and crushingly ignored Marie Antoinette. That’s the lone precedent to her mature, carefully unkempt artistry here; if she’s never dealt with depression, then she’s conjured up the actor’s equivalent of clean sober George Martin aurally capturing the drug experience on “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
The depression is believable because it follows no linear logic; willing to participate in the larger world around her at times, elsewhere unable to convince herself to depart a locked room or enter a bathtub, Justine exudes a desperation and wish to escape herself, an impossible action mirrored by other characters’ desperate search for shelter later in the film. When the entire world or the entire self is under threat, there is no lower level to reach, no place to hide. While the disease is enough to justify her often morbidly eccentric and flippant behavior, to explain why the meat tastes like ashes and impulses take her far away from loved ones, there is additionally a vague suggestion she may know more than the others around her about the fate of her world.
Melancholia opens to the overture of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde playing underneath a series of disconnected slow motion images illustrating and beautifully elevating a number of nearly still moments that will happen throughout the film. It’s significant to note that the scenes, aesthetically thrilling at first pass, grow more affecting and tragic in memory after each has been called back by a later scene. At the fade, we watch as a far larger planet careens directly into Earth, disintegrating it. Trier has featured nonlinear overture or introduction sequences like this before; but when Justine states two hours later that there are things she simply “knows,” one wonders if this prologue is Justine herself warning us of what’s to come. Melancholia of course is more than the name of the planet that will kill all of us at the end of the story; it’s an embodiment of Justine’s troubled inner life, the thing she knows that others don’t and that keeps her unable to force herself from a doorway to a car mere yards away — the suffering of unspeakable inevitability.
Beyond metaphoric power, Justine’s depression is well-observed in its effortless coping with the doom for planet Earth on which our story hinges — it’s the fuckup and the walking tragedy whose fatalistic philosophies allow her to handle the end of the world calmly and rationally, while her well-adjusted sister Claire (a wonderfully pensive Charlotte Gainsbourg) begins to fall apart. Claire too is tremendously believable; married to an amateur astronomer (Kiefer Sutherland, giving the most dubious performance in the film but still a competent and often funny one), she has a tough time accepting certain scientists’ predictions — though there’s considerable debate — that Melancholia will miss hitting Earth by a considerable margin. Her obsessive tracking of the planet’s behavior from websites and lack of comfort in ignoring its eventual effects rings quite familiar to me, as a chronic worrier. In truth, it’s of course the sisters’ worlds that are coming to collide as the film’s dark story proceeds on its haunting course, the final implication from the film’s ignorance of the rest of Earth’s coping process being that perhaps their own schism has wrought this upon us, that weariness will win. Wrapping ourselves up in the details of existence (worrying) will be a loss that belongs to only us when we all descend into blackness for the last time and have nothing else to answer to. The idea of everyone making that journey simultaneously, of all being at last equal, is at once startling and a comfort.
This is just one reason that the most curious range of feelings befalls you after Melancholia: once you’ve witnessed one of the most direct and elegant portrayals of the world ending yet to be seen in film, the result is hardly sorrow as much as cathartic euphoria, as if it’s all an existential and life-affirming magic trick. It’s hardly a new idea for awareness of mortality to be rationale for a thrill — the same reason we might feel elated after a minor car crash or, more to the point, after a personal revelation gives us a new lease on and consciousness of the life we already have, a la Marion Crane in Psycho (just before she’s murdered, of course, but that’s not our concern at the moment). There’s liberation in the constant approach of nothing, because nothing doesn’t hurt and it’s impossible to know when nothing arrives, so our only action can be acceptance, a healthy attempt at (but no guarantee of) keeping the end a good distance away, and spending our lives concerning ourselves with the one thing we actually do have a say in or even an experience of, life. Starkly but assuredly, Melancholia manages to shine through the darkness and fear just long enough to remind us that we have nothing to be afraid of.
It’s quite a trick to allow all this to grow out of a film whose first half is essentially a gutwrenchingly beautiful wedding melodrama, strongly suggestive of The Celebration, the uncomfortable 1998 comedy-drama by Trier’s Dogme 95 peer Thomas Vinterberg. The webpage Claire frantically attempts to print much later in the film says something about “Melancholia: The Dance of Death,” and the phrase is evocative — the camera movements, the actors’ behavior, the settings and sky itself in the first half are balletic and sensual for all their emotional trickiness and the vague sense of a curtain of doom settling. It’s here that Trier captures with throttling expertise the baggage and crush of a dysfunctional family’s wedding reception, full of awkward drunken confessions, testy spars, and even sexual liaisons. Trier nails the atmosphere, Dunst as the strained bride going through dull irrelevant motions and fake smiles galore. Few things so terrifying — in many ways more so than the forthcoming collision — have been made so attractive on film. It’s established here that Justine’s anxieties are distancing her from the fixtures of her family, romantic life, and career, but the coalescing astronomical crux of the story is only offhandedly addressed for the moment. The colors are warmer, homelier, the Trier sense of humorous irony acid and ever-present, but the same hint of foreboding night air lingers suggestively.
It seems almost beside the point to dwell on any aspects of Von Trier’s actual screenplay, personal though it seems; the story of Melancholia is revealed cinematically, through its characters’ faces and the sensory experience overall. It seems apt to compare the film to the most famously absorbing movie dance-of-the-gods, 2001: A Space Odyssey, but my mind continually drifted to The Birds — repeating what Federico Fellini referred to as that film’s poetic structure, one stanza after the next, and of course the way that film’s vision of apocalypse is really a reflection of the conflict of two (possibly three) central female characters. As in Hitchcock’s film, the adult male characters of Melancholia are clueless, formless distractions of only fleeting concern, and even then largely for the way they affect the key women of each story. Much as tormented, headstrong Tippi Hedren and icy potential mother-in-law Jessica Tandy clasp hands at the finale of The Birds, providing Tandy at last with a daughter, Claire and Justine will knowingly touch in the same way in the breathtaking closing scene here — a knowing smile from Kirsten Dunst signalling her understanding of her sister’s agony or acceptance in the final moments of her life.
Dunst and Gainsbourg’s performances exit their ensemble setting and move into overdrive for the second, darker half of the picture — as a result of Trier’s illusion of spontaneity with his signature verité handheld work, they play as much a role in the defining of these characters as he does. Gainsbourg’s refreshingly complete sensitivity to Claire’s fears as well as her desperate need to comfort her sister (a reversal of what’s to come) are just as strikingly vivid and believable as Justine’s bottom-hitting hopelessness. In turn, as the situation grows ever graver — the blueness of Melancholia casting its constant shadow, the scientific objections quieting, the tension and fear palpable and heart-pounding by the climax — Claire and Justine will switch, the stable sister going off the handle, the ill sister’s bleak worldview suddenly justified and even helpful.
In the past, Trier’s work has been thoroughly dedicated to movement, to operating within spaces — he’s often decried the presence of anything “beautiful” or cinematic-looking in his films. That motif disappears long enough to make Melancholia his most visually sumptuous work thus far, an effort unexpectedly direct in its hit-to-the-jugular sensuality and raw perfection. His framing is still deliberately shaky, the camera still far more devoted to faces than to composition, but the director’s painterly hand only benefits the immersion. Seemingly every great thing he takes a stab at here, ideas almost universally properly used and expertly executed, gets overshadowed in the end by the film’s final shot (even the lovely slow motion opening sequence), surely one of the most wondrous effects shots and strikingly gorgeous and devastating endings to a film in a great number of years. It’s the zoom forward of the orb, the sudden sensation of distance being filled and space becoming fully occupied, that final sickening twitch of Charlotte Gainsbourg as the impact is felt, the rumbling, the cut to black, and the rain of unseen debris of everything that’s ever been — it’s truly overwhelming, exhilarating, something remarkable to wake up from into a world that remains after it’s so vividly died away in the movies.
The caliber of this ending is such that it seems at this moment that Lars von Trier has sealed it — crafted a story that builds to a conclusion of such unsettling but satisfying hugeness, personal and yet vast and all-encompassing, he can cast a shadow over your entire outlook upon other films for some time to come. Only a handful of directors have ever been so capable. I didn’t ever think Trier would top for me the release of tearful recognition in Dancer in the Dark when Catherine Deneuve shouts that Selma was right to listen to her heart, such unbridled sentimentality revealing a gulf of genuine empathy, but I truly believe the final sequence of Melancholia, from the building of the special caves to Dunst and Gainsbourg’s wordless communication to that thrust of oncoming death and beautiful surrender, makes an already fine film something close to a masterpiece.
I’m convinced that Melancholia will age well, but there is something powerful and primal about seeing it projected, something I have no doubt will be lessened on a smaller screen — but then, I’m certain 2001 is lessened on a smaller screen even though I’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing it any other way. I have a feeling that decades from now, I’ll still remember seeing Melancholia the first time and that totally baffling mixture of feelings as I watched our planet die and heard its remnants swirling and careening around me. It will linger because of the feeling of being wholly in the hands of a great filmmaker, exorcising his emotional demons by inflicting them on us in a great dance of death — the essence of art itself, the reason indeed that art matters even though it will perish with the rest of us when Melancholia hits.