Thursday, November 24, 2011

Infinite Sadness: Melancholia


The opening shot of Melancholia is a microcosm of what’s to come – a juxtaposition of beauty and suffering. It begins as nothing more than a tight close-up of Kirsten Dunst’s striking face, locked in an expression of wet, worn-out misery, her hair fluttering slightly in a state of not-quite-suspended animation. Then come the birds. Dead birds, falling from the sky beyond Dunst’s shoulder. From there, this eight-and-a-half-minute prologue expands to include images of the surreal (Dunst in a wedding dress, walking through the woods with vines clinging to her legs), the disastrous (Charlotte Gainsbourg holding a child, running in fear from a mysterious unrelenting cataclysm, her feet sinking into the ground with each step) and the astronomical (a huge blue planet slowly approaching Earth, dwarfing it until it subsumes it). A few of the latter shots can’t help but spark memories of the long creation sequence from this summer’s The Tree of Life, but whereas Terrence Malick’s film goes to space to marvel at the awesomeness of creation, Lars von Trier goes there to suggest the massiveness of doom and despair.

Melancholia is about severe depression. The main character, no doubt a stand-in for the director, is Dunst’s Justine. After the prologue, the film finds Justine on her wedding day, playfully laughing at the difficulty that her limousine driver is having trying to navigate the winding roadway up to the castle-like mansion where the reception is being held. The bride and groom are late, but they don’t seem to care. In the back of the limo, they giggle and kiss. And when they arrive for the reception and get lectured by the hosts and proprietors, who happen to be her sister Claire (Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland), it doesn’t faze them. They’re in love, and it’s their day, and nothing else matters. Or so it seems. A few drinks and awkward toasts later, the bubbly bride is gone, replaced by a woman incapable of propriety for propriety’s sake. She’s cranky, tired, disinterested and very, very distant. In love? Justine hardly seems aware of her husband. Heck, she hardly seems to be aware of anything, except maybe the void she feels between herself and her inattentive father or the bite of her mother’s acute perception of her. It’s her wedding day, and Justine knows how she’s supposed to feel, and what everyone expects her to feel, but she just doesn’t feel that way, no matter how hard she tries. That’s depression.

This first half of Melancholia is penetrating in its depiction of this awful condition, not just in how it affects Justine, who flees her own reception to climb into bed and then soak in a tub, but even more so in its depiction of how others respond to it. At the reception there are those who are oblivious to Justine’s suffering (Stellan Skarsgard as Justine’s ever profit-minded boss) and those who shun her for it (Udo Kier’s judgmental wedding planner), those who condemn Justine to eternal suffering (Charlotte Rampling as Justine’s mother) and those who foolishly believe that joyous events can cure her condition (Alexander Skarsgard as Justine’s husband), those who seem to care too little (John Hurt as Justine’s father) and those who seem to care too much (Gainbourg’s Claire). Justine tries desperately to rally – “I smile and I smile and I smile…” – but there’s no outrunning her sense of doom. In one gorgeous and poignant sequence, Justine watches through a telescope as small hot-air balloons adorned with well wishes from the wedding party rise up toward the heavens, glowing like lanterns in the sky. As Justine steps away from the telescope, she closes her eyes, and an expression close to mild nausea flashes across her face. Then von Trier cuts to a sequence of images that Justine would need the Hubble telescope to see – images of deep space, images that show just how far Justine wants to be from where she is.

In the second half of the film, deep space comes closer to earth. Melancholia now isn’t a condition of severe depression, it’s a planet, a looming apocalypse, which of course symbolizes severe depression. Where the first half of the film has a predominately gold/brown palette, this second half is mostly blue/gray, and it manages to be even drearier. Although the stakes are technically higher in this second half, the emotional intensity somehow slackens. I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps I simply don’t find Claire’s suffering as devastating as Justine’s. Perhaps von Trier can’t sustain the misery for two hours. Perhaps the stunning prologue, which eliminates any mystery about the outcome, works against the potential power of the conclusion. Mostly, though, I find Justine’s actions in the finale to be out of character. I’ve read numerous reviews suggesting that Justine’s suffering somehow equips her to console her sister and nephew at the end of days, but in my mind that reading betrays what the rest of the film make so clear: that severe depression has no link to the real world, no rationale. Feeling like the world is going to end and knowing it actually will are two entirely different things. And if all this time Justine’s misery has been related to a very real premonition of an actual cataclysm, it cheapens the metaphor.

But maybe I’m over thinking it. After all, this is from Lars von Trier, a filmmaker who is more provocateur than philosopher. Despite its subject matter, Melancholia isn’t nearly as suffocatingly unpleasant as most of the director’s films, but it does include his familiarly perverse view of women as monsters who need to be pleasured and punished via their genitals, often simultaneously. As Justine, Dunst is all-in – female actors really have no other choice when working with von Trier – and her performance is a shining example of measured, confident acting that trusts the camera, editing and score to evoke the twisted emotions beyond her pained smiles and grim gazes. There’s so much richness to find in Dunst’s face that it’s a shame von Trier needs to ogle her breasts in a moonlit nude scene that’s pure teenage fantasy, but as Justine says to her husband, “What did you expect?” Von Trier’s bleak worldview and twisted eroticism hover the film like Melancholia, like Justine’s depression, capturing our attention until they subsume us.

14 comments:

Tony Dayoub said...

We discussed our different takes on MELANCHOLIA already. As usual, your analysis is perceptive. We just seem to feel differently about the film. But I wanted to point out how much I agree with you on its relationship to TREE OF LIFE. I think both films bookend a great year in cinema, and would make a great double bill.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks, Tony. Your take on the ending is one I found in several reviews, and I can see, I just don't feel it. As I said in the review, I'm not quite sure why that is; I'm guessing it's a combination of factors. (Another thing Tree of Life and Melancholia have in common: I'm disappointed by their endings. Yeah, interesting double bill though.)

Hokahey said...

I enjoyed your analysis of this film but it definitely hit us differently. You say "severe depression has no link to the real world." However, when you are severely depressed, you are in the real world, and you either don't deal well with that world (as in the wedding reception scenes), or you do, as Justine seems able to do at the end.

Jason Bellamy said...

However, when you are severely depressed, you are in the real world, and you either don't deal well with that world (as in the wedding reception scenes), or you do, as Justine seems able to do at the end.

No argument there. But ...

I don't see the first half of the film as a condemnation of Justine's behavior. I see it as an articulation that severe depression operates comes and goes in spite of what's happening in the real world. Thus, if the first half isn't a condemnation, I don't think the second half can be seen as some kind of tribute to her strength or ability to deal with the real world. The second half would be just chance; she's having a better day on the final day than she was having on her wedding day, or the day she couldn't get herself into a bath, and so on. It's chance. And I'm fine with it being chance, to be clear, but it eliminates the kind of redemptive reading for me.

Petey said...

"but it eliminates the kind of redemptive reading for me."

Of course, if you had been able to end with a redemptive reading, then Lars would have had a failed movie on his hands.

There is not meant to be a redemptive reading available. This is not Breaking the Waves, where, in the end, God rings the silent bells and the incurably lame can walk again.

I see this movie as a return to form with some of Lars' greatest early work. It should share a double-bill with Zentropa (aka Europa), with which it shares a large amount of thematic similarity.

"Perhaps I simply don’t find Claire’s suffering as devastating as Justine’s"

I'm pretty certain you aren't meant to. That's not the dichotomy being played out here.

FilmDr said...

Nice analysis. I like to view Justine's depression as in part the result of her knowledge of the apocalypse, early in the movie. Your interpretation favors her depression as a given. I read another critical analysis that viewed the apocalypse as the objective correlative of her depression. There's much in the opening scenes that I don't really get. Why does her father pretend to steal spoons? How are Justine's parents important for understanding her?

At any rate, I tend to like any film that hints at a larger meaning that's never fully explained. In that regard, Melancholia reminds me of Synecdoche, New York. They both keep offering intriguing interpretations for days after I've seen them. I also get the feeling that they wouldn't be as beautiful if they weren't so utterly bleak.

jake said...

Thanks as always, Jason. You're officially my favorite movie critic.

I hurried to see this right when it opened and I was definitely bummed out: I felt very bothered throughout the film by how little I cared what was happening. Not one character seemed all that realistic or sympathetic. And if these people were just meant to be stand-ins for some sort of ideological paradigm or passion play about depression, I'll grant that it was cleverly arranged to that end, but at the same time it was a total failure in terms of a film's supposed ability to let the viewer inside the world of the characters in order to experience the story/drama/emotions with them.

Kudos to Dunst, it was a brave performance, and clearly a lot of care went into the gorgeous production. But Von Trier continues to make me feel depressed at the end of his more recent films - and not because of what takes place during his films, but because of how an obviously talented director like him continues to paint a pointlessly morbid, judgmental, hopeless portrait of his characters and of human beings in general.

Petey said...

Glad to see Melancholia pick the European Film Award.

It's the 'beautiful feel bad but somehow true' movie of the year. (They should put that tagline on the poster.)

Petey said...

FWIW, I think it would've been a shoe-in for the Palme d'Or too were it not for Lars' amusing press conference that produced such awful sound-bites...

(If you never watched the whole press conference, it's worth a look. It all made sense in context.)

Petey said...

"But Von Trier continues to make me feel depressed at the end of his more recent films - and not because of what takes place during his films, but because of how an obviously talented director like him continues to paint a pointlessly morbid, judgmental, hopeless portrait of his characters and of human beings in general."

Well, that is his chosen goal, essentially. He creates a pretty dark canvas. And he's willing to torture his audience to get his effect.

And it's not a recent thing. It's been there all throughout his career.

(And FWIW, while I consider myself a pretty big Lars fan, I found both Dogville and Manderlay pretty hard to take in their abstract pointlessness. In short, I thought they were bad movies. I see Antichrist and Melancholia as him returning to form. But even at his best, there is a certain amount of 'torture the audience' method to his madness which doesn't work for a lot of folks. But when he pulls it off with things like Melancholia, The Idiots, Breaking the Waves, The Kingdom, or Zentropa, it certainly does work for me...)

Jason Bellamy said...

Looping back to some comments (sorry for the delay) ...

* Petey 1: There is not meant to be a redemptive reading available.

Maybe not. But several of the movie's biggest fans are finding one. Just saying. I don't see it myself.

* FilmDr: How are Justine's parents important for understanding her?

I think they're important only in that her mother seems incapable of giving Justine a chance while her father is entirely doting but distant, in a way that suggests he doesn't really know who Justine is, and thus doesn't really love her for being herself, good, bad or otherwise.

* Jake: First of all, thank you for the very kind words. Secondly ...

"...(LVT) continues to paint a pointlessly morbid, judgmental, hopeless portrait of his characters and of human beings in general.

I don't know if they're pointless, but they certainly are hopeless. Personally, I find eternal optimists and pessimists to be equally frustrating. If that's the way he sees the world, so be it. But whether it's complete optimism or pessimism, it almost always comes away feeling overdone and forced to me, no matter the artist.

* Petey: But even at his best, there is a certain amount of 'torture the audience' method to his madness which doesn't work for a lot of folks.

Yeah, it's worth wondering whether LVT tortures the audience as an unavoidable product of his artistic interests or if, perhaps, his primary aim is shocking and horrifying his audiences, and thus that desire shapes the art. Good to have a big LVT fan weigh in here. Thank you!

Petey said...

"Yeah, it's worth wondering whether LVT tortures the audience as an unavoidable product of his artistic interests or if, perhaps, his primary aim is shocking and horrifying his audiences, and thus that desire shapes the art."

I think it's a bit of both.

He's genuinely a melancholy Dane, but he's also an Alfred Hitchcock-style total showman. Worth noting that he had his production company do a bunch of (well-received) female-targeted hardcore porn films, to get a taste of his style of showmanship.

If you're really interested in where he's coming from, it's worth checking out the original The Kingdom TV mini-series, (available on Netflix streaming the last time I was subscribing), where a young Lars stands on stage for the intro and outro to each episode, directly addressing the audience, and warning them about the horrors they are to be shown, and that they might not want to watch. It's a similar vibe to the famed Hitchcock trailers for movies like The Birds and Psycho.

"Good to have a big LVT fan weigh in here."

Like I say, I really am a big fan of most of his work, and see Melancholia as one of his better films. It's similar in certain ways to Breaking the Waves, which is of his easiest films of his to embrace. Both are told from the POV of a madwoman whose madness ends up being reality, and both are absurdly beautiful and sad.

('Tis a crime that Breaking the Waves hasn't had a Blu-ray release yet. Being able to see Melancholia in the cinema on the really big screen does make up for that omission for a bit, though.)

Petey said...

Well, let's hear it for the simultaneous theatrical and VOD release! Yay! I got to rent the movie at home to watch again. NATO be damned.

And I'll advise folks that a second viewing is rewarding.

On first viewing, there is such a "Shock and Awe" strategy continually practiced by the film that it's hard for the viewer to ever get situated. The film acts on you, but you don't know what is happening. However, on second viewing, a much more coherent audience narrative begins to show itself. The overwhelming prologue informs much more of what is to come than just the final destination, and two 'halves' make more narrative sense as a whole.

"Perhaps I simply don’t find Claire’s suffering as devastating as Justine’s"

One reason for this is that Claire's suffering is actually silly to the audience. The audience is always a step ahead of Claire, and thus her efforts to cope in the second half seem ridiculous. (With a couple of exceptions, mainly just the very final shot, which is the lone time you really do feel Claire's suffering.) The other reason is that the movie is essentially told from Justine's POV, even during the 'Claire half'.

"How are Justine's parents important for understanding her?"

They mirror the other themes. Men leave. The father leaves just as both sisters' husbands leave. Justine's madness is sane in the movie's reality, and the mother's madness is sane in the movie's reality.

"Although the stakes are technically higher in this second half, the emotional intensity somehow slackens. I’m not quite sure why."

There are no stakes in the second half.

In the first half, the stakes are big with the wedding, and we're on the roller-coaster with Justine, trying to see if we're going to get happiness or disaster.

In the second half, we know how the thing ends, and in a weird way, we're as calm as Justine.

"And if all this time Justine’s misery has been related to a very real premonition of an actual cataclysm, it cheapens the metaphor."

Take it as an allegorical reprise, rather than metaphor.

"I’ve read numerous reviews suggesting that Justine’s suffering somehow equips her to console her sister and nephew at the end of days, but in my mind that reading betrays what the rest of the film make so clear: that severe depression has no link to the real world, no rationale. "

But let's say that Justine's depression does have a link to the real world. Forget about the apocalypse for a moment. She's about to get married to someone she doesn't love, she doesn't really want to get married at all, and she despises her career. Those are impending feelings of doom that do have a link to the real world. Then we get the reprise with the apocalypse. The movie's emotional power comes from positing a depression that is firmly grounded in reality...

Petey said...

"A few of the latter shots can’t help but spark memories of the long creation sequence from this summer’s The Tree of Life, but whereas Terrence Malick’s film goes to space to marvel at the awesomeness of creation, Lars von Trier goes there to suggest the massiveness of doom and despair."

Here's something fun:

Sight & Sound released their 10 Best of 2011 list. Tree of Life is #1 and Melancholia is #4 in the final tabulation.

But out of the 101 critics' ballots, the two movies only appear on the same critic's ballot a single time. It's a pretty striking polarized reaction...