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.