Monday, October 17, 2011

Love: Melancholia

We all know I’m a tireless, dogged defender of Lars Von Trier’s psychologically shattering  Antichrist.  For all its horrors (and there are many), it carries itself in a way that’s hauntingly beautiful and which makes its nightmarish provocations all the more lasting.  See it once and, unless you’re prone to burying bad memories deep within your psyche, you’ll remember it always in fits, starts, and bursts of graphic imagery.   Antichrist was Von Trier’s version of semi-conventional horror.  The pieces are simple, familiar:  cabin in the woods, a dead toddler, insanity, graphic mutilation and the evocation of Satan.  The way they came together was alien; pieced from the darkest depths of its creator’s brutal depression.   When Von Trier announced that his next go would be a science fiction film centered, essentially, around the end of the world, I could only imagine what that would entail for someone with his off-kilter vision.  Would we wind up with Tarkovsky?  Would we rehash Antichrist’s bleakest points of nihilism?  Could we see society tipping towards the sense of loss that Charlotte Gainsbourg made so visceral, so painful, in 2009?   All we could count on was  Von Trier discontinuing his current mode.  Love him or hate him, he’s ever-changing, innovative, and consistent, perhaps only in a latent distrust in humanity and Dogme 95 (though we seem to have moved beyond that movement). 
As it turns out, Melancholia is in many ways a sort of companion piece for the other film.   Where Antichrist found its director and characters put through hell (literally and figuratively), Melancholia is a turning point, an acceptance, and a meditative, remarkably gentle approach to the conditions so violently depicted in its sister celluloid.   This is a different Von Trier than any of the personalities we’ve met before.  He’s lucid, potentially marketable, and seemingly  in touch with his feminine side.  At the empathetic center of the film we find an assumed proxy in a woman named Justine (Kirsten Dunst).  The film opens with a beautifully shot slow motion dream, an operatic dance of the cosmos that turns, slowly, backwards in time to a celebration.   Justine has married Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and they arrive, happily, at a lavish reception put together by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland).  The cheerfulness of their first on-screen moments of marital bliss slowly erode as supporting characters step up to contribute to our own frustrated sense of impending dread.  There’s humor here, but it’s a bitter, crackling one (though Udo Kier gets a moment seemingly to channel Martin Short in Father of the Bride). In a speech-making scene to rival any of the familial hostilities in Rachel Getting Married, Justine’s bitingly negative mother (Charlotte Rampling) hacks into her blissfully odd father’s (John Hurt) moment, Justine’s boss (Stellan Skarsgard) brings work to the party, and Justine’s cheery fa├žade gives way to the manic nature of her personality.  She leaves her own wedding to take a bath.  She returns with some goading.  She leaves again.  She returns.  She cannot pretend to be that which she is not, though her sister has tried to give her everything.
In the second, at first disparate part of Melancholia, we are introduced to the film’s namesake: a planet which has been hiding behind the sun, and which is now entering a dance of death with Earth’s orbit.   How much time has passed between moments, we don’t know.  Not much, but enough that we find Justine at her lowest low.  She’s clinical, unreachable, and powerful in her dissonance. Claire takes up the burden of her sister, and the family resides together on a sort of country club estate of manicured lawns and conical trees.  She tries to feed her, to bathe her, to chase her from her funk.  All the while, she has greater fears.   Melancholia is hurtling towards Earth.  John says it will pass them right by, Claire suspects otherwise. 
While on paper the concept is one of pure, blockbuster science fiction, in execution Von Trier’s interpretation of the apocalypse is far from all that noise and ruckus. This is a film primarily concerned not with the literal end of the world, but with drawing the viewer into the impending sense of doom Justine can’t shake from her psychology.  Von Trier’s take on science-fiction is not simply one of universal imbalance, but of how the universe can appear when one is mentally out of balance. Where Von Trier has been abrasively agitated in his past depictions, here he manages a film about depression that’s as stunning in its cinematography as it is aching in its nuanced capacity for emotion. 

Melancholia is planet and girl.   Where we begin with a shattering glimpse inside Justine, we find her crashing into the other life forms in her orbit,  eventually offering us a dark, profound treatise on the human condition.  We are fragile creatures, all of us, bound by powers far outside of our own control.  What makes us so frustrated with Justine is what makes Justine so frustrated with herself.  We feel for her, we know she cannot change willingly, that she’s locked inside and prisoner to the strength of her emotions.  Yet, we also feel for all of the characters, know that the same fate awaits each of them.   Justine changes, over the course of the film, from volatile presence to a sort of zen-prophet.   As the imagery expands in scope and scale, the intimacy, the peace of Justine and her family inches closer and closer. There’s a juxtaposition between the grandiose and the minute that’s really quite something, and which resonates in a way that can perhaps best be defined as a reaching, on Von Trier’s part, towards the romantic notion of the sublime.  For my money, he comes quite close to achieving it.   This time, without complicating the experience with the shock of something like, oh, you know, a his-and-hers genital mutilation.


  1. I've been meaning to watch this film, and this review has made me all the more excited for it! Thank you for sharing :3

  2. You should definitely watch it as soon as possible. Comcast/Sundance have it available on demand, if the theatrical release doesn't swing your way. I feel like I'm gushing about the majority of films I've seen lately, but it's such a good movie year!

  3. Being a longtime fan of von Trier and finally seeing it, via an illegal screener, it's a film that I think is von Trier's most accessible work to date as well as a very realistic portrait on depression. I think he's getting better at his craft as I'm awaiting for what he does next with The Nymphomaniac.

  4. oh, are there screeners? might watch this, then. despite my intense distaste for the man, i'm a sucker for the end of the world.


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