The last film I reviewed on this blog — Persona — delved into intense, realistic inner turmoil by utilizing varying degrees of blatant unreality within the frame of an ostensibly realistic narrative, or, at least, a narrative that feels real to the touch as we follow the two women around a lonely island. However, the viewer is led into the film with an extended prologue, filled with abstractions and seemingly random images. As the film concludes, the unreality returns. Reviewing Persona made me think of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), another film that, for a time, plays out in a palpably realistic world, though we are introduced to the film by way of a long, unreal prologue, with the unreality returning as the film concludes.
From the outset, I want to say that I think Melancholia is a wonderful film, but its similarities to Persona tend to end after those somewhat superficial, structural similarities. In von Trier’s film, we know what’s going on, the images are more clear, and when the film ends we have an excellent idea just what von Trier meant to hand us as we leave the theater. It’s well crafted, wonderfully well acted, and, for me, von Trier at his best.
The prologue, a visual feat that in itself is a pretty remarkable bit of filmmaking, takes us through a series of intensely slow-motion surreal images. We see a mother struggling terribly to carry her son as her feet are sucked into the earth on the expressly non-existent 19th hole of the private golf course.
There’s a similar feel to the image of a bride struggling to move forward, though she’s rooted to the ground.
And in a very formal image, the three characters each stand on an expansive lawn under three celestial objects: the sun, the moon, and the rogue blue planet Melancholia.
Finally the prologue gives away the ending of the movie. Von Trier did this on purpose. He wanted his audience to consider the characters without being distracted by the suspense of not knowing what would happen to them. It worked for me.
Part 1 is entitled “Justine.” Justine (Kirsten Dunst, who won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival for this role) is an up-and-coming advertising agent, and it’s her wedding night. As the segment opens, she and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are making their way to a lavish wedding party hosted by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and paid for by Claire’s exceedingly wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). John and Clair live in a fantastic mansion situated on lavish, open, green lawns decorated with formal shrubbery (you can see some of it in the screenshot of the three characters above). When Justine arrives at the party (very late), she is bubbling and giddy, but we soon see that she is trying to will herself to be happy. The night goes on and on and on as the party continues to fall apart. It’s not just Justine’s fault. Her father (John Hurt) is openly flirting with every girl he sees. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling) is a misanthrope and openly expresses her disdain to the marriage institution.
There is promise of a new life. Michael tries to comfort Justine by showing her a picture of a bunch of young apple trees, promising that someday, when the trees are grown, they will put up a swing. She knows (as do we, considering the opening of the film) that there is no future for her and Michael, even though her reasons are different from ours. She simply tells Michael, “We’ll talk about that when the time comes.”
Justine continues to disappoint people. John, who paid for it all, brings up the cost and says it’s fine as long as she upholds her end of the deal: just be happy! Claire, who understands her sister a bit better, is still shocked that Justine seems to disregard just how much trouble Claire has gone to in order to build up this dream wedding for her — if this doesn’t make you feel good, what can? Meanwhile, the wedding planner (Udo Krier) refuses to look at Justine who, in his opinion, is not being a responsible bride.
This first part is very distressing; the emotional weight insinuates itself beneath the skin. We know that the rogue planet Melancholia is approaching, but for nearly an hour it’s completely absent from the script. Instead we focus on Justine’s impending breakdown. Some of the characters walk on eggshells around her; others use wit as a slight veneer over cruelty. Despite the expansive lawn and the large rooms, it is claustrophobic.
Part 2 is entitled “Claire.” When we start, it has been some time (not long, but enough) since the wedding night. Claire is taking care of Justine, who is no longer veiling her depression under a wedding dress and golden hair.
Significantly, Melancholia is moving close to earth. Claire is terrified. Gainsbourg plays this panic so well: the terror is ever-present, but she’s had to learn to move about through the day anyway. What else can you do? If Melancholia hits the Earth, no amount of planning can help. There is no where to escape to. Worse, there is no way to protect her young son Leo (Cameron Spurr). Her husband John is calm and collected, certain the scientists who are saying it will simply be a close fly-by are correct. He looks forward to the day Melancholia rises close to the horizon and then proceeds into the distance at 60,000 miles per hour: “Melancholia is just going to pass right in front of us.”
As the planet approaches, Claire gets more and more fragile. Justine, on the other hand, approaches the potential disaster calmly. Indeed, if all life is destroyed, “Nobody will miss it.” She admits she knows we are alone here, so why look for false comfort? “Life is only on Earth. And not for long.”
I have to say this movie really moved me, though I feel I understand what people consider its faults and certainly have no love for von Trier himself (he appears immature and hateful to me) — I certainly don’t ascribe to his vision. But I don’t have to in order to still find the expression interesting — no, captivating. It’s not really a disaster movie, though when I first heard the premise I thought what is von Trier doing? This is a very intimate (and probably deeply personal) movie about depression, sifted through the mind of a nihilistic misanthrope who most likely would not mourn if Earth were destroyed.
Still, there are problems.
1) The characters, though I thought fantastically acted, are fairly predictable. We know how they will respond to things, but for me that didn’t prevent me from feeling moved when they did. In fact, as predictable as, say, John is, as he hopes the bad out there will simply fly by — just sit back and let it move into the distance — it’s entirely believable. Honestly, I had a hard time breathing at times, so genuinely did I feel everyone’s — John’s included — hidden terror.
2) Some will certainly hate the overt stylization of the film. It’s as glossy as they come — and this from a founder of Dogme 95 — even when the sky is overcast and they’re taking the horses out for a ride in the gloom. I didn’t mind this and didn’t see it as pretentious, though I can understand why people do. Couple the gloss with the use (some would say over-use, as lovely as it is) of the “Prelude” to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde soundtrack, and we have a heightened sense of just how beautifully von Trier pictures the end of time.
3) Von Trier is obviously channelling other directors throughout. The pace and an explicit shot of Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow bring Tarkovsky to mind. The never-ending dinner party turned disaster has people saying it’s a rip-off of fellow Dogme 95 founder Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (I never saw the movie, but I saw the play when it premiered in London); I see the connection but don’t consider it a rip-off. Some say von Trier is also channelling Ingmar Bergman, which, despite the fact I brought Bergman’s Persona up above, I think is an overstatement. Though not many filmmakers so disturb my subconscious as to bedevil me with waking dreams from their movies, and Bergman and, now, with this film, von Trier have both done that.
4) Some complain that these characters and nature itself don’t act naturally. You don’t say. It’s true: if you’re a stickler for film presenting physical reality, the approach of Melancholia will annoy you to no end. Since it’s not about physical reality but about despair, this didn’t bother me in the slightest. And while I do think the characters are predictable, and perhaps because of that a bit unrealistic, again I appreciated the expression more than I desired gritty realism. The film is aestheticized to no end, so don’t expect it to look right — for some, though, it might feel right.
There’s one complaint I’ve heard that is related to this point that I have to bring up because I actually found the supposed weakness to be a great strength: as doom approaches, the four characters (Justine, Claire, John, and Leo) stay at their home, and there’s no indication about how the rest of the world is reacting. There are no glorious shots of a crowded Times Square. There are no televised talk shows where the experts weigh-in. There is no montage where the camera moves past family after family huddled together in their homes across the globe or enacting final rituals. It’s perhaps a bit unrealistic that these four individuals seem to have no contact with the outside world (or maybe not unrealistic at all), but it sure makes the movie more intimate. On the one hand we have these glorious shots of cosmic space and celestial bodies, vast lawns and airy corridors (there is often a slight breeze blowing the characters’ hair), yet the film is very very claustrophobic. As it should be. These characters have no where better to be, but the world where they are is disappearing before their eyes. We simply don’t need these other images to show terror when Gainsbourg is doing it so well while interacting with her unflappable husband, taking care of severely depressed sister, and looking at her young son.
5) Though the film doesn’t go for shock as some of von Trier’s past films, the glorification, through music (Wagner, no less) and imagery, of the end of days may (read “has”) offend some people. Von Trier has a nihilistic world view, that’s certain. There’s a certain purification by total destruction that we see here. But, again, I don’t have to think this way in order to appreciate that a man who cannot express himself publicly can somehow express something through film. I do think some of the analogies are obtuse, but these are overshadowed with the overall scope of the film’s two parts.
All in all, then, though it took me some time to restabalize after watching it, I think Melancholia is a film worth watching, or, if you prefer, worth confronting.