Saturday, November 05, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Melancholia (2011)

 "Life is only on Earth. And not for long."

- Justine (Kirsten Dunst) makes a startling prediction in Melancholia (2011).

I woke up this morning to read  headline news that Asteroid 2005 YU55 will narrowly miss Earth during its cosmic flyby on this coming Tuesday night, at 6:28 pm.  In fact, the aircraft-carrier-sized asteroid will pass nearer our planet than the moon's orbit.

Apparently, there is no danger that the asteroid will strike our home, and yet I'm still unsettled by this news, in part because of the strange synchronicity of life. 

You see, last night I screened Lars Von Trier's visionary and poignant new film, Melancholia (2011). 

And as you may or may not have read, this production concerns a rogue planet on a collision course with Earth, and two sisters' vastly differently responses to the end of all life on our planet. 

Late in the film, one sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) reviews the trajectory of the approaching planet on a web site, gazing intently at a chart of Melancholia's path.  The trajectory is named, menacingly, "the dance of death."    

Coincidentally, you can read The Huffington Post story about 2005 YU55 this morning and also view a not entirely dissimilar animation of the approaching asteroid's path. 

No, there's no dance of death here, but this is clearly a close call. 

It's close enough, in fact, to help you more effectviely imagine what the end of the world might be like, and what your own personal response might be to such an event.  And in the end, that's the concern of Melancholia too.  It's a film that asks what personal qualities prepare one to meet inevitable death, and even implies that someone who is depressed and unhappy might countenance the end with more grace than a happy, whole person might.

That's likely a gross oversimplification of this stirring, lyrical film, however.  And as is his wont, Lars Von Trier never takes the direct or expected trajectory to reach this conclusion.  For instance, in Melancholia, the viewer must follow the unique narrative through a pre-credit "storybook" presentation of the entire tale.  Then, the audience lands in an extended "Part I" that involves sister Justine's ill-fated wedding (and her battle with depression).  Finally, in Part II (titled "Claire"), we reach the "end of the world" story in all its terrifying dimensions and tragedy. 

And yet, to misquote Morpheus in The Matrix films, it happens the way it happens, and it couldn't happen in any other way.

In Melancholia's Part I, there is only the slightest hint of cosmic disaster.  Instead, the film focuses on Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) on their wedding day. 

They are two hours late for their own reception, and we slowly grow aware of how deeply unhappy and inconsiderate a person Justine (Dunst) is.  For instance, she blithely refuses to take part in a contest at the reception to guess the number of beans in a jar.  

Later, Justine leaves the reception mid-way through to tuck her nephew into bed...and then takes a nap with him.  Then, while everyone is waiting for her to cut the wedding cake, she takes a bath.  Next, Justine returns to the reception and openly swigs whisky from a bottle. 

Meanwhile, the hosts for the expensive wedding -- Justine's sister Claire and Claire's husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) -- remark about Justine's ability to act and be unhappy in the face of such a wonderful celebration. What's her problem?  Is she stark raving mad?

The groom, Michael, also learns of Justine's intense and unshakable "melancholy."  He gives her a gift: a photograph of an apple orchard -- a deed of land he has purchased.  He asks his bride to keep the photograph close to her heart whenever she feels overcome by sadness.  In this way, she will be reminded of happy things, and their happy future together.  Almost immediately, however, Justine rejects his advice, leaving the photograph behind as if what it represents (the future) means absolutely nothing to her.  She seems so cruel.

In fact, Justine's continued behavior throughout the late night reception suggests she has no regard for her future -- or anyone else's -- at all.  She tells off her boss, Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) and he fires her on the spot.  She has sexual intercourse on her wedding night...but not with her husband, Michael.  By the end of the night, Justine separates from her new husband and slips into an irrevocable "melancholy," a state in which she can hardly exert energy or even move.

In Melancholia's Part II, the despondent Justine comes to live with John, Claire and their son, Leo.  At first, Justine hardly seems to take notice that a rogue planet, Melancholia, is on a course to pass very near Earth.  It has already passed Mercury and Venus, and in just three days will complete its dance with our planet. 

Claire is terrified, though assured by John's rational, scientific arguments that the planet could not possibly collide with ours.

As Melancholia (the planet) grows closer, Justine seems to perk up.  By night, she sneaks out of Claire's home and in the neaerby forest strips down naked under the blue, luminescent glow of the rogue space body.  As disaster looms, Justine baffingly becomes more functional and more communicative.  The others, meanwhile -- notably John and Claire -- begin to fall apart. 

And then, unexpectedly, Justine makes an admission to Claire about herself and life on Earth that changes everything we know and understand about the character, and also about what the film has shown us thus far. 

I won't reveal Justine's admission in any specficity, but it explains everything about her actions and her seeming cruelty.  Suddenly, we understand her pervasive depression and "black bile," her lack of care about the future, and even why she could never really buy into Michael's dream of a home on an apple orchard. 

In other words, you spend the first two-thirds of Melancholia despising Justine as a self-involved, capricious woman who can't overcome her own selfish concerns to show even a minimal amount of decency and courtesy to those around her, but then -- in the last act -- understand the unique and woefully heavy burden that she carries. 

This revelation makes Justine perhaps the most unusual of Von Trier's cinematic "Golden Hearts."  In the director's films such as Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Breaking the Waves (1996), Von Trier featured female characters who underwent terrible, life draining trials, and yet still were good inside.  They maintained their goodness in spite of everything.

 Justine is similarly tortured, similarly burdened by a twist of fate, but she can't quite bring herself to be good to least until the very end.  In particular, as the planet Melancholia approaches, Justine builds a "magic cave" for little Leo, one which she claims will protect him from the Earth's impending death.

It's no coincidence that "melancholia" is both the name of the rogue planet and of the mental disorder from which Justine so dramatically suffers.  In fact, the two melancholia cause approximiately the same symptoms, only on vastly different orders of scale. 

In the first half of the film, we see how proximity to Justine and her depression impacts those around her like a force of nature, like gravity itself.  Her cruelty causes a cascade effect of unhappiness and pain.  Because of her actions, other "bodies" nearby (Michael, Claire, John) spin out of control and face emotional swells and discontent. 

In the second half of the film, we watch as the rogue planet's Melancholia's proximity to Mother Earth does roughly the same thing, unsettling nature, sucking the oxygen out of the atmosphere, and wielding an inescapable weight on all human life as apocalypse nears.  Melancholia and Justine are kindred.

Interestingly, melancholia is also a term for "mourning" and in the case of Justine and this film in toto, that's the most significant definition to consider.  After roughly two-hours, you will start to realize that Justine's behavior has not been self-involved, not capricious, but related very much to the act of mourning. 

Later, she comes to the conclusion that "the Earth is evil.  We don't need to grieve for it," in part because of the behavior of her mother (Charlotte Rampling) and father (John Hurt) at her wedding reception.  She has overcome her grief and is able to emotionally handle the end of all life on the planet (and in the universe itself, she suggests...) because she has already mourned it.  By contrast, Claire -- the mother of a small child -- does not share Justine's particular burden/gift/curse and must face the end of the world without such preparation, without a mourning period.

Consequently, the film's final scene in the "magic cave" features two very different emotional approaches to the impending cessation of existence. 

In this moment, we must contemplate our own responses to global apocalypse.  Is it better to "know" ahead of time, or better to face the terror as it comes, at the very end?

Because this emotional reckoning is Von Trier's endgame in Melancholia, he doesn't attempt to generate any sort of suspense about the end of the world.  The film's pre-title sequence features images that seem reflective of a child's storybook, and reveal the film's entire story, from Justine's wedding to Melancholia's catstrophic "touch" on Earth.  Therefore, you know the end before it comes, and may focus instead on the characters and their emotional states.

Much of the film re-purposes Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde (1865) as soundtrack, and as you may recall, that opera involved a love affair that ended tragically.  Melancholia too is a story of love that ends tragically, the "dance" between the rogue planet and Earth, not to mention the marriage between caring Michael and discontented Justine.  There's even some possibility that, in a weird sense, the planet Melancholia and Justine are like lovers, acting in a strange symbiosis.

In terms of allusion to classics, Justine takes her name from the Marquis de Sade's literary work of 1787, Justine.  The narrative there involved a woman who, in reaching maturity, went through terrible trials and degradations.  The book involved the belief that tradition was corrupt and that capricious nature itself ruled man.  Some of those themes also find voice in this 2011 Von Trier film.  Justine, like her literary counterpart, faces trials, though not explicitly of a sexual nature.  Instead, her trials involve "knowing," and how "knowing" impacts Justine's behavior towards and consideration of societal conventions, such as marriage. 

Finally, the notion that nature rules man is made literal in Melancholia, as the Heavens themselves conspire to to dominate (and end) his existence.

Although far less overtly gruesome than Von Trier's horror masterpiece, Antichrist (2009), Melancholia may not be as approachable a film as that remarkable effort.  Dunst gives an amazing performance here -- perhaps her best ever -- but Justine's very nature is distancing.  She is cruel and thoughtless to those around her, and even if she boasts sufficient reason for such behavior, she is not an especially sympathetic heroine.  One feels that she has assessed all life on Earth as evil (again, a De Sade-an-type revelation) unfairly, especially given the presence of true love (Michael) and innocence (Leo) in her life.

It is widely understood that Von Trier crafted Melancholia as a response to his own bout of severe depression, a few years ago, and the film's steadfast viewpoint is that the state of unhappiness is one that better prepares us for unhappy news (like, for instance, universal Armageddon).  In other words, the film is a validation of pessimism as a  life choice.  

That may or may not be your cup of tea. 

For if you are always expecting the worst out of life, it will inevitably "taste like ashes." 

Accordingly then, this is a case where I don't agree with a film maker's perspective while I simultaneously laud -- fully -- how effectively and gorgeously he has stated his case.  Melancholia is by turns brilliant and engaging, haunting and poetic, even if the director's attempt to legitimaze depression as a necessary life skill falls somewhat short in the end.

If we are all going to die in a global apocalypse, it would be my preference that we treat each other well -- and with love and grace (vis-a-vis Malick's Tree of Life) -- than spiral into pessimism and despair during our last moments.  Such an approach might make the last moments more difficult, but the moments leading up to them will be better for everyone.


  1. Excellent review, John. Given your thoughts about this Von Trier film, I recommend (if you haven't read it) Ron Currie Jr's novel, 'Everything Matters!' for something similar and yet very different. Thanks for a great look at this.

  2. I was working on a piece about synchronicity on my second computer when I decided to take a break and check out the ol' "Reflections on Film". And there you are, talking about synchronicity. That's, like, a meta-synchronicity or something. Great review. I never expect to like a von Trier film but usually end up being knocked out.

  3. Hello, my friends.

    Michael: I have no familiarity with that novel, and now I'm very curious about it. I'll have to pick that one up. Thanks for the heads up!

    DLR: Meta-synchronicity...I like the sound of that! Like you, I always go into a von Trier film rather guarded, and come out being absolutely blown away. Although I'd still give the nod to Antichrist as a better film, Melancholia is terrific, another masterpiece. Von Trier has a lot of personal and image baggage, but as a filmmaker he's daring, provocative and extremely talented. I highly recommend this film.

    Best to you both!