An informed but self-opinionated movie buff I often talk to about films (make that get talked at) went on a rant when I made the mistake of mentioning Melancholia. “Self-indulgent, self-important, pretentious, tedious rubbish” he thundered. So negatively impassioned, so damned heated was his tirade, that I couldn’t avoid concluding that it was something personal. A thing about the writer/director, Lars Von Trier, mayhap? Not so unusual. Lars has a reputation as a bad boy of cinema and a bit of a nutter, and excels at putting noses outta joint.
He also has a tendency to self-destruct. Look no further than his stupid remarks about Hitler during an interview at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. He was clearly playing his anti-PC enfant terrible card for all it was worth, but deadpan irony is often unrecognised as such – and there are some topics, Lars, that you just gotta leave the hell alone if you value your career. Which maybe he doesn’t. Really. In the same interview he declared that Melancholia “may be crap… there’s quite a big possibility that it might not be worth seeing.” I like that.
Shit-stirring empathy aside, going on the only other Von Trier movie I’ve seen – the abysmal Breaking The Waves – I had to entertain that “big possibility” seriously. Thus, it was with some trepidation that I attended Melancholia.
It begins with a stunning prelude of cinematic poetry against a musical backdrop from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (perfect choice). The sequence of dramatic and profoundly beautiful images prefigure what follows, including the apocalyptic ending in which the Earth collides with a rogue planet, Melancholia. No need for a spoiler alert when the director/writer gives you the ending in the first 10 minutes of his film!
It’s not the ending per se that matters, though. The spectral presence of Melancholia and a sense of impending annihalation hangs over the entire film, serving a tonal function as well as shrewdly forcing the viewer to sample the terror of the inner world of the main character, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) – a chronic depressive. How so? Read on…
The movie proper is divided into two parts, the first focusing on the perspective of the mentally unwell Justine, the second on her ‘stable’ sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
Justine has just gotten married. She and her fine-looking, sweet but drippy new husband, Michael, are late to their reception at the magnificent mansion in which Claire and filthy rich husband John dwell. Long tables brace under the burden of lavish spreads, waiters hover nearby, and it is evident that no expense has been spared.
Despite the fairytale setting, as the evening progresses it turns into a nightmare for Justine as she fights a losing battle to meet the expectations of Michael, Claire and the guests that she be “happy” on her big night.
In one of many instances of ever more bizarre behaviour, Justine goes missing when the wedding cake is to be cut, and is discovered soaking in a bath by an irate John. He takes the opportunity to remind her how much it has cost him to finance the wedding reception she seems intent on ruining.
No one, it seems, can help her. In fact, all those closest to her fail her as she descends inexorably into her private hell.
When she seeks comfort from her mother (Charlotte Rampling), confiding that she is “so scared”, the response is: “We all are, sweetie. Just forget about it.”
Her sister, Claire, infuriated by her spoiling the reception, declares: “Sometimes, I really hate you.”
Her eccentric fool of a father (John Hurt), who gets his jollies stealing spoons and storing them in his coat pocket and refers to all women as “Betty”, agrees to her simple, desperate request that he sleep the night at the mansion, then slips away with some guests who offer him a lift, leaving an apologetic note.
The best new husband Michael can offer to assuage her terrible existential angst is a crumpled photo of an apple orchard he proposes they buy, assuring her she will feel better there. And in always accepting without question her often monstrously egotistical and irrational behaviour, this weak reed fails her most of all.
In Part 2, Justine is brought to the mansion in a state of acute depression bordering on catatonia. She is so ennervated she cannot even bathe herself. Claire, meantime, has issues of her own. Despite her amateur astronomer husband’s assurances to the contrary, she is terrified that Melancholia is on a collision course with Earth.
As Claire’s sense of impending doom begins to inhabit her, Justine rallies. It is as if she is gathering strength from the approaching global catastrophe. As her sister’s panic mounts, Justine becomes calmer and takes control.
This role reversal is ingenious. Naturally, the viewer’s identification has been with the ‘normal’ Claire. We have shared her frustration with her sister, and now we sense her terror, helplessness and despair at the prospect of Armageddon approaching. And in so doing, we edge towards an imaginative understanding of the terror that affects the depressive. Armageddon is never far away for Justine. Why, then, would she not feel comfortable in the shadow of Melancholia? And would not her sister’s helplessness to overcome her fear of impending doom be an assurance that she is not so whacked out – ‘normal’ even – in reacting similarly during her bouts of depression?
My critical movie-buff friend railed against the “unrealistic” elements of this film. For him, it didn’t “ring true.” People don’t behave like that, he blustered, citing the father’s spoon-hoarding by way of glaring example. And yes, that was silly. But for me, verisimilitude is not the point here.
Rather, Melancholia is a poetic meditation on the state of depression, an epic metaphorical vision almost operatic in tone. Opera is a heightened art form, a sort of caricature of life, where characters and actions are writ large in sweeping brushstrokes. So it is with this work, where the grandest strokes are used to depict a world not of realism, but of hyper-real terror and threat. Its truth is the truth of the depressive, which may go some way to explaining the apparent lack of access of critics like my movie buff mate.
Me, I’m grateful that I do not know first-hand the terror of those who suffer capital ‘D’ depression, but I do have some experience of this condition through two close friends. With Melancholia, Von Trier has taken me a few small steps closer to understanding. That’s no mean feat.
As an epic cinematic opera of cosmic doom, Melancholia is a vision grande that trips up on the small details. As a poetic contemplation of depression – and this is the way I saw it – small incongruities pale to insignficance, and may even be accepted as part of the depressive mindset of dislocation and disorientation, where nothing is quite as it should be, always off-axis in the faintly ludicrous, almost funny but ultimately terrifying way of nightmare.
However you read it, this film is a spectacular feat of imaginative filmmmaking with some jaw-droppingly dramatic and beautiful imagery. Sure, some of it is perplexing, there are aspects that may irritate, and it leaves itself open to charges of self-indulgence.
Erratic, yes. Flawed, certainly. And the pace is slow. But Kirsten Dunst turns in a gripping, if not always entirely convincing performance, the cinematically virtuoso opening sequence is alone worth the price of the entry ticket, and for all its inconsistencies the film has a power and dramatic beauty about it that should be acknowledged and applauded. It has haunted me for days.
Methinks the critics protest too much. See it and decide for yourself.
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