Sunday, November 13, 2011

Lars von Trier's MELANCHOLIA, or: How I learned to stop worrying and accept my place in the not-so-awful demise of Earth

Lars von Trier, not perhaps the best chap to really be around if one wants sunshine and rainbows and lolipops and all those things (or to put it another way, he's less Singin' and more Lamenting Existentially In the Rain), has said that Melancholia, he feels, is his first film with a happy ending.  Yes, spoiler alert, the world ends, everybody dies.... and yet, in a strange but intuitive way, I can see what he means by the end of his singular tale of woe and understanding.  By the end of things, all things, we are alone, and we will die, and there will be nothing left of us when that 'thing' out 'there' happens that destroys us all... but will one be afraid?  Will it be a time for fear, or a time for some kind of peace with the way things are meant to be at that exact moment?  Maybe it's time for that 'Magic Cave' we always wanted.  Or, simply, to be with the ones we're close to while being all alone.

Melancholia is the work of an artist who is so confident in making us feel deeply for the demise of the world because he knows how to center it, on people who feel and fret (or don't, or pretend not to, or are too innocent to try), and who may be clinically depressed, deeply so, yes, but "know things" that are hard to explain outright.  In fact it's stunning to see the film in light of the director's previous effort, Antichrist, which also took a jaundiced view on humanity and with other-worldly elements, but with such a sour center and a lack of respect for its audience.  That jaundice is here, and there's still some of that wildly slow-mo film-speed in each films' prologues.  And yet where Antichrist failed so much, Melancholia soars as a piece that looks at humanity in a bubble, in what is sore about it, and what could be good and caring.  Or, if one wants to look further, Jim Emerson's assertion of the film as a depressed man's happy cry to the universe.

In fact von Trier sets up the two protagonists of the film - Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) - in direct opposition of one another in two 'parts' of the film.  The first details the very long night of Justine's wedding to a man (Alexander Skarsgard) who she probably loves, buy who cares when hardcore, clinical depression kicks in.  It's put together up by Claire and John (her husband played by a surprisingly good if two-note Kiefer Sutherland), and it's one very long night that starts with the couple being two hours late to the event due to a limo driving incident (take a look at this in your mind after you see the film again - think how you never leave this compound again really after this happens).

Justine goes away into her room and won't come out for stretches of time.  She pulls away from becoming intimately close with her new husband Michael, and he can't see why.  She wants to try and say something to her father (a great if brief John Hurt), one of the only people who seems to be genuinely happy in the film amid his old age and perpetual stealing of spoons.  Or Justine will just say 'fuck it all' and torpedo her job (Stellan Skarsgard), and it shatters us as it does her really.  Or maybe it does?  While I've never had clinical depression, I've known people very close to me (some of the closest in my life) who have had it.  It's so completely like this as Justine has it, and not simply that, but how other people react to such mood swings, with confusion, disdain, and bewilderment.  Depression on your wedding?  What kind of person is this?  Someone all too sane, and yet all too sad, by genetic make-up really.  Why do anything?  Why not stay in bed and sleep, or even bother eating that meatloaf that tastes "like ashes"?

In another film, Dunst's character might be a mopey-dopey mess.  Here... she may still be as well, but there's an extra, fuller, deeper dimension von Trier brings to it.  Perhaps it's from his own experience, or it may just be an aspect of representing the much larger drama on display - plus, as mentioned, a contrast to Claire, who is the more "normal" one, or rather as studio people say the "audience" - a character who, as a nearby planet or large orb of some kind come colliding into and destroying Earth, can't seem to really fathom it, and keeps deferring to her husband John's seeming expertise (or reliance on those who seem to have it), and doesn't bother with Justine's own lack of will-power to give a shit about it.  Why care about it?  The Earth's evil anyway, right?

There is an extreme with Justine's character, though this comes out more in the second half of the film.  What's so amazing in the first half with this very long wedding sequence is that she is someone we can, if not exactly identify with (though perhaps some will in this nebulous 'audience' of the world), see as fully human.  She does have some joy, she does like being at this wedding, and she does appreciate what is being done for her.  I didn't find her lying (or at least too much) to herself when she tells this to Claire, who thinks Justine is just "making scenes" where she shouldn't.  Maybe it is too overwhelming for her, or anyone, with such a bourgeois crowd.  When you got Udo Kier freaking out as a wedding planner, you know not everything's right in Denmark.

I loved both of these characters, and how they saw the world, because von Trier shows follow-through as writer AND director here.  He uses this planet destruction as a way to probe, in a similar (though much uglier) way that Terence Malick did earlier this year with Tree of Life, how people see themselves in the scope of the universe.  Claire, as the sort of "us", is awed by it, can't help but look through the telescope to see up at the sky... and also can't seem to get to the truth that for all she might try to do for her sister (ultimately she does try to care for her, usually to no avail), she's helpless, or helpessly hoping for something as she looks through a hoop.  And Justine... poor, poor Justine.  She may see things clearer than anyone, which is frightening and enlightening in some respect.  Put against each other, there's a pretty strong argument for how we try, and fail, but keep trying... and may just fail forever, to find something worth living for.  Wine?  Beethoven?  Fuck that noise, Jack, let's just stick with that planet, shall we?  Misery loves tolerates company.  Maybe.  If she's naked on a ledge somewhere.

Performances go a long way, and here Dunst somehow comes not quite out of nowhere but with a quasi-comeback after not being in the spot-light for a number of years (from what people tell me she too suffered from bouts of depression in the past and took a break from Hollywood for a few years).  Because I felt for her when she was in contentment and with some surprising humor, such as the opening of 'Part 1' with some wackiness ensuing with a limousine going up a hill, I felt even as/more strongly when she goes into downfall mode.  She doesn't go too wild or melodramatic on it - she's believably sad all the way through, and shot through von Trier's documentary-style eye, she can't hide away from the emotions.  She lets it all out, particularly those scenes where she is mostly staring off, or staring with deadened eyes at Gainsbourg - she too, I must say, really gets to shine here in a way she really did not in Antichrist, probably because she has more to do and has a three (or more) dimensions - and it's staggering to watch them work.

Everything with the character-drama is so natural that is what brings out the jarring, profound nature of the material so well.  By the end of Melancholia I felt depressed too, or could understand where that place came from, and could understand deeper what I would feel or react to in the face of doom.  When end times come, the big "Up-There" is so vast and horrible that what we have to know is what will come of ourselves in it.  Or what do we say to the little kid that's there in the midst of it all.  Amid this depressive feeling, I felt elated and enlightened by von Trier's filmmaking, which follows-through on such awful feelings with ecstatic cinema.  I want to see the film again almost just to see the opening in the context of the rest of the film and is so full of images loaded with psychological and astronomical forbearing that it becomes all part of a piece.  It is, in its own warped, fucked-in-the-head manner, a hopeful film about personal and world-wide demise.  That's rare - even rarer to be done to breathless effect.

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