Wednesday, October 26, 2011

God's Manic Depressive: Melancholia


Lars von Trier’s Melancholia opens with a devastating image. Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, stands facing the camera. Under heavy lids, her eyes open slowly, halfway. Her limp hair hangs in unwashed strands. Behind her, dead birds fall from the sky. Like Thomas Wolfe’s “God’s lonely man,” Justine peers into the abyss. In this case it is an abyss of depression. What follows this perfect metaphor for depression is a montage of images, some symbolic, some presaging what is yet to unfold, some rendered in such extreme slow-motion that movement is barely perceptible. To the music of Richard Wagner’s brooding prelude for Tristan and Isolde, we see ashes falling over Peter Bruegel’s painting “Hunters in the Snow.” Justine, in her white wedding gown, struggles to run, held back by heavy strands of black yarn. A horse collapses under a black, apocalyptic sky. A woman carrying a young boy moves imperceptibly across a golf course. Planets collide.

This examination of deep-seated depression in the shadow of impending, very metaphorical, cosmic catastrophe, is divided into two parts. “Part One: Justine” covers the disaster of Justine’s wedding reception as she succumbs by increments to the depression that has ruled her life. Her father (John Hurt) acts childishly and gives a toast that antagonizes his ex-wife (Charlotte Rampling). Justine’s mother responds with a bitter declaration about the absurdity of marriage. Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) makes an innocent proclamation of deep affection but becomes more and more alienated from his bride as Justine leaves the wedding party to lounge in a bath, drive a golf cart around the golf course, tell her boss how much she despises him, and do anything to avoid becoming intimate with her husband. Throughout all this, Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), tries futilely to stop Justine from falling apart, and Justine’s brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland), tries to act the dignified host while regarding Justine’s family and her behavior with haughty disgust.

“Part Two: Claire” focuses on impending planetary disaster as the planet Melancholia heads toward Earth, supposedly, as scientists have predicted, to pass Earth by. Here, Justine is so depressed that she can’t even climb into a bath with her sister’s help. Even though Claire says to her sister, “Sometimes I hate you so much;” she also says to her husband, “She’s my sister,” and it is touching how tenderly Claire cares for Justine. Knowing that horseback riding is a release for Justine, she takes her sister riding, and we are treated to the stunning image of Claire and Justine riding black horses along a winding road under patches of fog. But since Claire cannot quell her sense of trepidation for her own life and the life of her son, Leo (Cameron Spurr), it is ultimately Justine who ends up taking care of her sister.

The best strengths of this memorable film derive from the deeply invested performances of each cast member, and the compelling nature of the film’s imagery.

Kirsten Dunst’s performance is a gripping one. Her face is sharp, her eyes cold with pain. Dunst dramatically shows Justine’s decline from a childlike innocence as she arrives in a stretch limo that, absurdly, can’t make the turn in a narrow winding road to a deep despondency registered as pain in a visage that grows harder and harder during the wedding celebrations. Later, however, as disaster looms, her eyes seem to see purpose. She has already peered into the abyss. Now she can comfort her nephew with the fantasy of building a magic “cave” of sticks. Now she tends to her unhinged sister.

Gainsbourg plays a loving mother and a devoted sister. She tenderly tries to help her sister to get into a bathtub. She pushes Justine to ride her horse, which provides some relief. She provides security by means of ritual, planning a wedding celebration with symbolic activities such as writing best wishes on the panels of hot air balloons released into the darkness. But ritual, and the shallow security of her wealth and privilege, cannot save her from the approaching apocalypse. When her son’s makeshift device consisting of a stick and a coil of wire reveals that the rogue planet has returned on a collision course with Earth, she becomes unhinged. Now it becomes Justine’s role to take control and provide compassionate care for her distraught sister.

The film belongs to Dunst and Gainsbourg, but the other cast members say much about their characters in brief appearances. With expressions and few words, Skarsgard very touchingly portrays Michael as a simple innocent who wants to grow apples. Slowly he becomes aware that Justine’s depression makes their marriage impossible, and the expression of his bewilderment is heart-wrenching. In one of his best performances, Kiefer Sutherland plays John as imperious and seemingly confident. He finds it hard to tolerate Justine’s bizarre behavior, complains about how much the reception cost him even though he’s rich enough to have his own eighteen-hole golf course, but he defers to his wife, Claire, who seems to sacrifice all for Justine. Rampling, as Justine’s iconoclastic mother, sketches a woman whose personal bitterness comes out as indifference toward her suffering daughter, and she makes clear some of the causes for Justine’s anguish.

In addition to the acting, von Trier’s talent for framing memorable imagery carries the film. Starting with a very striking prologue that lays out images that encapsulate the plot, the film continues to offer images that catch your attention, culminating with a dramatic, touching image symbolic of heart-breaking compassion.

In way of comparison, von Trier’s Antichrist and Melancholia share similarities that suggest they are variations on a recurrent theme. Besides sharing such imagery as a bridge that strikes fear in the Woman in the former and Justine in the latter, as well as the hailstorm and other bizarre natural phenomena, both films examine characters who are suffering from extreme psychological turmoil.

In Antichrist, the Woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) suffers from extreme guilt and grief due to the accidental death of her son. In Melancholia, Justine suffers from immobilizing depression so intense she can’t get in a taxi or a bathtub while her sister suffers from a dread that completely unhinges her to the extent that it is Justine who summons the compassion to help Claire’s son deal with the impending disaster. But the films differ in what happens as a result of extreme inner anguish.

In the psychological horror film Antichrist, the Woman’s grief and guilt make her respond with ghastly acts of violence toward her husband and herself. Meanwhile, in the psychological disaster movie Melancholia, Justine’s turmoil seems inconsolable until the approaching apocalypse gives rise to emotional triumph, however brief it might be. Neither film is happy, but in Melancholia there is the feeling of some sort of positive deliverance.

In both films, von Trier certainly goes to metaphorical extremes, but the subjects he explores are extremely intense ones. As difficult as it is to watch, the graphic violence and masochism of Antichrist seems entirely appropriate in relation to the intensity of anguish suffered by a mother who has lost her child due to an accident for which she blames herself. Her guilt is so great that she decides she is the Antichrist. If one considers the debilitating effects of severe, suicidal depression, von Trier’s metaphor of the planet and the impending disaster in Melancholia provides a brilliant illustration of that kind of anguish. I would rather not watch Antichrist again, but I’ve already watched Melancholia three times and I hope to see it again, for the excellence of its performances, primarily Kirsten Dunst’s, and the eloquence of the memorable images it frames.


Jon said...


I really enjoyed reading your review and your comparison of Antichrist and Melancholia. I only wish that AT&T had it On Demand, like I've heard Comcast has. I also fear it will not play in my town of Kalamazoo, and thus forcing me to possibly wait for DVD. Either way, I will be sure to see it. It looks like a powerful film.

Hokahey said...

Jon, thanks for reading, and I hope you get to see it. It is a powerful film. It does a lot with images - as does this year's The Tree of Life.

Joel Bocko said...

I've got this at my disposal, so while heeding your early warning, I shall return...

Hokahey said...

Thanks, Joel. Will look forward to future comments.

Sam Juliano said...

I have a perfect screener of this film, but I have resisted it for three weeks now, and I am determined to see this on the big screen first. It appears I have two weeks left before the NYC opening. There are few films I want to see more at this point (I am also hankering to see the film version of a book I have used in classes, THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET) but Von Trier's film is definitely haunting me. I did indeed figure that there would be striking similarities to ANTI-CHRIST, and had expected the great performances (especially by those two) that you attest to.

Great work here! I wil return!

Hokahey said...

Thanks, Sam. I share your enthusiasm for this film. I knew it wouldn't make Cape Cod until long after release date, so I had to look! It's worth the wait! Will also try to catch it on the big screen.

Jason Bellamy said...

First the disagreement ...

She has already peered into the abyss. Now she can comfort her nephew with the fantasy of building a magic “cave” of sticks. Now she tends to her unhinged sister.

You are by no means the only one who came up with this reading, but it doesn't work for me. First of all, to say she's there for her sister is generous. Justine spends most of her time making her sister feel worse about herself. Second, her nephew says he's scared, but you don't really feel it; his experience is nothing like Justine's. Third, and most importantly, depression has no link to the real world, which is why Justine was so low on such a supposedly happy day, which means that her peace in the final scenes is really coincidence, no a sign of familiarity with the abyss. I could go on, but you get the gist. I think your reading is the one von Trier intends, but it doesn't work for me.

Now the agreement ...

Dunst is perfect. It's such non-acting, in the sense that she acts best, not most. And yay for that!

While von Trier goes to some extremes just to get a rise out of his audience, which seems not just immature but somewhat disingenuous, I think it makes sense that a guy exploring such dark emotions would be so full invested in them. It can be hard to watch. But it should be.

Hokahey said...

Jason, thanks for the thoughts.

Obviously, I don't agree that Justine's peace at the end is coincidental. Her depression has had an intensity that is worse to her than the present situation, so she can rise to the occasion and comfort her sister.

This film definitely works for me. It's the best depiction of depression I've seen, and I know depression very well.

FilmDr said...

Nice review. I'd like to see Melancholia again to try to figure out the exact relationship between Justine and her parents, and to see how well von Trier sets up the correlations between the two movements. I'm still not sure why exactly he brings in the famous painting of Ophelia, aside from the superficial similarities with Justine. Are there other indications that Sutherland's character will commit suicide? I agree with you that von Trier is best at finding evocative images the encapsulate his themes.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment, FilmDr. This film is definitely worth additional viewings. First time, I thought the husband's suicide to be rather jarring. On second viewing I felt it to be more fitting. The impending doom had upset his sense of scientific order. He predicted the event wrong, and he also realized that his careful stockpiling of supplies was futile in this case.

As for the correlations between the movements, the second part is about Claire but there is the transitional focus on Justine, who is more deeply depressed, so depressed that she can't get in a taxi or in a bath by herself. Claire continues to care for her until Claire becomes more focused on the approach of the planet. As Claire's world crumbles, Justine takes over and tenders to her and the son.

The parents: all I can say is that I can see where some of Justine's depression comes from. Her mother is a bitter cynic and her father is a child. I'd leave them and go take a bath too!

Joel Bocko said...

Well, I'm finally back. Saw the film last night and really liked it. The disc I had of it looped at the end, so I watched that fantastic opening again. As with Antichrist, the film itself is excellent but the first ten minutes could also be taken in isolation as among the greatest experimental short films ever created. The imagery is that powerful.

I think I liked the "body" of Melancholia more than Antichrist (which was compelling and absorbing but didn't wash over me the way the prologue did). It's a great Melies/Lumiere movie in that it combines fantastic illusionist imagery with realistic observation, Dogme and Disney so to speak.

One thing I liked about the movie is how Von Trier strings you along. A number of developments, most obviously the ability of a planet to approach the earth without affecting more than just its birds and (on a minor note) its atmosphere, but also smaller stuff like Justine's relationship to the boss and Sutherland's suicide, seem a bit tacked-on when you think about it, not really something that "would happen" at least in the way they do. But as it's happening you buy into it, superficially (but effectively) because the style of acting and shooting seems so natural, and more fundamentally because Von Trier approaches everything with such conviction that it carries over to the viewer (this viewer anyway).

The wedding scene I think can hold up with The Deer Hunter and The Godfather as among the greatest screen weddings ever, in this case because it's so abysmally awful not just in its obvious low points but all the superficial rah-rah bourgeois stuff throughout. Obviously, Justine's depression has some chemical basis but (and keeping in mind, given some of the criticisms of the film, this is Von Trier's metaphorical not literal treatment of depression) it also seems conditioned and characterized by the sheer hideousness of his world. I love the fact that we never leave this estate for the entirety of the film: its stale sense of claustrophobic privilege and ennui are all the characters and the viewers know and encounter.

Yeah, I like this movie more and more the more I think about it. One objection though: the kid was pretty un-engaging; I can't think of other occasions where Von Trier has directed children but based on this it doesn't seem to be a strong suit.

Hokahey said...

Joel - Thanks so much for coming back! I really appreciate it.

Glad you liked the movie. I was immediately blown away by the prologue as well - and it does stand as a fascinating experimental piece.

Also, I'm with you on Antichrist. I found parts of that film fascinating and powerful, but Melancholia holds up better as an entity.

And I agree with you about von Trier's conviction and the conviction of the performances. Parts that seem strange - Justine banging practically raping the guy in the golf course - work within the context.

I love the fact that we never leave this estate for the entirety of the film: its stale sense of claustrophobic privilege and ennui are all the characters and the viewers know and encounter. This is perceptive and well said. I hadn't quite articulated that in my mind before.

I also thought about the other wedding scenes you mention; in both The Deer Hunter and The Godfather dysfunctional things are going on while the people are partying. I also like how the prologue cuts to the scene in which the stretch limo is absurdly trying to negotiate the narrow drive.

I agree with you about the kid. He does come through with much character - but it's more like he's just there for the others to use: the father uses him to puff up his own confidence about the planetary flyby; the mother sucks him into her panic and grief; and for Justine he's something I can't quite articulate - perhaps in some ways an expiation.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah, that's a problem with kids in movies in general. Only a few directors seem to be able to get through it.

I wonder where Von Trier will go next - it seems like he's been specifically mashing up the art film with different genres lately, horror with Antichrist and sci-fi with Melancholia (and of course, if you want to go back, Dancer in the Dark with musicals). I'd love to see a Von Trier western...

Hokahey said...

Joel - I would love to see a von Trier Western too. I'm sure he would portray the women as downtrodden and abused and depressed - and that might be very realistic.