I wasn't going to write a post about Melancholia, but after getting briefly involved in a discussion about it with Zac Little (blogger, youtube rebel & enemy of bad journalism), I suddenly realized I had a lot of things to say. Or a few things to talk about at length. Either way, this is long and this is personal. Fair warning.
For those of you not familiar, Melancholia is a film by Lars von Trier, who describes it as a psychological disaster drama, wherein a rogue planet (called Melancholia, duh) is drifting through space and is supposedly going to pass gloriously and harmlessly by the Earth, but in fact rams into us head on and destroys everyone and everything including our main characters, Kirsten Dunst, her sister Charlotte Gainsbourg, and the latter's young son. It may sound like I just spoiled the ending for you, but it turns out I did not! That information is all contained within not only trailers, but the opening eight minutes of the movie. Von Trier has said that he did not intend for any suspense related to whether the Earth will be destroyed, but rather in how the characters react to the knowledge.
Spoilers and greater details regarding the rest of the film and my complex hurricane of feelings about it after the jump.
I should start off by saying that I went into this with an intense dislike of Lars von Trier. I have a lot of reasons for this, which I'm not going to go into, because that's not the point, and ultimately it doesn't impact my ability to enjoy [THIS ONE PARTICULAR EXAMPLE OF] his work. I find that one is quite capable of deeply hating various people and begrudgingly respecting them at the same time (Quentin Tarantino, Roman Polanski, Ron Burgundy), and since those are really two different conversations, I am not going to defend or explain my feelings about Mr. von Trier right now.
Those feelings did, however, keep me from seeing Melancholia in the theaters, which is a bit of a shame, because damn if this is not a movie that should be seen as on big a screen as possible. But I watched it on Netflix, about a week ago, and I have been in recovery ever since.
Melancholia is part of a current trend toward End Of The World movies. Has anyone else noticed this? In addition to Melancholia there's been Contagion, a thing with Eva Green and Ewan McGregor which looks like it is just full of emotional whiplash, and an upcoming similar thing with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley. More recently there was ALSO Another Earth, which is not about the end of the world at all, but IS about a mysterious and unexplainable cosmic event and how it psychologically impacts its main characters, which is extremely similar to Melancholia. (Though quite different in scope, focus and budget, Another Earth is also mightily worth seeing.)
This is not to say that we've never made end-of-the-world movies before, certainly we have. But I'm starting to sense a change in direction. Lately filmmakers seem to be trying to go hyperrealistic with it, or to focus less on the destruction and the action elements that are traditionally paired with such movies, and focusing more on the psychological effects, the human stories at the core. Which is good and more interesting to me! But it also annoys me for an incredibly petty reason, which I'll tell you briefly even though it is off topic: before all of this started, I had a vivid dream wherein I knew the world was coming to end through some unstoppable cosmic event, and we had known it was coming for a number of years, and this was the last day. Waking up was an intense relief that I have never quite felt before. All that dread and anguish my subconscious made me feel was very real, so I took the next natural step and started writing a story about it, to get those feelings on paper. I never finished the story, and within some months these movies started cropping up, and now what may have been a somewhat original idea looks like it's following a trend. This has been happening throughout my life and fuels me in my belief that I must get things done NOW NOW NOW or it will be too late because someone will unwittingly steal it from me, which in turn feeds into my obsessive perfectionism that makes everything very difficult for me. But more on that in another post, perhaps.
I'm not going to talk a whole lot about my interpretation of this movie or the artistry of it, because I think a lot of other people are probably talking about that better than I can, and what I want to talk about is in keeping with the general theme of this blog, which is about the depression, panic and fear that is depicted in this film, and also incited by it. As such you probably shouldn't look at this as a review. This is personal, a disjointed commentary on how this movie affected me.
The first eight minutes of the movie are cut off from the rest, and could almost be watched separately as a short art film. It depicts Dunst and Gainsbourg in a variety of surreal scenarios as the world comes to an end around them, all shot in super slow motion so it's sort of agonizing to watch, for more reasons than one. During this period you learn something about both of them: Dunst is grim-faced, unafraid, fascinated by what is happening around her. Gainsbourg is fucking terrified.
There's a particular shot which was used in the trailer and haunted me then, and haunts me now: Gainsbourg running (well, in the motion of running) across a golf course, carrying her son. It looks like she's screaming or crying (there is no sound in this sequence, just a relentless clip of Wagner music which recurs endlessly throughout). The thing that gets me about this shot is her footprints. They're pronounced, muddy -- it's hard to tell, but it looks like they're deeper than they should be. Is this supposed to be an effect of gravity caused by one planet hitting another? I don't understand enough about physics/astronomy to know, and I'm quite certain that von Trier didn't really research shit like that, because it wasn't important to the story (I get that, I do). In any case, her positioning is odd, there's almost an uncanny valley look and feel to this whole sequence, how abominably slowly everyone is moving, and let me tell you: it fucking terrifies me. Once you watch that sequence I sort of defy you not to watch the rest of the film, but I also understand if your reaction is "FUCK no" at that point. I sort of doubt you'll follow through -- well, unless the "fuck no" is a response to the high-artistry of it, and that kind of stuff just turns you off. I'm talking about the deep stomach-turning dread of this scenario, world ending, nowhere to run but running anyway. I feel like the slow motion is almost meant to give us a sense of helplessness -- they're not going anywhere, there's no time to do anything, this is happening. And maybe it's also meant to show us some calm (those are definitely the conflicting responses of Gainsbourg and Dunst, respectively). In any case, it's beautiful and grotesque, and at the end of it this giant planet hits our little one head-on and that's the END OF THAT. Then the movie starts.
That sequence is supposed to be viewed like the overture to an opera (of course the Wagner music is FROM the overture to Tristan and Isolde): setting up visual motifs and sort of introducing the characters and telling us the ending, so we know what's coming and we know the significance (or lack thereof) of all actions that follow. Then the movie starts.
The film is divided into two parts, each focusing on the two sisters: Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg). The first half is mostly about Justine's unbearably awkward wedding going horribly, quietly awry -- she becomes increasingly depressed and withdrawn, the ceremony goes hours and hours over schedule, tensions are high, etc, finally leading to Justine having sex with some stranger and her husband the vampire from True Blood calling it off just as soon as it's over. WELP. There's some stray focus on the night sky throughout this sequence, lots of fancy telescopes in the background of shots, lots of Dunst gazing up at the stars, and it's sort of maddening because the viewer knows what's coming and is forced to wait it out, instead watching this dreadful occasion fall apart. There's a lot to be said about this, but I'll leave that to someone else. I want to talk about the second half.
In the second half, Claire and her husband Kiefer Sutherland (I know, right) are receiving Justine at their estate, where the wedding took place -- so time has passed, but we haven't moved. Justine is now in a state of severe depression. The kind where you can't get into a taxi cab that's waiting for you because you're too scared to go anywhere. Where you don't get out of bed for literal days. Where you won't even take a bath, even that is too hard, even when your sister has undressed you and is trying to help you into it.
I have never had those three experiences, but holy fuck, I have been there. I know what that is. I know what it is to revert to this sort of childish state of being because you're too afraid, too ill-equipped to face your life. I know that fetal position, that limpness, that scream, that way of sort of drifting through the day. I expect that everyone who knows these things suffers the same pangs of shame and embarrassment at seeing this accurate depiction of emotional turmoil, and I know that Lars von Trier was drawing from personal experience. If you have ever been seriously depressed to the point of incapacity this is going to hit you. Even if you haven't been THAT seriously depressed, it'll hit. If you're already depressed on the day that you decide to watch this movie (as I was), it is going to drag you down further. Not least because of where it's headed.
Justine starts to recover bit by bit, and the focus shifts to Claire. Her husband (Jack? Joe? John? I don't remember, I just know I hated him) is an amateur astronomer and he is very excited about this exciting phenomenon of the planet Melancholia drifting by. Claire, a sane human, is not really excited and more obsessively googling to see if they're going to be all right. Which of course annoys unsympathetic control-freak husband Sutherland to no end. EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE, Claire. YOU JUST LISTEN TO ME, EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE.
Obviously, we know he's wrong. Everything is not fine.
I hate him, and I think you're supposed to hate him, for a few reasons. This everything-will-be-fine attitude extends to his having no patience for Justine's depression, which, fuck you, man, seriously, fuck you. He shows himself again and again to be nothing but a greedy rich husband who likes being in control of his wife, her sister, everything around him. And NATURALLY, because there is no other ending for a guy like that, when he learns he is wrong after all, and that his doom is coming and there is nothing he, even he, this control freak, can do -- he kills himself. He kills himself with pills CLAIRE BOUGHT, possibly to kill herself with. He doesn't say anything to her. He doesn't tell her the truth about what's happening. He just vanishes, leaving her to discover the truth on her own, and to find his fucking body in the stables. GOOD JOB, ASSHOLE. I mean, it's a perfect ending to his arc, but oh my god do I hate him. I hate him for not being there for Claire. Because oh my god, if Justine was me before, it's nothing compared to how much Claire is me. I can't deal with how much Claire is me. Literally, I'm not saying that like they say "I can't deal" on the internet... I actually, earnestly can't really deal with it. It upsets me. It upsets me how true her reaction to oncoming inescapable destruction feels. I am sure it's a reaction many people could expect of themselves in such an event, but that doesn't matter, if you've ever felt down on yourself you know it doesn't matter that others feel the same, are going through the same hardships. Not really. The viewing experience is personal, intentionally so. I watched it and didn't see Claire as a representation of a greater portion of humanity: I saw her as me. I am a coward. I would run. There is nowhere to run but I'd run. I'd want to attempt to do something meaningful or comforting with my last hours (as she tries to suggest, an idea brutally shot down by the now totally zen Justine), even if it's stupid and won't help. I'd cry and scream and refuse to accept it down to the last minute. Maybe that isn't true, maybe I'd react differently. But I don't think so.
I don't really like that about me.
On Wikipedia it says Lars von Trier came up with this idea after talking to a therapist about his depression -- evidently she told him that depressed people react calmly to great disaster because they already expect the worst. Makes sense, I guess. Justine reacts with total calm, even happy to know that the world is ending, that humanity is about to be snuffed out, because fuck humanity. Which is a pretty disturbing sentiment. Also disturbing is her seemingly clairvoyant assertion that they are alone in the universe and this marks the end of life AS WE KNOW IT. We're sort of given to believe that this is in fact true, that Justine has some sort of power that allows her to know things. I think Lars von Trier probably wants us to believe her. I don't entirely know why this was so important to him, that this marked not just the ending of humanity but of all life. Actually I guess I do know: because of the finality. The emptiness of the black screen that comes when the planet is finally destroyed. That is it. There is no hope. There is no reassurance. That's just it.
Afterward I called this movie the ultimate nihilist experience. It is almost masturbatory in its nihilism. And it made me angry that I had watched it. It made me angry that Lars von Trier had evoked all these fears and feelings in me, angry even while I recognized that he had done his job as the filmmaker, and that any movie that affects you that way is worth your attention. But still it made me angry. That's about me, not so much about the movie. About me desperately afraid that I'm going to die young, or that the world will end somehow, or that one day things will get so bad that I'll be too afraid to get out of bed. This movie showed me all the worst things about myself. Justine's drift into darkness that keeps her from enjoying her own wedding. Kiefer Sutherland wanting to be in control of his life to the degree that when he sees the inevitable hurtling toward him he pussies out and takes pills. I see both of those in me (that's why I hate him so much). Mostly there's Claire, though. Wanting it to be a bad dream, like the bad dream I did have, wherein I behaved more or less like I expected. I don't want to be that person, I don't want to be Claire. But I am. I'm Claire.
I guess that's sort of all I have to say, and it's abrupt, but that's kind of fitting in a post about this movie, isn't it?