This is my first Von Trier film. I think. I wanted to see Antichrist a while ago but would have had to break the law to do so, and I had no friends who wanted to do said lawbreaking with me. Apparently Melancholia is the companion piece to Antrichrist so I may go back and watch it and report back! Anyway.
When I mentioned to one of my friends that I was going to watch Melancholia his response was 'Ooooh that sounds way too depressing' and after I watched it I thought my God that’s such a pity because this film is wonderful.
It’s a divisive film; you either choose to go with it or you don’t. If you do you're rewarded with a communication of what it feels like to be depressed and how it affects those within the blast radius. (YAY!!! Just what we wanted on a Friday night Rosie!) (I know, but have patience grasshopper.) If you don’t go with it the result is probably something that induces boredom, bewilderment, anger, motion sickness and is pretentious into the bargain. I went with this film, and it kind of took my breath away.
So the film is divided into two parts, ‘Justine’ and ‘Claire’, with an eight minute opus at the beginning. This is comprised of a series of shots moving at an almost imperceptible slowness while Wagner’s ‘Tristan & Isolde’ plays over them. I liked this better in retrospect because I was anxious there wouldn't be a coherent narrative (remember: Von Trier virgin). Interspersed between the images of a bride floating in water and a mother and child falling to the ground in a violent hail storm we see a rogue planet gradually moving toward the Earth before finally colliding. From the outset we know what the denouement will entail, and that is central to the film’s thesis.
So, like, if this film is so depressing why isn't it called Depression? Well, I dunno, maybe partly it's because that is a genuinely off-putting and lecture-dull sounding title. But maybe also because the film is an artistic expression of depression, and 'melancholia' is a word that while it does its work portraying Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix type thoughts, it also evokes something beautiful, and delicate, and somehow elegant. Tragic, elegiac, call it what you want, it's emotive. It's a term distinct from depression in that it is not a clinical state but rather a personality trait which often leads to depression. I guess it's kind of like having a cumulus nimbus eternally hovering above your head. Melancholic people are characterized as tending to expect the worst in any given situation, and they feel vindicated when that worst scenario comes true. That is kind of the only happiness they can enjoy and tolerate because it is the only kind they feel they can trust. In a way, they almost want the worst scenario to come true, and perhaps there is a sense in the solipsism and extreme megalomania that go hand in hand with depression that their despair is so deep and all-consuming that it is actually having an external influence. Justine’s descent into depression indeed seems to be actually pulling the rogue planet toward Earth and incurring the end of the world. A synergistic, telepathic serenity appears to exist between Justine and Melancholia, as though a part of each resides in the other and the meeting of the two, the completion of each, is enough to destroy the world. The film opines that people who suffer from depression are able to cope under pressure better because they expect the worst anyway, but could it also be that Justine’s only hope for self-completion or self-happiness is self-destruction?
The first part is the view from within depression, focusing on Justine and her gradual slide from (ostensible?) euphoria to despairing isolation at her lavish wedding reception. The palette during this section is quite soft, muted, with overtones of yellow suggesting both an insularity from reality the way you might get in a nest, and possibly the jaundiced and unhealthy spectre of depression lurking below the surface. The palatial setting and Justine’s wedding dress effuse an element of fairytale girded by operatic tent-pole moments in which the music crescendos and the shot is stunningly, melodramatically poised. This surreality is countered by the almost intrusive reality of the cinematography. I know a lot of people get really frustrated and/or ill when a film is shot hand-held, but personally I’m a fan and it’s used to impressive effect here in portraying the cloying, restless presence of Justine’s depression. The claustrophobia builds in the packed house while the lens swings around searching in vain for space to breathe, and when Justine finally breaks out into the sparse landscape of the golf course and the sky the contrast is even starker. There’s one scene in particular between Justine and Michael that felt so authentic I actually almost blushed and looked away because I was convinced I was intruding upon a real couple’s intimacy. For me the cinematography emphasises a strange conflict of depression; the hand-held sections express the wry, distant, omniscient aspect while the operatic sections indulge the manic melodrama. And the former seems to almost sneer at the latter in the way that I think a lot of people who experience depression do sneer at themselves or the perceived histrionics of others. I think the film needs that portrayal of reality to maintain its credibility. One part is the reality of depression, and the other is the artistic glamour of melancholia. Do we turn our depression into poetry because it’s easier to deal with or because we feel that is the reality of it, that there’s something beautiful and artistically elevated about it?
Part 2 is a switch in perspectives (and palette) to that of Claire who officiously arms herself as Justine’s nurse. Sometime after the failed marriage, Justine travels to her sister’s home where the reception was held, arriving almost paralysed by depression. Claire seems solely fixated on ‘fixing’ Justine but her fear of confronting her sister’s illness leads to a lack of understanding. The film doesn’t bother affecting subtlety in its metaphorical representations of Justine as Melancholia, a brazenness in keeping with depression, giving Claire a rational fear of the planet colliding with Earth and destroying everything she knows and loves. As scientists debate the certainty of Melancholia’s collision with Earth, Claire completely unravels while Justine remains calm and unperturbed by the impending apocalypse. At first disparaging Claire’s vain attempts to escape what she cannot accept, Justine ultimately becomes a pillar, a sanctuary to her sister and nephew, drawing strength from expectations met and the love she feels for her family. In the end the sisters’ roles are reversed, mimicking the ‘Dance of Death’ which Melancholia and Earth engage in.
The fact that Melancholia does collide with Earth and incites the end of the world? I didn’t take anything pessimistic away from that, because when the end does come it is a relief, and strangely moving, and kind of almost uplifting – if you don’t look too hard at Claire. Although I wouldn’t label this a ‘disaster movie’, amongst the plethora of other contenders being churned out by big studios at the mo, I loved this as an exceptionally contemplative and conceptual twist on the genre that kind of creeps along the inside lane and takes the lead. It’s the film Rachel Getting Married wants to be, and tons of people find it completely unlikeable and art house without value. But I think everyone at some point does experience that kind of despair where you just wish the world would end—and this is a cathartic expression of that wish. Is Justine likeable? I don’t know, but I don’t think that’s the point. I think she is just painfully human, as all of the characters are, and that is the most sympathetic thing of all. Maybe you don’t like some of the things she and the others do, but if you open yourself up a little you can understand why they do them.
Every single performance in this film is astounding, with Kiefer Sutherland probably being lumbered with the most objectionable role. (Seriously, what a (fantastically performed) two-faced asshole.) (And nice to see a more sensitive, less bitey side to Alexander Skarsgard.) (With his dad, aw.) (Also, I want to marry Charlotte Gainsbourg.) But if I was Kirsten Dunst I’d be like, man, this is my Hamlet ‘To be or not to be’ moment. She is in-cred-ible, morphing seamlessly from unstably euphoric to psychosomatically spent. One of the most affecting scenes is one in which Claire tries to coax a very fragile and vulnerable Justine into having a bath. Justine is so incapacitated by her depression she cannot hold herself up and can only manage dipping her fingers in the water. It is such a brave and unrelenting performance, one I could relate to because it reminded me of times when I was so overwhelmed by life I literally could not move or eat or lift my toothbrush. Von Trier himself said that his own experience with depression inspired this film, so it is in every sense a film about depression by depression, and I can understand why that puts some people off. Maybe also the fact it's made by Von Trier, but that aside: I went with it, and it more than paid off.