Melancholia: An exquisite chicks flick.

I saw Melancholia on the weekend.

The reviews are mixed about this film. I enjoyed reading them (sort of – as usual some are better than others) but there DID seem to be a male female divide among them. Many male reviewers really hated the film (yawn) and many female reviewers really loved the film – citing (tediously) their own experiences with depression. Lars von Trier seems to incite so much feeling that there is almost no critical response to the film. Men seem to be ego-irritated by him personally (he IS self-indulgent and bombastic) and are put off by so much of the gentleness in the film, and women seem ego-oriented by the film, many suggesting they are Kirsten Dunst. Melancholia (NOT depression – there is a difference) is treated in an extremely glamorous way, and of course few women can resist the tragically beautiful misunderstood woman who is (not so) secretly them. What woman doesn’t want to run through the forest away from her wedding alone (except that the entire world is watching her beauty through the dramatic lens)? And what healthy male isn’t deeply irritated by that?

These responses seem to have so completely folded themselves into the film, that it is difficult to get a critical response. There is so much beauty in the film that it is almost painful. The ten opening minutes, where we have slow-moving images of the moments before the end of the world are stylistically framed so that they appear more like a Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow painting rather than film frames. These are played out to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (SO much drama) and the effect is stylish and devastatingly beautiful. However, Von Trier seems to be creating some distance from the film in his interviews, nervously claiming he’d made a ‘chick’s film’. He is presenting this idea as if it were an accident and his appeal is for us to notice the flaws and find our way beneath the polished surface.

Melancholia certainly does not have the usual acerbic edge a lot of his other films have, such as the Dogme film The Idiots or the Brechtian Dogville. The film originally was supposed to star Penelope Cruise, and I can only think its a blessing she is missing, because THAT much beauty might have given the film so much saccharine it would be impossible to stomach. In the post post modern dream of beauty, the world is done with romanticism – I really belive this – and I interpret Von Trier’s discomfort with the film and the banal feminine, ‘you’d understand if you’d lived it’ responses as support for the notion that he has missed the mark on terms of making something timely and cutting edge. The truth is, we can’t see through the cracks here, and Von Trier is right; this is a problem.

The basic storyline is that the film is divided into two parts. the first, titled Justine, is the story of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) wedding. Justine is a melancholic, in the true Freudian sense. Her marriage is an attempt at some sort of ‘normal’ life, as well as being an attempt at creating a ‘normal’ life for her. A phrase that is constantly thrown at her is ‘be happy’. It is the deal her brother-in-law John (Keifer Sutherland) makes with her, that in return for this lavish wedding (that she obviously doesn’t want) she must ‘be happy’. During the speeches at the wedding, Justine’s useless father (John Hurt) who is flirting his way through the day, stumbles through a pathetic speech that is co-opted part way trough by the angry and troubled mother of the girls (Charolette Rampling) who makes a ‘speech’ of her own about the futility of ritual.

It is at this point, that Justine starts to sink into her own misery at the wedding, resulting in poor behaviour and ultimately the complete estrangement with her husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard).  She tries to reach out to both her parents and is refused access to them and so sinks very deeply into an almost catatonic melancholia.

The second part of the film is titled Clair and is the next few days told from the point of view of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The elaborate estate where the disastrous wedding was held, is actually a resort owned by John and Claire, and it forms the lavish backdrop for an astrological moment in time when the planet Melancholia is going to slip past the world at a close but safe distance. Claire is worried that the planet will collide with the earth. Justine grimly predicts that it will, and John informs Claire that they are safe – only to find that the earth will eventually be obliterated. John commits suicide before the end, leaving Claire to face the end of the world alone with Justine and Leo (her son).

Seen from the perspective of ‘a film about melancholia’, this is a very ordinary film. The behaviours of the people at the wedding are ridiculous, and the notion that anyone close to Justine would imagine that she could pull a marriage (let alone a fancy wedding) off is simply unbelievable. From that perspective, every character is under formed and deeply silly. John complains constantly that he is pouring good money after bad into Justine and her mother. In fact all the men are weak and ineffectual, to the point that they are profoundly stupid. Lars Von Trier speaks mostly about Justines’ melancholia when he discusses the film, and I think this is how the film has been co-opted and stolen from a far more interesting idea.

When I watched the film, I assumed at the moment when Gaby (Justine and Claire’s troubled mother) gives her little speech at the wedding about how pathetic ritual is,  Justine has her ‘premonition’ about the end of the world. For me, THIS was the trigger for the extreme bout of melancholia she experiences. This is why she stops the farce of her marriage and her job and tries to connect with Leo (her nephew) and both her parents. Taken out of this context, these behaviours seem to trivialize and romanticise melancholia. Taken in this context, they give a deeper vision into why this troubled woman falls into her catatonic state.

In the second half of the film, Justine declares to Claire that she knows that the world is going to end. She ‘knows’, she claims, and then she gives Claire a small piece of trivia to display how she can ‘suddenly know’ certain things. An important aspect of Justine’s emotional state is the fact that she is a ‘genius’ of sorts. A moment of intensity in the film is when she moves into the estates study and replaces open images of books with garden (Eden) style images and then sped a lot of time in the study. Her husband gives her an orchard as a gift, and suggests it is for her melancholia, to help her feel better, but when he suggests a swing under a grown tree, she says ‘Let’s deal with that when the times comes.’ She leaves the image of the orchard after promising to keep it with her.  She tries to get her father to stay with her on the estate. She tries to connect with her mother. Over and over Justine acts like an emotionally unstable person who knows the world is gong to end in two days.  In this light, many of the dreadful flaws in the film that make it ‘sappy’ are rescued and the film takes on more poignancy.

I’m not sure if  Lars Von Trier intended this in his script. I’m not sure if Kirsten Dunst intuited this in her acting. Because the film has a powerful nod to Last year at Marienbad at the start (one of my favourite films) I hope they did intend it to be. Plus the visuals are stunning. Unfortunately, if it was not intended this way, then the meat of the story is, this film is nothing more than an opportunity for those in love with their own drama to rest the back of their hand against their forehead and claim ‘you don’t understand.’

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