Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: Melancholia

I suppose I should preface this review by saying I was set up to dislike this movie.  I have never seen another Lars von Trier film, though I think Europa, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville all look interesting and hope to see them at some point.  Pretty much all of my experience with von Trier up to now has been reading about various controversies he’s caused.  Since I enjoy reading things like that and I had little chance of seeing the movie any time soon, I went ahead and read a whole bunch of reviews of Melancholia right off the bat as it premiered at Cannes.  As a result, I mostly knew what was coming and not much in the movie surprised me, and this is certainly a negative factor in my assessment.  So anyone reading this who has yet to see the film, be aware that the rest of this review has SPOILERS, though only a little more than most other reviews have had.
Melancholia opens with a series of dreamlike tableaux, images in super-slow motion of birds falling from the sky, women running in desperation, and finally the Earth crashing into another planet and exploding.  Right there the film lost me.  I had been told that these images were astonishingly beautiful, that they were the best part of the film, that I would be in awe.  Instead, I found that nearly all the images had already been shown in the trailer or had been pictured in the dozens of publicity stills strewn across the internet.  There was nothing new, and in practice the images looked kind of funny--they were so digitally spruced up that they looked completely unreal, almost like a video game.  The whole sequence was scored to Wagner, which just seemed to make it more fake, like a video game trailer striving to be “epic.”  I wanted to like it, I did, but it was all just too grandiose and overblown.  It tried to bludgeon me into submission but I didn’t let it.  (I suppose this resistance may seem weird and idiotic to others who immediately fell under its spell--sort of how I see those critics who laughed at The Tree of Life--so let me say I don’t mean to be insulting to those who found it great.  I just completely disagree with you.)
Incidentally, I have to say that the decision of all the reviewers to say that the movie depicts the end of the world is definitely a spoiler.  The opening and ending sequences of the film are in fact very different from each other, and the beginning, while it is leveling with the audience in a sense (Don’t expect a happy ending here), does not dictate or promise what will happen in the end.  Much of the beginning is in fact a dream sequence--every shot of Kirsten Dunst in a wedding dress certainly is--and some of the other images are slowed down shots from near the end but are not part of the real final sequence.  Even while watching it, actually, I was wondering how Dunst kept switching outfits between shots.  Anyway, the point is: That all could have been a premonition or a vision which was miraculously avoided at the end, but instead all the reviewers assured us the world really did end, thus taking away half the suspense.
Despite all this about having the opening of the movie ruined for me at the beginning, the movie got me back when the real plot kicked in.  I was occasionally alienated and skeptical during the rest of the film, but never so much as at the beginning, and the diametrically opposite reactions of many other viewers I’ve heard from suggests that my reaction should not be taken as common or definitive.  Up to now, I’ve only been giving my subjective reaction to the experience, but I’d like to leave that mostly behind now to focus on the actual film, which I think is, objectively speaking (or as objectively speaking as it’s possible to be with film), severely lacking in many respects.  
After the intro, the first part of the film is labeled "Justine", and concerns the expensive and disastrous wedding reception of Dunst's character at her sister Claire's (Gainsbourg) country club home. This section is by far the most entertaining of the movie, as the reception falls apart from the selfish and ridiculous exploits of the many guests, including and especially the bride.  The whole thing is very much played for comedy, with a core of pain and harsh criticism underneath, and to a significant extent it works.  The guests are all self-centered jerks engaging in outrageous behavior and generally making fools of themselves, and the proceedings move at a fairly quick pace.  It's hard not to enjoy the dozen excellent character actors who embody the various grotesques, but it's also hard to ignore that they all seem to be doing their own shticks in their own separate movies, completely divorced from the other characters around them.  This may be most clearly pointed out by the fact that Justine, Claire, and their estranged father and mother all have different accents.  As such, the proceedings take on a rather strange, dissonant air that keeps things from ever really gelling together as a compelling piece of cinema, but is wacky enough to keep watching without much effort.  If it is intended to be some sort of class criticism though (unclear), it doesn’t succeed.  Some have criticized this half for its pacing and packing far too many breakdowns into one night, but I didn't mind--radically compressing time is a dramatic tradition with far too much history for me to start criticizing movies for it now.  The first section takes place over the course of one night because it makes good dramatic and thematic sense to do so, and realism be darned.
Throughout all this, Justine is gradually revealing how deeply depressed and genuinely screwed up she is, as she sets about passive-aggressively destroying almost every relationship she has, especially her brand new marriage.  While she initially seems a beaming bride, it quickly becomes apparent that this is merely a facade which she can no longer maintain and her desperate lashings out are both cries for help and savage criticisms of the hypocrisy and lies she sees all around her.  Dunst's performance is without doubt the best thing she's ever done, and von Trier clearly knows the feelings and symptoms of depression inside and out, as he has repeatedly spoken out about his own depression.  The helpless rage, the wildly shifting moods, the crumbling facades and desperate search for something to grab hold of and stop the slide all feel pitch-perfect.  Dunst and Gainsbourg are the only performers who seem to be in the same movie together, and the only characters who feel genuine and grounded at all (except for possibly Kiefer Sutherland as Claire's wife, who isn't entirely believable but lots of fun to watch nonetheless). Justine's pain, her heart-wrenching desire for meaning and stability but complete inability to stop herself from ruining it every chance she gets got to me, and there were moments when I really thought the movie was going to go somewhere good.  But von Trier is not content to merely map the contours and crevasses of depression--he wants to externalize it, project it metaphorically onto the entire universe, and then attempt to justify it by portraying it as ultimately the correct, proper, and better-adjusted response to the end of the world.  This results in a strange situation where the film seems both a metaphor for depression and an assertion of the depressive worldview, an uneasy and highly problematic combination.
The second half is entitled "Claire" and focuses on Gainsbourg's character as she takes Justine in to care for her through her debilitating breakdown after the collapse of the marriage.  It is in this half that the strange new planet called “Melancholia” (symbolism alert), only glimpsed ominously during the reception  as an especially bright star, becomes central to the plot as it gets closer and closer on an apparent collision course with Earth.  It is here that Gainsbourg shines.  I think her performance is significantly better than Dunst's, and it is only one in a distinguished career fast becoming legendary. The two play off each other powerfully, the only actors in the film who seem to occupy the same space.  Initially, justine is so incapacitated by depression that she cannot leave her bed without help, but as Melancholia approaches, that changes.  In fact, Justine and Claire begin to subtly shift places--justine becoming more in control, even serene, while claire becomes increasingly frazzled, fearful, and desperate.  At one point, Claire spies Justine lying in the light of the planet at midnight, as if sunning herself, taking in unearthly nutrients.  This half of the film is not funny but slow, drawn-out and ominous.  The only characters are the two sisters, Claire's husband and son, and the butler.  The outside world is blocked out, referenced only by a couple shots of Claire searching the internet for information on Melancholia, unable to believe her husband's overconfident assurances that the planet will pass them by.
Von Trier's aesthetic is a fascinating one here, apparently quite unlike anything he's done before except possibly 2009's Antichrist. He turns the country club and its grounds, which the film never leaves, into an impossibly gorgeous garden of dark greens, murky blues, and sickly shadows, obviously touched up digitally in many shots, but then shoots it with a shaky handheld camera that in the first half threatens to induce nausea at a couple points.  There is a tension here, between the European modernist geometrical precision and references to Last Year at Marienbad on the one hand, and the woozy, you-are-there faux-naturalism of Amerindie mumblecore films and (I'm told) Dogme 95 on the other.  I'm not entirely sure what this tension is supposed to accomplish, but I suppose it induces a greater sense of dread, and it is not uninteresting on its own.  The constant overuse of Wagner becomes tiresome, however--I think it's the only piece played in the whole thing, and the attempts to borrow significance and weight from it grow ponderously obvious.
Von Trier dots the whole thing with references and allusions--for instance, the poster shot of Justine in wedding dress floating on a river recalls both Ophelia and the Lady of Shalott, and the aforementioned Last Year at Marienbad-styled garden.  By far the biggest influence, though, is Andrei Tarkovsky.  In the opening sequence there is a shot of Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow burning, echoed later when Justine opens a book of paintings to leave that one displayed on a shelf, that seems a clear reference to Tarkovsky's Solaris, where the painting is displayed on a space station lit by candlelight.  Bruegel (along with Leonardo) was a major influence on Tarkovsky, and he also re-staged the painting in a real-life tableau in his Mirror, plus making other references elsewhere.  Displaying great works of art in the pages of a book was also a favorite device of his.  Another shot in Melancholia's prologue shows a horse collapsing in slow motion, probably a reference to Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev, where a horse rolls in the dirt in slow motion following the opening sequence.  Horses in general were very important to Tarkovsky, as they are here, with Justine's horse Abraham used to communicate the sense of something wrong with creation.  The whole apocalyptic scenario itself, in fact, resembles Tarkovsky's final film, The Sacrifice, where a bourgeois group of people gathered at a country mansion for a birthday party are suddenly confronted by news of the outbreak of nuclear war and the coming destruction of all civilization.  Tarkovsky, however, puts Von Trier to shame in almost every way, the poetry of his images and depth of his thought making him one of the acknowledged geniuses of the cinema.  Of course, the visuals of Melancholia are plenty gorgeous themselves, and the failure to live up to such a master is no shame on its own.  But the fact that von Trier's philosophy and theme is so obviously inferior when he is clearly mounting an homage/response merely highlights the weaknesses.  Where Tarkovsky presented the apocalypse as the challenge of modern man, and offered his protagonist a chance of saving the world by recovering his spirituality and making a sacrificial bargain with God to give up his family, possessions, and even speech, von Trier mocks modern hypocrisies (unconvincingly) and then destroys everything and suggests we ought to be happy about it.  Where Tarkovsky expressed a constant sense of the mystical power of creation and a sense of the Creator which modernity has lost sight of, von Trier's mystical images are reserved for the coming doom: How beautiful death and destruction will be!
This is an adolescent sense of nihilism, one that glories in destruction, despite being glacially paced and couched in the highbrow aesthetic of European arthouse cinema.  While watching I was reminded of The Sunset Limited which I had viewed mere days before.  Cormac McCarthy is often (rather falsely, in my view) labeled a nihilist. Whether he is or not, the character of White in his play clearly expresses the most extreme position of nihilism, one with which very few outside of the suicidally depressed would agree.  Yet he expresses it with great eloquence, in a manner very difficult to dispute.  He speaks of the horrific violence of the world, man's inhumanity to man, the pain invading every aspect of existence, the crushing finitude of man's creations, the inability of man's accomplishments to stave off death.  Von Trier does none of these things.  He does not grapple with the problem of pain but wallows in depression and lazily mocks all attempts at dignity and celebration as hypocritical and meaningless.  He capitulates not to true evils like war and poverty,  but to the most common form of postmodern alienation.  As evidence that the world should be destroyed ("The Earth is evil,” says Justine at one point. "We don’t need to grieve for it.") he offers the pomposity of rich jerks and the mental illness of one girl--not very convincing.

The ultimate problem of the film is its strange solipsism.  It is a grandiose vision of an insular worldview.  It is a film about depression that attempts to map the actual feelings and sensations of being depressed, but in the process it attempts to justify the depressive worldview in a way that is both irresponsible and intellectually vapid.  Justine is depicted as ultimately the correct one, the one who understands what's really going on.  Indeed, she claims to be clairvoyant and the film suggests she is.  When she explains to Claire that the world is evil and ought to be destroyed, she also claims humanity is completely alone in the universe and no one--neither god nor alien--will ever miss them or remember when we're gone.  "I don't think you know that at all," says Claire.  "I know things,” replies Justine.  “678.  The bean lottery [from the reception].  Nobody guessed the amount of beans.  But I know.” She's right.  (Wait a minute--the movie actually wants us to accept this as proof that she's psychic or something?  Not only that she knows the actual number of beans but that Claire remembers what the number was from weeks/months before?  What a ridiculous plot development.  This must be some kind of joke right?). Nevertheless, Justine is clearly depicted as special, unique, mystical, in a way that "normal" Claire never is.  This is problematic because clinical depression is a genuine mental disorder characterized by a disabling low self-esteem and loss of interest in nearly all the elements of life.  It requires therapy, treatment, and even medication because it is not a correct or productive view, but a narrow, destructive, self-centered condition that is incapable of experiencing pleasure or beauty or even genuine empathy.  One might argue that the whole film is happening inside Claire's head, that we are meant to be merely witnessing the worldview of a depressive.  That might distance us from the toxicity of the worldview.  But if this is true, why show a whole half of the film from Claire's point of view? To differentiate between the two responses, it seems clear.  And when the world is ending, it is clear which response comes out on top.  Justine cuts down Claire's suggestion of a dignified glass of wine before the end cruelly and profanely, declaring it “shit.”  It appears the director agrees.  True, Justine does eventually take pity on Claire and her son and help them build a makeshift lean-to, and it is probable that von Trier has more sympathy for Claire than Justine does, but it is still the pity for the ignorant and the weak from those strong and in-the-know.  It is a clinical observation from above on the desperate attempts of ants to escape the burning of a magnifying glass--a magnifying glass wielded by the so-called clinical observer.  For even here it is self-centered:  “I feel everything is worthless, and my misery deserves company.  Anyone who disagrees is a fool.”
Many have compared the film to The Tree of Life.  I  think it’s pretty clear where my sympathies lie.  It does seem almost a response to the hope and faith expressed in Malick’s opus, and the films’ closely following premieres at Cannes last spring.  Where The Tree of Life attempted to situate one man’s life in the midst of all creation and all history and invited its audience to do the same with their own lives, Melancholia tells its audience their hope is in vain and no one in the universe cares.  Malick manages the difficult trick of extreme humility in the face of eternity paired with a powerful faith in the worth of an individual life, while von Trier mocks professions of faith in anything.  Ironically, Malick strikes me as the true realist here, while von Trier projects private feelings onto the universe and calls it clear-eyed fact.
Ultimately, I do not feel the film is insincere, except perhaps in small bits.  That von Trier has actually felt this way and is trying to represent it accurately I have no doubt.  But there is a reason depression is considered a mental illness: it's understanding of the world is false and debilitating.  It does not give one a mystique nor afford one special abilities, and it should not be dignified as a viable viewpoint (much less the correct one).  The film is flawed as drama but it is absolutely wretched as philosophy, lacking anything like a defensible position.  It is not that it purveys nihilism, but that it is such a low-minded nihilism as this.  Some reviewers have written they left the theater feeling strangely uplifted.  I left feeling initially stunned by the final images, but gradually becoming more and more disgusted, and that disgust has not left me since.


  1. "Melancholia opens with a series of dreamlike tableaux, images in super-slow motion of birds falling from the sky, women running in desperation, and finally the Earth crashing into another planet and exploding. Right there the film lost me. I had been told that these images were astonishingly beautiful, that they were the best part of the film, that I would be in awe."

    God, this is really your magnum opus here Stephen! Congratulations on this utterly stupendous review, which frankly deserves to be read by any blogger worth a salt. This is really spectacular stuff. Alas, I did buy into the film lock, stock and barrel and just named it among the top ten films of 2011 on a post at my site. I used the above noted quote from you to point to the difference, as I would allign myself with those who told you that you'd be in awe. Even the prestigious National Society of Film Critics this week named the film the Best of 2011 in a tight vote over THE TREE OF LIFE (my own #1) by a score of 39 to 38. They did give Malick the Best Director prize though, handily. But to be honest I know quite a few people who share your disdain, including two of my site colleagues, Tony d'Ambra and Maurizio Roca.

    As to my own reading of the film: The first eight minutes of Melancholia must surely rank among the most rapturous ever filmed. Taking his cue from the opening of his last film, Antichrist, Von Trier brought together imagery of ethereal beauty and Wagner’s musically cathartic Prelude to ‘Tristan und Isolde’ to electrifying effect. Existential dread has rarely if ever resulted in such a ravishing and transportive experience in a film that showcases the sensibilities of Bergman, Strindberg and the Scandinavian world view. The film is a psycodrama played out in a metaphorical scenario that most compellingly recalls Persona and The Passion of Anna. Von Trier’s sublime use of the aforementioned Wagner composition may be the most profound employment of classical music in a movie of all-time, and it fully supports the indellible images that bring it to visual maturation. Both Kirsten Dunst as a true force of nature and Charlotte Gainsbourg are transformative and the film bears more than a striking comparison to Tomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration at least by way of brooding anger and melancholic sensibilities. A beautiful nightmare tinged with strife and regret and dark humor the film reaches into the inner recesses of the imagination with full Von Trier flowering, destroying the world to reach ultimate artistic expression.

    Anyway, your discussion of solipism and your breakdown of the film's meaning and your intricate issue with it made for one stunning and fascinating read!

  2. Well, thanks, Sam, but I think we both know you're being a little over-generous there. Personally I think it could use more editing.

    Yeah, I know a lot of people loved it, and I can definitely understand how you could get caught up in the beauty and emotions of the thing, though I did not. I think the overall message of the movie--at least the one I saw--would always keep me from ever truly liking it, though.

    But "the most profound employment of classical music in a movie of all-time"? Really? Come now, that's just silly. You're putting this over every Malick film, every Kubrick, every Tarkovsky, Raging Bull, Brief Encounter, Amadeus, Distant Voices, Still Lives, etc??

  3. Stephen, as I generally state on other issues of disagreement it always comes down to taste. Just a few days ago the most prestigious of all the critics' groups, the National Society of Film critics, chose MELANCHOLIA as the Best Film of 2011, edging out THE TREE OF LIFE by a single point. The membership includes what we can deem as the finest intellectual critics in the professional ranks. So much for your contention that the film is "intellectually vapid." It's all a matter of perception, and from where I am sitting I don't see the issues you are complaining about at all. This was as unified, cerebral and artistic experience as I've seen in a theatre in years. I knew exactly what I was saying there about the best use of classical music. I know all those film you mention, and I feel that Von Trier directly integrated Wagner's 'Tristan' into the thematic fabric of the film, much as Lean and Kubrick did.

    AMADEUS is really a record, not a singular instance where the music informed the subject. The music IS the record. DISTANT VOICES applies, the Tarkovskys, Malicks and RAGING BULL less so, though yes, in each instance music is important and ravishing.

    I seriously thought you penned an excellent piece here, more comprehensive than any I have seen at the site. I issued praise I though was warranted, even if I am diametrically opposed to your numerous disclaimers and final position.

    MELANCHOLIA is one of the best films of 2011.

  4. Sorry if I came off contentious there, Sam. My objections were meant to be more affectionate than they perhaps sounded. I am very grateful for your praise and patronage of the blog.

    I do understand that when one looks at all the critics groups and top tens, Melancholia is the second or third most acclaimed of the year, and I definitely understand how you found the whole thing rapturous. That doesn't change my opinion. As for the music, I was just tossing off movies off the top of my head, but as I found very very little pleasure or profundity in the music in Melancholia, I do think they all use classical pieces to better effect. Your remarks about greatest ever just seemed a little over-the-top to me, and my reaction was more of a chuckle than outrage.

    Thanks for the comments!

  5. Stephen, I fully understand everything you are saying, and I want to say that I may have come off much more strongly than I actually intended to. I have a few goods friends who feel exactly as you did about the film and Von Trier in general. Thanks very much for responding, and I apologize for coming off much too pointed there.

  6. A very passionate piece of writing. I had the feeling you wanted to like Melancholia and were doubly disapointed by the movie as a result. I especially liked your comparisons to Tarkovsky and to McCarthy,one of my favorite writers.
    9i can't say the same about Tarkovsky, but I definitely plan on giving him another try, but I will drink a couple of cups of black coffee first) You capture the anguished cry of pain you get from reading him, again, with feeling.

    The best review I have read on Melancholia, and that best reflects my feelings on it and on Von Trier (Could that be why I like it so?) is from one Anthony Quinn, who reviews for the British paper, The Indepenedent:

    Anthony Quinn Friday 30 September 2011 The Independent:

    If Lars von Trier put as much effort into making sense as he does into teasing and offending he would be a film-maker of world-class talent. His most recent act of provocation, you will recall, was to offer an apologia of Hitler (which he later said was a joke) that duly got him thrown out of the Cannes festival. Probably the most interesting thing he could do at this point in his career would be to say nothing at all, but that's not going to happen anytime soon.
    The film he was promoting at the festival, Melancholia, turns out to have something even bigger than Hitler in its sights. It's Lars counting down to – deep breath – the end of the world as we know it, and he does so with his signature mix of visual bravura and head-in-the-clouds silliness. At times it's close to a Malick-esque fugue of transcendence, pumped up by thunderously loud bursts of Wagner. But where Malick says, Behold these wonders and rejoice, Von Trier is more ominous, more Ozymandian: look upon them and despair.

    Justine, who seems at first merely vague, turns out to be the full Von Trier fruitcake – tearful, skittish, self-destructive, maddening. That much is clear once she snubs her gentle uncomprehending husband and sneaks off for al fresco sex with a stranger (Brady Corbet). "The earth is evil," she says, "there's no need to grieve for it". You might find this attitude just as infuriating as her earlier dead-eyed neurasthenia, yet Kirsten Dunst somehow works against the chilling grip of her director to make herself watchable, if not quite bearable. She joins a parade of leading ladies whom Von Trier has tested to the very edges of humiliation and despair – Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, Björk in Dancer in the Dark, Nicole Kidman in Dogville and, spectacularly, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist. But there must be a great persuasive energy in Von Trier, because all of those performances, with the exception of the hopeless Björk, have been vivid and unsettling.

    Von Trier's [latest film displays as so many of his previous films did, his] thick ear for the way people talk to one another; it's either school-play banality (Hurt's stupid jokes, Rampling's charmless barbs) or high-falutin philosophical blather, with nothing in between. At times one is tempted to echo the famous objection Harrison Ford made on reading George Lucas's script for Star Wars: "You can type this shit, Lars, but you sure as hell can't say it."

    Best to you, I've become a follower

    1. Thanks, esco, that's a great comment, and doubly thanks on becoming a follower!

      I don't want to come off quite as mocking as Quinn does in that review, because I know there are a lot of people I respect who think von Trier is a genius and Melancholia is one of his greatest films, but I can't help what I feel: The film is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (And his point about tin-ear for dialogue is definitely spot-on!)