Monday, January 23, 2012


My new years resolution is to revive this blog. Now that I'm finished applying to school, I have ample free time, once again. In addition, I might make more of an effort to see new movies, rather than simply living in the past.

A while ago, I did see Melancholia, and I thought it was worth discussing, briefly. Like most of his films, this one is incredibly divisive. My boss, an avid Lars Von Trier fan, expressed disappointment in it. There were a good number of people in my theater who hated it. Someone even vomited, although that could be attributed to any number of things (like the shaky camera).

Set on a mountain golf-resort/chateau, reminiscent of the setting of Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, Melancholia focuses on two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The movie is basically set up in the three parts: First is a dream-like prologue, which is a miniature preview of the film itself, almost like a clairvoyant dream. The next two are pieces that focus on each of the sisters, in turn. Justine's piece focuses on the first and last day of her marriage to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). Meanwhile, Claire attempts to keep her in line at the large, expensive party that has been planned for her, which her own husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) happens to be paying for. While the first piece is probably the weaker of the two, it is still engrossing, setting up an atmosphere of claustrophobia and isolation that creates an interesting prelude to the second piece.

The second part is dominated by Claire's anxieties about Melancholia, a planet that has begun to approach the earth. Last Year at Marienbad, a movie about perception and the construction of memory, is an interesting touch stone for this movie about depression. The narrowing of perspective that often accompanies deep depression is one of many things that makes it crippling-- the inability to see that others are suffering, too. Especially the first piece is dominated by Justine's world view. We are locked in her perception, the point of few of someone being drowned. Trier is dealing in microcosm, here. The world might be ending, but Trier doesn't care about civilization as a whole, only the small piece of desperate humanity that exists in stylish self-indulgence at a hilltop golf course chateau. And Justine is somehow linked to earth's suffering. Each of us is a world to ourselves, impenetrable.

To be honest, Lars Von Trier's movies have a habit of pissing me off. He loves to torture his female protagonists. Whether or not this is some kind of statement, it comes a little too close to mysogyny for my comfort. Granted, there are a good number of Von Trier's films that I have yet to see, but in those I have, which is a fair sample (Dogville, Dancer in the Dark, and Anti-Christ)-- the theme is obvious. But Melancholia is different. This movie seems downright feminist to me. While many of the players are characteristically despicable, I found myself drawn to these women, despite their ugly qualities. Claire and Justine have a strength that sets them apart. And unlike some of Von Trier's other protagonists, their misery is not coming from a suppressive external force, at least not a human one. This force effects everyone, equally. And in the face of the horror of an ending world, it is only the women who are able to face it, head-on.

Dunst and Gainsbourg are The two sides of the same coin. Both are weighed down by an unexplainable sadness, though this sadness manifests itself in different ways. Von Trier seems to celebrate the omniscience of women, here. His women are pained because they understand something evil about the world that they cannot explain. In one of the key moments of the film, and one of the most chilling, Justine admits to this power. Responding to Claire's anxiety that Melancholia will indeed crash into earth, Justine says nothing to calm her: "I know things. Life is only on earth. And not for long." And really, we viewers know this too, if only from watching the prologue, which seems like it might be a dream streamed directly out of Justine's subconscious. Of course, the movie is playing on certain stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. The women have intuition. The one male character in the second half, Claire's husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) puts his faith in numbers and science--science that proclaims, in the end, falsely, that Melancholia will pass right by the earth without harming it.

When John discovers his error, he kills himself. This is made all the more grisly as it occurs offscreen. We discover his body, along with Claire, whose anxiety is mounting as she comes to realize that her worst fears have been confirmed. But there is nothing to account for the misery of life on earth, no promise of hope, or reason for the pain that we have endured for a lifetime, or for the past few hours. Just an end like any other end, without hope of redemption. Maybe there is something powerful about witnessing the end of the world; maybe there is some beauty in a two women and a child experiencing it together. But after that, there is no life, and no one to care, except, perhaps, for the viewers, watching in silence as the credits roll against a black screen.

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