Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Reflections on Lars Von Trier's 'Melancholia'

Spoiler alert: There's almost no suspense in the film Melancholia, but any tiny bit it might have will be ruined by the following review.

Ironically, the last time I found a film as uncomfortable to watch as 'Melancholia', Lars Von Trier's latest piece of cinematic iconoclasm, was when I suffered through Todd Solondz's 'Happiness', almost fourteen years ago. The titles might be diametrically opposed, but the films share a determination to go straight for the viewer's psychological jugular. In Happiness, the subject was paedophilia, in Melancholia, it is depression and death. And Von Trier is not pulling his punches. However artful the cinematography and art direction, Von Trier's message about mortality is brutally blunt. We all die, the film reminds us, and only the melancholic, Von Trier seems to be saying, is capable of facing the true facts of existence unflinchingly.

For those who know nothing about the film, it depicts the end of the world as the earth collides with  Melancholia, a planet which has been 'hiding behind the sun'. Simultaneously it tells the story of a clinically depressed young bride, Justine (Kirstin Dunst), an advertising copywriter whose marriage disintegrates before the wedding party is over. Reviewers who have decried the film's scientific implausibility miss the point entirely. Despite the premise, this is no sci fi flick. Those who have described it as a film about mental illness are of course much closer to the mark, for it is indeed a study of depression, and the whole film can be read as a metaphor for the implosion of the depressive's psyche. The world may be larger than any single mind it contains, yet it is never experienced on any grander scale than the mind of the individual, and so the obliteration of one mind is no less a cataclysm, in that subjective frame, than the annihilation of the whole planet. But ultimately, to describe it as a portrait of depression is to miss the ultimate message about mortality. Von Trier hasn't just made a film about depression, he's made a film that argues depression.

In a sense, Melancholia is not so much cinema as anti-cinema. For where the usual function of cinema is anodyne, pandering to soothing fantasies of perfect romance, invincible power, unlimited wealth and so on, Von Trier's aim is the absolute opposite. This is a film driven  by the same iconoclastic impulse that drove the director to declare at Cannes that he "understood Hitler," sparking widespread condemnation. He wishes to tear away everything phony, every saccharine fantasy, every pitiful self-deception, and expose the ugliest truth. That was the ethic at the heart of 'dogma': don't soothe the viewer with the trappings of slick production values, stirring soundtracks, and technical whizz-bangery. The cinematic illusion is harnessed to a contradictory project: the destruction of the viewer's illusions. In that sense, Von Trier has something in common with Brecht, though Brecht exposed the illusions of theatre for political purposes, whereas Von Trier's ultimate motivations seem darker and more emotionally driven. Iconoclasm does not need a constructive agenda.

The deep discomfort that this film engenders stems from the way the film targets the viewer for attack. At the end of the film, Dunst's character Justine comforts her nephew, a boy of seven or eight, by helping him to build a 'magic cave' where he will be safe against the coming catastrophe. The magic cave turns out to be a rough tipi of sharpened sticks under which Justine, her sister Claire, and the boy all sit to await the end of the world. So much for your childish illusions of safety, Von Trier seems to be saying. See how pitiful are your attempts to keep out the reality of death? And I couldn't help feeling there was another layer to this 'magic cave' image: couldn't it be that cinema itself is this magic cave, a place we go to deny death and close our eyes to horrible reality? Von Trier ends the film by hurling Melancholia directly into the audience's face in a climax that is at once haunting, terrifying and strangely empty - there is no 'resolution' here, only annihilation.

Violence is also done to the other possible remedies for death anxiety: love, solidarity, togetherness. Justine's sister Claire shakily and unconvincingly tries to persuade Justine that they should perhaps sit on the porch and drink wine together for the coming of the end. Justine is scathing. More than scathing. "I think your idea is a piece of shit," she spits. At the end, in the magic cave, they do hold hands, and I was reminded for just a moment of that lovely scene in Toy Story 3, where the toys hold hands as they slide down towards the furnace that also clearly stands for death. But in Melancholia, we aren't offered the release of that emotion. The hand holding feels futile and desperate, another form of the magic cave.

No wonder that the first thing that could be heard as the credits rolled was the querulous voice of a movie-goer complaining that her time had been wasted. If you go the cinema for the pleasures of fantasy and self-deception, you just stepped into the wrong theatre. As my friend put it, pity the poor sod who saw a poster with Kirstin Dunst in a wedding dress and expected Toby MacGuire might make a showing too.

Despite this, Melancholia is a beautiful film - the opening sequence contains some of the most extraordinary and surreal images I have seen on the silver screen. The soundtrack is pure melodrama, gothically overblown, but the effect is perfect: it creates a mood of claustrophobia and barely repressed hysteria.  I kept thinking of the German word Beklemmung, an emotion also captured in the work of another famous depressive, Franz Kafka.

There's a moment in the film in which Claire discovers Justine lying naked on the bank of a river staring up at Melancholia looming in the night sky. Having rejected human love, turned away from the world altogether, she basks in the blue light of death, in a voluptuous misery. It is moments of imagistic poetry like this that lend the film a kind of greatness. It is a perfect image of the depressive dynamic. All around her, the people who love Justine have been shut out. Her husband cannot reach her sexually, her sister can barely feed her. Yet inwardly she gives herself completely to Melancholia, the deadly pull of pure negativity. It is a haunting image that will stay with me a long time.

I said that the film argues depression. By that I mean it tries to convince us that depression is rational, the only sane response to our meaningless existential condition - at least that is how I read Von Trier's intent. There is a competition at Justine's wedding to try to guess the number of beans in a jar. None guess correctly, but Justine does. Perhaps Lars has read the psychological studies that show that people with depression have more accurate reality checking than non depressed people. Having used the bean guess to prove she 'knows things', Justine then tells us that there is no life anywhere else in the universe, that we are alone, that life is evil anyway, and deserves the annihilation soon coming to it. One has the feeling Von Trier is presenting this as a sort of argument, even though, as a piece of logic, it's as flimsy as Justine's 'magic cave'.

The depressive may have superior reality checking, but this does not mean the depressive is a good philosopher, even less a wise man. To seek truth means facing the reality of death and having the courage to face one's illusions. But depression is not the final waystop on that journey. Many artists pass this way and many have fallen into their own private doomsday, flying too close to the planet Melancholia. Yet those who do not suicide find something on the other side of this crisis - compare the Leonard Cohen of today, a man exuding wisdom and gentleness, with the near-deranged singer you can sometimes see in old films. Peace and acceptance are possible and sane responses to the reality of mortality, even for those who have rejected the comforts of religion.

Nihilism is bad philosophy, and Melancholia is deeply nihilistic. Nevertheless, it's one hell of a piece of filmmaking.

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