This weekend, I finally saw Lars von Trier's Melancholia in SF's adorable and intimate 1939 Bridge Theatre. With a current 77% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film has gotten mostly positive-to-mixed reviews, with a few negative ones thrown in. As with Black Swan, I had to take a walk after leaving the theater to decompress and sort through my feelings about the film. With both, my initial reaction was to be swept up and in awe, but I wanted to examine what contributed to those feelings: the sumptuous visual beauty of the films, characters who hit so very close to home, powerful musical accompaniment, et cetera.
After spending some time reflecting...I still love it. There are a few parts I view as faults, but years from now this will still probably be one of my favorite films, or at least one of those I recognize as having affected me the most.
Two common complaints about this film I've seen in reviews are its length and pacing (over two hours) and its grandiosity. And it is long and grandiose (that's what she said?), especially at the beginning with its montage of despairing, otherwordly scenes set to Wagner. Among these images is that of Kirsten Dunst, as Justine, floating down a river with her bridal gown and bouquet, bringing to mind Ophelia or the Lady of Shalott.
In other scenes, a horse crumples; dead birds fall from the air; a stately, symmetrical terrace looks out at a formidable sky; a mother tries to flee with her child; and the bride walks through a forest despite the vines holding her back. It's all very dramatic, and all very beautiful, and ultimately feels completely right for the film.
After this, we find Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) en route to their wedding reception, held at Justine's sister and brother-in-law's (Charlotte Gainsbourgh and Kiefer Sutherland) remote estate. And yes, this reception goes on forever, at times making it feel like you're actually there, waiting for Justine to just come downstairs and cut the damn cake already. But this at times painful drawing out of the evening serves its purpose. Justine is dealing with severe depression, and her ability to hide this wanes more and more as the night progresses, especially as her understandably concerned and frustrated family members try to help her "snap out of it," mostly with guilt trips, bullying, and promises of apple orchards.
Without giving away too much, the reception is ridiculously beautiful, oddly removed from reality, and ends in disaster. The trailers alone had made me thinking of Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes (variously translated in English as The Lost Estate or The Lost Domain), and actually seeing the full reception only strengthened the connections between the two for me. A wedding is a time for beauty and pageantry, but underneath all this, all the players are still people with human faults and ugly and banal realities.
Some time later, Justine, at this point barely functional, comes to stay at the same estate with sister Claire and brother-in-law John. Claire tries various methods of dealing with Justine's depression (gentle encouragement, yelling, meatloaf), but it's only as Melancholia, a newly discovered planet, approaches Earth that she starts to regain any vitality.
This same approaching planet, however, causes Claire much anxiety. Although her husband points out leading scientists insist it won't hit Earth, she spends hours online reading the opinions of naysayers. And her worry is understandable: she has a young son. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert writes that at this part, "[i]t appears that the two sisters exchange personalities". To me, this felt like an accurate depiction of depression and anxiety. The pain and fear felt by those with these mental illnesses have little to do with standard responses to more tangible threats (like a planet on a collision course with your own). Trying to get out of the house and make it to the taxi your sister has called for you: barely fathomable. A forthcoming apocalypse: something to be dealt with.
Through all of this, we never see what is happening outside of the estate. Besides a brief glimpse of Claire's computer screen and what John verbally relays of scientists' opinions, we don't know how the rest of the world is coping. I thought this was a good choice. Scenes of frenzied newscasters and mass riots would have been distracting and pushed the film further into traditional sci-fi territory. This movie is about this family, these sisters, their personalities and emotions, and that is enough to fill a story, and a beautiful and powerful one at that.
-Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are both beautiful women and powerful actresses, but there is no way they came out of the same vagina. Still, after seeing the film, I can't imagine a different cast.
-Justine's boss comically trying to get an advertising tagline out of her the whole evening felt...off. The manner in which it was done didn't seem to fit into either our or the film's reality.
-The callback to the bean-guessing contest: really?
-I didn't like how the last three seconds or so looked.
Images (c) Magnolia Pictures