Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Canon #3: Melancholia (2011)

The Canon is a recurring feature where I look back on movies, tv episodes, albums, books, etc. that I love; inducting them into my own imaginary canon of all-time favorite things.  (Inspired by the now-defunct podcast, Extra Hot Great)

I suffer from depression.  Although I've never been officially diagnosed and perhaps even making that statement will anger those who have, I'm pretty certain of my self-evaluation.  Often I wonder about the origin point of my depression.  Did it always exist and it was just waiting to show itself?  Or was it triggered by something specific in my life?  When I was young and in elementary school, I was a very angry kid, often prone to lashing out on classmates at random moments.  By the time middle school rolled around, I had thankfully learned to suppress my anger, and the melancholy that it transformed into never seemed to rise above the usual strains of adolescence.  It wasn't until high school that I truly realized that something wasn't quite right with me.  Slowly the world was turning gray, my outlook on life was taking a turn for the worst, and I was plagued by this feeling of intense internal lethargy and aching.  Outwardly, I was such a happy person and my peers thought of me as funny and generally friendly.  The fact that I was constantly having suicidal thoughts wasn't something I was comfortable with sharing, nor did I think that it was something that would be believed.  Things only got worse once college started.  With the stress of being away from home and having an insanely difficult workload, I developed some serious anxiety issues.  I'd always been a person with hang-ups, but the anxiety increased tenfold, manifesting into actual nervous tics and bouts of self-abuse.  The anxiety and depression were a mixture that fueled itself, with the two of them constantly feeding off of each other.  It's something that I've dealt with for a few years now, and while I'm still able to be a (mostly) functional person, I sometimes fear that it's going to kill me one day.

With such a despondent disposition, one would think that I'd actively seek out art that'll cheer me up, but for some reason I've always gravitated towards depressing art or art about depression.  After all, my two favorite television shows of all time are The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, both of which tackle the subject of depression in a raw and visceral way.  One of my favorite films is the canon-worthy Virgin Suicides and hey, suicide is right there in the title.  It may seem a bit perplexing for me to want to torture myself by watching such gloomy content, but when you think about it, we all seek out art that we can relate to.  If my tastes seem overly depressing, it's only because I can relate to the feeling that these songs, TV shows, or films are trying to convey.

No film is a better example of this than Melancholia, Lars von Trier's operatic end-of-the-world film from 2011.  Inspired by von Trier's own history with depression, the central story is about two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who each get a half of the film devoted to them.  Justine is newly married and Claire plans the wedding reception, which is constantly marred by myriad complications.  All of this is set to the backdrop of Melancholia, a rogue planet that is scheduled to fly towards, but not hit Earth.  During the reception, which seems to endlessly stretch into the dead hours of the night, Melancholia is nothing more than a glint in the sky, too distant to even mull over.  But in the days -- or weeks; it's hard to truly get a gauge of the time or place in which the movie exists -- that pass, the planet comes closer and becomes an ever-present concern.

The first half of the film, titled "Justine," focuses on the titular character in post-marital bliss, attending her reception. There's some wonderful bits of black comedy in this half, and it's easy to see how the dysfunctional family tensions and the use of probing handheld cameras could be channeled into a more lighthearted film.  Trier has a different intent though, and for every bit of amusing wedding chaos, there's double the despair from Justine, who can't help but to retreat to her room on a night devoted to her.  Some may find this first half to be a bit slow and tedious, wondering when the story will get to the planet-smashing action that the film's grandiose intro promises, but it's an important and powerful look inside of Justine's head.  Melancholia is a masterful portrait of the life of a depressed person.  With Trier's honest writing and Dunst's unflinching performance, Justine's malaise is palpable and moving.  Audiences are trained to want character actions to be rooted in a firm cause, but this first half expertly shows how often a depressed person's mood can change on a dime for no reason at all.  One second, Justine is enjoying herself just fine and the next second she can't bring herself to be around anybody else.  As much as the film is about what it's like to be depressed, it's just as much about how difficult it is to deal with somebody who is mentally ill.  Justine's erratic behavior causes problems for everybody else who has spent money on this reception and can't understand why she would ruin it.

This half devoted to Justine is so gripping and relateable that it's hard to imagine feeling as engaged with the film once the "Claire" title card pops up on the screen, announcing the second part of Melancholia.  Surprisingly, it's this half that elevates the film to masterpiece territory.  After the fallout of the disastrous wedding reception, Justine is crippled by her depression and recedes to the background, and the story begins to focus on Claire, whose worries about the approach of Melancholia become the impetus for drama.  After a relatively glacial first half, the "Claire" portion continually ratchets up the tension and never lets up for an hour straight.  Even though her husband (played by Kiefer Sutherland) is sure that Melancholia will just pass by the Earth as the scientists say it will, Claire isn't convinced.  All of this is filled with such an intense sense of dread -- a dread that reaches out of the screen and pulls you down with it.  On the night where the rogue planet skirts past Earth, Claire, filled with fear and wonder says "I can't breathe" and it's hard not to feel the same way.  A makeshift device used to measure how close Melancholia is to Earth is introduced late into the film, and it's a brilliant way to present visual information and add tension.  When it's first used, it helps to soothe Claire, convincing her that she's safe and that the rogue planet is moving away. But when she uses it again on a whim the next morning, Melancholia has now become larger and closer, ensuring the planet's destruction.  Kirsten Dunst was praised for her role as Justine (winning Best Actress at Cannes) and she's terrific, but this film is truly The Charlotte Gainsbourg Show.  When the end of 2019 rolls around, I'll still probably consider her performance as Claire to be the best of the decade.  Her worrying about the fate of the Earth and her subsequent panicking once Melancholia is barreling toward her is absolutely heartbreaking.

Because of Melancholia's neat bifurcation, it'd be easy to try to compare the two halves.  Yet they complement each other so well that they form one logical piece.  All of the catharsis of the Claire half wouldn't land nearly as well without the Justine half.  Much like these two sisters, the halves exist as opposites.  In the first half, which is more about depression, we are shown life through the eyes of somebody who doesn't want to live.  Once it switches to the second half, which is all about anxiety, we are shown death through the eyes of somebody who doesn't want to die.  As a whole, the film is a stealthily poignant story about the love between two sisters.  At first, Justine is in a position of weakness, where Claire tries to help her and pull her out of her pit of despair.  Later, Claire is the one who needs help, and although Justine is initially cold about the world ending, she's there to comfort her sister in humanity's final moments.

It's impossible to talk about Melancholia without talking about its ending. Ambiguous endings really infuriate me sometimes.  I'm completely fine with an ambiguous ending that is in tune with the style of the rest of the film and leaves the viewer with many thematic questions to ask themselves.  A perfect example of this is Meek's Cutoff, my other favorite film of 2011.  However, I often feel like writers resort to abrupt or ambiguous endings because it seems like they couldn't figure out a way to organically conclude the story (to use another 2011 example: Martha Marcy May Marlene).  One of the reasons why I love Melancholia so much is that Lars von Trier basically gives a giant "F You" to the idea of ambiguous endings.  There's nothing ambiguous about the ending of this one.  The second half of the film's central question is whether Melancholia is going to collide with our planet or is just going to harmlessly pass by.  The film could've easily ended without us finding out whether it does or doesn't hit Earth and let the dread of wondering be enough.  But no, von Trier won't settle for that.  Instead, he shows Melancholia speeding towards Earth and destroying it completely.  Everything about that final scene is perfect.  The score cranks up to a deafening level and then, after focusing on Charlotte Gainsbourg's look of pure terror, finally cuts to a wide shot of the planet hitting the Earth and eviscerating our protagonists in the process.  Silence and a black screen follow, solidifying it as the one of the greatest movie endings of all time.

Melancholia is an obvious metaphor -- after all, it's a gigantic blue planet named "Melancholia" in a movie that's about depression.  Somehow, the film never makes the metaphor as obvious as you'd assume it to be.  Instead of directly commenting on Justine's depression, the planet is used as this looming threat; a stand-in for a wide range of emotions.  This level of mystery is something that exists throughout the course of the film, ramping up particularly near the end.  Perhaps there's no meaning to the wisps coming out of Dunst's fingers in the picture above, the rain of hail, the 19th hole on an 18-hole golf course, or the bridge that a horse refuses to cross, but it adds to the eerie helplessness felt from this cosmic event.  As cataclysmic as the film is, it's filled with breathtaking beauty.  Each shot is perfectly framed and lit, and there are some shots from this film that are indelibly etched into my mind.  There's also a fundamental understanding of sound that Melancholia has.  The score is dramatic and loud when it wants to be, but the best moments come from when it drops away and the only sounds are the empty tones of the dead night air.

It may be a credibility-losing thing to say, but Melancholia is my favorite film of all time.  Although it's less than two years old and most people's favorites are things that are consensus "classics," people would've thought you were crazy too if you said The Godfather was your favorite film of all time in 1974.  I'm not saying that Melancholia will ever be regarded in the same way The Godfather is, but time is less important than people seem to think.  I've lived a short life, but I don't think I'll ever see a film that makes me feel the way that this did.  It shook me mentally (I couldn't sleep all night after watching it), physically (I broke out into a sweat), and emotionally (the ending left me bawling).  Ever since, I'd been frightened to revisit it, not wanting to feel less about the film than I did that first time.  Luckily, I still loved it when I rewatched it last night.  It may not be something that I endlessly return to, but Melancholia affected me in ways that nothing else ever has.

1 comment:

  1. I came upon this film on a whim, simply because I was watching Antichrist and this to get myself in the mindset of Lars Von Trier before Nymphomaniac.

    This does feel like a completely different film than Antichrist though, other then the fact that they both have to do with depression. There's much more of the beauty throughout that the opening promises than Antichrist ever delivered. The two shots that stuck out to me the most that I can remember is Justine sitting in the tub in depression during the wedding and Justine laying down on the grass naked as Claire watches (besides the ending shot of course, which is perfectly framed).

    I personally enjoyed the first half more than the second half, maybe it was the amusing carnival of characters I was recognizing or maybe it was the randomness of Justine's actions throughout the wedding, but the wedding structure had me more engaged than the wait for the planets to collide did.

    I've never seen Kiefer Sutherland in anything other than 24, so seeing him play this role was amusing as his Jack Bauer anger seemed like it was begging to come out during the wedding whenever he got pissed off. I'm a little confused as to whether or not he's manipulating Claire throughout the whole film or if he commits suicide at the end because he was wrong.

    I never knew you suffered with depression, though it does explain certain aspects of our relationship (or lack thereof). You're one of the most unique people I know and I always enjoy talking with you.

    I will always be here as your friend.