Saturday, March 15, 2014
Leave it to Lars von Trier to save his most searching and sensitive portrait of female leads for a movie about the end of the world. There is less sadism in Melancholia than in any other von Trier film I've seen. He is a great director, but I have to force myself to watch his films to some extent, because I know they will involve the utter wrenching destruction of a vulnerable female lead. He doesn't do that here. He's almost subtle. And the beauty and incredible composition of every shot, the willingness to let a shot go on and then on some more -- to let people be mundane -- calls to mind Kubrick. The introduction contains some of the most striking images I've ever seen on film.
The Basics (mild spoilers)
Kirsten Dunst as Justine is the center of Part 1. It's a lavish wedding at a country estate owned by John (Kiefer Sutherland) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine has just wed Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). If you've ever seen a von Trier film, you know that some sort of extended tragedy is imminent. And yet, the reception, its myriad complications, and Justine's struggle to maintain the appearance of happiness despite what appears to be dread, depression, or mental illness vying for dominance. Her mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), is a "domineering," cruel, antisentimantalist who proclaims she does not believe in marriage, and tells Justine to just flee the palatial estate. Her father, Dexter (John Hurt), is a dissipate Casanova. He too appears unwilling or unable to see or acknowledge her terror.
So things do not turn out as all had hoped. Yet, in the style of the suffocating wealth among which the reception takes place, the disasters are self contained. Without air, the fire doesn't burn but quickly goes out. A couple makes a scene and the rest of the party-goers go on as if they had not noticed a thing. In spite of all provocations, a monied dignity overmasters all but Justine.
Claire is the focus of Part 2, which takes place at the same palatial estate where Part 1 took place. She tends her family, including her seemingly catatonic sister. John is masterfully self assured. He keeps Claire in a bubble, tries to protect her -- as it becomes clear that he sees her, too as fragile. This part centers around the approach of the heretofore unknown planet "Melancholia," which has been hiding on the other side of the sun. (The science in the film is somewhat fanciful (major spoiler)) .
Von Trier uses tons of still or nearly still long, wide shots at the outset. As the film progresses, he continues to do so, creating a dim, melancholy mood, like the earth that seems to be grabbing at Justine's feet. Moments linger, lose their heat, and turn to dust. Mood and character take the place of plot. Yet it's not boring. It's transfixing. And the acting is on the money. Even Kiefer, who I don't normally find very convincing, was right on. The man knows how to be rich and in control, as it happens. (Props to von Trier for the inspired Jack Bauer casting - I mean that sincerely.)
Interpretation (No Spoilers)
In this mist of the mood are numerous apparent symbols and opportunities for interpretation. For instance, John refers multiple times to how incredible it is that they are able to have the party at a golf course with how many holes? As the film nears its conclusion, we see the flag stick for what one might assume is the final hole: 19. There are other moments like this, as when Justine rearranges the art books on display in the study, or the bridge into the village. I don't pretend to know what these symbols were meant to convey, though I could hazard some guesses t. I will share, though, a conceptualization that occurred to me toward the end of the film.
My theory is that Justine is the artist. Her nephew calls her "Auntie Steelbreaker," though she hardly appears to be as tough as her moniker. He asks her several times when they are going to make caves together. She is in touch with the other world. She "sees things" that no one else can. She knows truth no one else can tolerate. The business people of the world, the masters of the universe, lose their mastery when confronted with the fundamental why and when of life. They buy grand estates and expensive telescopes to avoid those very questions. And they hate the sensitives, the artists, when they can't just put a brave face on and power through, get it done. The artist must stop when there is no point in going forward. The artist is spirtually uncompromised. She refuses to use her talent in the service of money. The artists is always fundamentally alone, because she alone can face the truth. She is the Steelbreaker. She sees the truth, faces it, and ultimately mitigates it for the normals.
A little research reveals that Durer created a famous engraving called Melencolia I, of which I found this on Wikipedia:
"Ivan Fenyo considered the print a representation of the artist beset by a loss of confidence, saying 'shortly before [Durer] drew Melancholy, he wrote: 'what is beautiful, I do not know' ... Melancholy is a lyric confession, the self-conscious introspection of the Renaissance artist, unprecedented in northern art. Erwin Panofsky is right in considering this admirable place the spiritual self-portrait of Durer." Cool.
The Met's interpretation of the engraving.