by Lars Von Trier
On its face Melancholia is one of the clumsiest metaphors in the history of film. A planet called Melancholy threatens to kill everyone on earth. Well...fucking duh. As someone with what I've always considered at least depressed tendencies (never diagnosed, never serious enough to consider diagnoses, won't pretend for a second it's as serious as those who have it, please forgive my attempts at empathy here) and who's had seriously depressed friends (To put it another way I've never been as hopeless as Justine, but I've certainly been Claire, spending whole days thinking of something to cheer someone up who won't crack, nor will they share their problem), I understand the urge to make a movie with this big and loud a message propping it up. It takes nothing so much as hearing someone argue about the wrong thing to have me thinking exclusively of how cruel and pointless life seems. All Von Trier (who has very publicly shared his depression) is doing is removing any and all associations and getting to the heart of the problem. There's death hanging literally in the sky. You can try to run from it, as Claire literally tries to, but what have you accomplished? Justine's insight into what is starting to plague her sister and her family is what keeps her grounded. This may be new for Claire, but this is just getting out of bed for Justine. Now here's the thing. I completely understand why Von Trier abandons subtlety here. He's a middle-aged man with probably very few friends and the world doesn't find his brand of humour all that funny. I, however, do. Not only do I understand him, I've made a film about death with at least as little subtlety as Melancholia, except without the metaphor. That film, Tron Wayne Gacy, is entirely about someone who thinks about death so much that it effects people he barely knows. This character is me, like Justine (and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist before her) is Von Trier. So, yeah, on paper, he made a film that could hardly be any more screamingly obvious, but in practice he made one of the few films that accurately depicts depression, and one of the most beautifully rendered cinematic love letters of the last decade.
With as big a driving force as a planet maybe falling to earth, Von Trier doesn't even need to hammer home his big themes or human misery as cruelly as is his wont. No one hits anyone, no one raises their voice for more than a few seconds, no one is incapable of feeling. In fact I'd say these are the most human characters we've seen in one of the Danish auteur's films since...well, maybe ever. And as he's not too busy making sure everyone goes into histrionics or remembering imaginary boundaries, he lets the film student in his soul dress the set. Scott Tobias likened the film to Solaris, which by an interesting coincidence I watched not a day before seeing Melancholia, and that's certainly a possible reference point, what with its planet-as-legend-to-the-grieving-process motif. Dunst steps into Natalya Bondarchuk's adorable/sinister innocence for the first half of the film and Gainsbourg's frantically losing her footing resembles Donatas Bonionis dealing with his wife's appearances aboard the ship. But that doesn't quite cover it. If Antichrist was his tribute to Tarkovsky, I'd wager what that means is Stalker and The Mirror with a hint of Nostalghia. There is the same studied grace of every person in the frame that came to characterize Andrei Tarkovsky's films (from Andrei Rublev on, his actors looked like they were cut from some ancient tree, crafted by the director himself) present throughout. Kirsten Dunst in her wedding dress is Von Trier's most active and personal creation. It's what people will be putting in their films to signify his influence years from now. Just as thanks to Andrei Rublev, the presence of a horse will always be shorthand for Tarkovsky, and perfectly sculpted hedges in the floodlights signifies Alain Resnais' Last Year At Marienbad, if the eventually claustrophobic party at a mansion didn't do it for you (or if you thought he was merely nodding in the direction of his one-time Dogme partner Thomas Vinterberg's best film to date The Celebration). And though Solaris is too obvious to ignore but the set-up comes right out of The Sacrifice, perhaps tellingly the Russian master's final film. In that movie Erland Josephson tries to thwart nuclear war by bedding a poor neighbor. Justine tries to cure her wandering displeasure the same way. The world maybe ending on an endless green landscape bonds the two films tightly, even if ultimately Von Trier emerges the better filmmaker in this case. Why? Genre.
A few weeks ago I saw a film called Another Earth whose sci-fi trappings were really just a springboard for an unconvincing romance and an exploration of grief that I'd seen before and better. The problem is that the makers of that film evidently thought they were making something greater and more important than sci-fi and spend so little time on the ramifications of a plot device not at all dissimilar from Melancholia. In that film the planet is identical to earth and not an ominous, lifeless wake-up call. The films work to opposite purposes. Another Earth uses its planet as a cure for one man's depression with the promise of hope and possibility. Melancholia's planet is meant to remind us that we're entirely the fuck alone in the universe and that we have to acknowledge horrible things to really be able to face the idea of death. Tellingly, Another Earth spends so little of its run time on its titular plot device and comes across as achingly inessential despite its best efforts to be bigger than the two cloying romantics it centers on. It has important things to say about love and forgiveness. Melancholia has one thing to say and like Solaris, you can never escape it. Just as you're trapped aboard a spaceship for all but the opening 45 minutes of the film, Von Trier's opening montage ensures you never forget about his planet. Just because it's set on earth doesn't make it any less of sci-fi film than Solaris or Moon or Sunshine, even if it's a heady, unscientific sci-fi. Like those films, it takes one motif (the sun, the moon, another planet) to explore the human condition, the idea being we have to go there, to the farthest reaches of the universe, to be truly alone with ourselves and our problems. Von Trier figures there's no reason to leave and gets in the same punches with an even heftier emotional weight than the other movies. The reason Solaris is a better film than The Sacrifice (and the better known of the two) is because it hides its message in the fantastical, something cinema is made for. The Sacrifice is a big important movie about big important issues and for goodness sakes can you believe this cold war!? It's not relevant today, but by setting Solaris in the future and generalizing his crises, he made a lasting and beloved classic, at least among freaks like me. Sci-fi lent Tarkovsky a cushion for his ideas, just as it does for Von Trier.
I should come clean and admit that I've seen everything he's ever done. Von Trier is the White Stripes of the film world; they made some of the most incredible rock music of all time, but none of their albums work from start to finish. Jack White's uncanny ability with a guitar mimics the miracles Von Trier pulls with his digital imagery (the chapter markers in Breaking the Waves, the tableau of his latest work, the sheer audacity of the way he filmed Dogville and Manderlay - though I'd only call the latter of them really pretty) and Meg...no, you know, I'll go ahead and stop this comparison right here. This fucking thing is long and convoluted enough as it is. Suffice it to say The White Stripes broke up before they released their Melancholia. Anyway, Von Trier is an artist whose explorations are never less than fascinating. But the issue is that I can only stomach his genre exercises enough to watch them twice. Anyone who watches Dancer in the Dark for fun should probably find out who Lars is seeing about his depression and schedule an appointment. I was always kind of amazed that some of his movies were given DVD releases. Who the shit can sit through Breaking The Waves or The Idiots twice? I don't regret seeing any of his movies, but I never want to see some of them again. I've never been tempted to find Dogville again. Like Michael Haneke's best known works, the ideas work well enough that I don't need a second visit. Give me Time of the Wolf over The Piano Teacher anyday (speaking of Tarkovskian...). But even though his films were hitherto like arthouse bootcamp, to me, that just makes Melancholia that much more special. His work and I have been flirting since we discovered each other and it took getting to know each other, a courtship that spanned at first only seeing youthful zeal and incredibly appealing aesthetics (Europa, The Element Of Crime, The Kingdom). This gave way to an untenable Marxist hardening, the equivalent of watching them date other people and mirror that person's personality to the point that you wonder if you'll ever get together (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots). But they broke it off eventually, and it was hard (Dancer), but personal growth showed me what I saw in them to begin with (Dogville, Manderlay). Then they played coy (Five Obstructions, Boss Of It All) but with the blanket of the horror genre, it finally seemed like it was time to give this thing a shot. She was certainly sending signals. And now, Lars Von Trier's films and I are on the same page. Not only could I see watching Melancholia again, I can't fucking wait to own it so I can watch it in perpetuity alongside Apocalypse Now, There Will Be Blood, Let The Right One In, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and Inception. It may have taken our whole lives, but it was worth the wait.