As we all know, the world is scheduled to end in two days, right after the winter solstice. There have been many apocalyptic predictions made in my lifetime, as there have been throughout history. And every time, Doomsday comes and goes with nobody being raptured -- the husband and I are still stuck paying off our mortgage. And humanity keeps on goin'.
Nevertheless, I didn't want this pending event to go ignored. So my daughter and I watched Melancholia, Lars von Trier's apocalyptic film, to mark the occasion.
Warning ... this post will contain spoilers.
I will admit up front, I have no idea how to review or rate this film. I was predisposed to dislike von Trier's work. My daughter/co-blogger, who is far more intrepid about art house films than I, did manage to persuade me to watch Breaking the Waves. But that was just because it showcases Emily Watson's debut film performance, and she is amazing.
However, I have been curious about Melancholia, and this is undoubtedly much less dark and disturbing that some of this director's films. So I wanted to give it a go.
Before the opening credits, we found ourselves watching some strange apocalyptic images intermingled with glimpses of scenes we'd see later in the film. The dialogue between Sarah and me was something like this.
"Whoa, what is that? Birds? Yup. Birds are falling from the sky."
"This is an artsy film. You know how I can tell it's an artsy film? I have no idea what's happening."
"I don't know what the hell is going on."
"What the fuck are we watching?"
The last two lines would be repeated intermittently throughout the film, along with other remarks. The word "pretentious" may have slipped out a couple of times. At one point I yelled something along the lines of "Lars von Trier has some kind of serious issue with women. I don't know what it is. But. Damn."
A tagline for this film is "A beautiful movie about the end of the world." It was as advertised. Visually, this film is gorgeous, with fantastic performances from the entire cast. There were many things I appreciated about this movie. Nevertheless, I was left with the impression that this is a film that is less than the sum of its parts.
Let's cut to the chase ...
The movie itself was divided into two parts. In the first half, seen from the perspective of Justine, opens at a wedding reception. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) have just been wed. At first we see an image of what appears to be a happy couple. However this quickly unravels, and Justine, despite being successful in business, is revealed as mercurial, fragile, and suffering from crippling depression.
As we get hints of a coming astronomical disaster, family members try to coax and bully Justine out of her misery and erratic behavior. Her kind but somewhat clueless husband tries to give her hope for the future. But it's all to no avail, and the marriage ends the same night it begins. In one particularly disturbing scene, Justine runs out on Michael as he's trying to make love to her on their wedding night. Several minutes later she jumps a young business associate she just met. We view the scene from a distance, but she appears to be raping him. What. The. Fuck?
That was the point when I started yelling about von Trier's alleged lady issues. But I'll say no more about that.
I do want to pause for a moment, at this point, to register one of my major complaints about this film -- don't judge me. Alexander Skarsgård. There was a beautiful opportunity here for a nude shot. And given the fact that Kirsten Dunst appears later in all her naked glory, it would not have been out of line. Skarsgård was already almost stripped down to his skivvies, for the abortive wedding night scene. Considering how sad and grim this story is, it wouldn't have hurt to give me something to smile about! That's all I'm sayin'.
The second half of the film tells the rest of the story, seen through the eyes of Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Claire struggles to care for Justine, whose depression has virtually shut her down. In several raw, agonizing scenes, she tries to bathe and feed her sister who struggles to swallow a bite of food and sobs "it tastes like ashes."
Meanwhile, the planet Melancholia, which has slipped out of its usual orbit, is heading toward earth. Despite reassurances that it will pass our planet without incident, Claire -- who is the mother of a young son -- struggles with mounting anxiety. Together the two sisters, who clearly have a close but very damaged relationship, are left to comfort the child and face the impending apocalypse.
As a whole, this movie didn't work for me. It might benefit from a second viewing. Despite outstanding performances, I found it difficult to connect with the characters. I wanted to understand their motivations and behavior but was left navigating a lot of complex, dysfunctional relationships in the dark without guidance. Some events seemed disconnected from the story and pointless.
Perhaps this was meant to reflect how the world looks through the eyes of a confused, depressed young woman? Maybe, but it made it difficult for me to connect with the movie. Furthermore the style of the film, reflected in the cinematography, imagery, and music, was so artistic it was actually distracting. It distanced me from the story and characters. In general, I think a great film should absorb you into its world -- connecting you to the story and characters -- rather than making you consciously aware of the film maker's artistic sleight of hand at every turn.
On the other hand, there were facets of the film I appreciated, or even loved:
- The gorgeous cinematography and imagery -- this seems to contradict one of my criticisms of the movie. But I can't deny it was really gorgeous -- something to be savored.
- The acting, particularly by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst. I thought they knocked it out of the ballpark.
- There are various images meant to reflect famous works of art. For example, the opening sequence includes an image of Justine floating the water which Sarah identified as looking like "Death of Ophelia," a painting that later appears in the film. Although the self-consciously artistic style of the movie was one of my complaints, I kind of liked this. I don't know why it was there. (So von Trier digs Great Art. Cool.) But it appealed to me.
- The portrayal of depression in the movie. I have been through major depression, an experience that, in its full-fledged form, is something movies rarely get right. Justine's pain, and she finds herself unable to handle routine challenges like taking a cab, bathing, or eating, seems raw and honest. I have heard Lars von Trier has both major depression and severe alcoholism. So maybe this is the point where things truly get real.
- The complicated relationship between Justine and Claire. Throughout the movie we see Justine struggle to take charge of and care for her severely depressed sister. Yet as the apocalypse looms, Justine's despair gives her a sense of detachment, which actually becomes a source of strength. As Claire's anxiety ratchets up, nearly incapacitating her, Justine offers comfort to Claire's child and decides how they'll spend their last moments on earth. I thought that twist was magnificent.
- The apocalypse. Strange weather. Bugs and worms burrowing their way out of the ground. Very cool.