Sunday, November 27, 2011

"The earth is evil. No one will miss it.": 16 notes on Lars von Trier's Melancholia

I wonder if Lars von Trier took pleasure in destroying the world that he created in Melancholia? Some notes:

1) What's the correlation between von Trier's Nazi comments at the Cannes film festival and Melancholia? Did von Trier mean to undermine the festival just as Justine (Kirstin Dunst) makes a mockery of her wedding?

2) When she changes the art book display in the library, Justine changes her mise en scene. She is a kind of prophet who can do nothing with her knowledge of the imminent destruction of the earth except negate everything around her.

3) When her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) pulls Justine aside during the wedding to attempt to stop her from making one of her "scenes," I initially thought that Justine resorts to drama because she's beautiful and spoiled, but that's not it. She's the Cassandra who knows in advance that everything her sister stands for no longer matters.

4) Melancholia, like The Tree of Life, shares a symphonic structure and the kind of cosmic imagery one finds in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The movie is divided into three parts: the prelude, and two movements, the first dedicated to Justine's disastrous wedding and her point of view, the second dedicated to Claire's perspective afterwards. All three portions invite the viewer to make connections between them.

5) The prelude's slow motion tableaus prepare the viewer for the end, giving the viewer an impersonal God-like perspective on all of the human uncertainty and error to follow (We know, for example, that the earth will smash like a fiery grapefruit into the much larger Melancholia planet).


6) In the opening scene of the prelude, Justine stares at the viewer in close up as stricken birds fall from the sky behind her. The central question of the movie becomes: what does she know? The film's version of the apocalypse parallels our environmental anxieties: snow falling on a warm summer day, hail falling crazily, and other strange weather phenomena. Sparks connect from the sky to the telephone poles and horses and other animals react to the changes that no one else can feel. How much have apocalyptic omens become part of our daily experience?

7) Why does von Trier burn one of Justine's art book displays, Bruegel's winter landscape painting "Hunters in the Snow" in the prelude?

8) Melancholia is a movie of omens. Justine's depression could be in actuality the prophet's knowledge. As in Donnie Darko (2001), what appears to be mental illness could be a higher understanding. So, Justine's character becomes more calm and collected in the latter movement which is otherwise dedicated to Claire's worry and despair. Justine finds that she can give herself over to the arrival of the planet (she even lies in the nude at night to be ravished by it). The planet Melancholia becomes her groom. She seems cheered up slightly by the planet's increasing proximity. One could say that her knowledge somehow makes her superior to her imminent destruction (although one gets the impression that von Trier would never allow any kind of afterlife to his characters; Malick's seeming willingness to do so in The Tree of Life makes the latter film less severe). At the end of Melancholia when the earth is destroyed, one can't help but expect some sort of coda or denouement, but what can happen after that? Credits.

9) At one point, Justine says "The earth is evil. There's no need to grieve for it. No one will miss it." Did von Trier mean for her gnostic words to echo Uncle Charlie's in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) : "How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?"


10) The bath theme (Justine takes a bath during her wedding in the first movement, and then initially proves too depressed to bathe in the second) ties in with the suicide of Ophelia theme foreshadowed in the prelude.

11) Claire is all about worry. She conveys a mother's despair, knowing that her young son will be killed. As the planet approaches, she doesn't know where to go, what to do. (spoiler alert) Her last act on earth takes on a ritualistic importance. All that Justine and Claire have left is a last stab at magic for the boy's (Leo's) sake. One could say this is pitifully ineffectual, but one could also see that this attempt to keep Leo from fear is one of the most important acts of the movie.

12) In one evening, Justine negates:

a) marriage
b) society
c) her employment
d) her mise en scene
e) her family's money

She denies her wedding's presumption of a comedic ending. Her knowledge is fundamentally tragic, so her wedding dress becomes a kind of shroud.

13) Justine's horse is named Abraham. Did Von Trier mean to make us think of the Old Testament Abraham's absurd trial when God commands him to kill his son Isaac, a story which also figures prominently in Kierkegaard's book Fear and Trembling (1843)?


14) Did von Trier mean for the family's sumptuous midnight front lawn (with its freaky shadows) to echo this scene from Last Year at Marionbad (1961)?

15) What happens to one's experience of time when one knows the world will end soon? According to the prelude, it slows down. The everydayness is gone. How much does Melancholia convey the tragic knowledge one would have if one's mortality was not contingent, if one knew that one will die tomorrow? How much would one's life fill with omens? How much would it take on the same eerily backlit, slow motion grandeur?

16) The whole film boils down to the three principal characters' ability to face the Gorgon--the knowledge of their annihilation. As Kafka wrote, "Can you know anything but illusion? If once illusion were destroyed you would never dare to look back; you would turn into a pillar of salt." In her depression, Justine does become immobilized, but then she finds that she can face it. One wonders, if she, like von Trier, takes some perverse pleasure in the imminent destruction of the earth.

12 comments:

Hokahey said...

I really loved this film.

Lots of interesting thoughts here, FilmDr. I like the connections you draw, especially between this film and The Tree of Life and 2001.

In #11 it is true that Claire takes part in the ritual of the magic "cave," but she only follows along numbly. It is all Justine's idea and all her doing, and that is somewhat of a triumph for her, sheltering the boy and tenderly ushering her sister, who had tended to Justine in her depression, into the shelter of sticks.

In the light of your comments about Justine and premonitions, there is then a big connection between this film and Take Shelter.

Scott Nye said...

Had to make a crucial edit...

First, I don't see how von Trier COULDN'T have been invoking, or paying homage to, Last Year at Marienbad with that shot. If he wasn't, and he hasn't seen the film, it's some kind of massive cosmic coincidence. Which would, incidentally, befit the film nicely.

The prelude is necessarily more abstract, even if it's aggressively straightforward about everyone's fate. Many of the things depicted there don't happen at all (particularly those involving Justine in a wedding dress), and the rest happen slightly differently. It's still at once ecstatic and terribly haunting (that image of Claire sinking into the golf course as she carries Leo away is terrifying).

Great notes on a great film. Thanks as always.

Jason Bellamy said...

Doc: A thoughtful and thought-provoking collection of notes you got here. I'll be chewing on some of these for a while, but two questions/thoughts, as I keep finding myself on the outside looking in when it comes to the film's ending -- its treatment of Justine and what that treatment means.

11) One could say this is pitifully ineffectual, but one could also see that this attempt to keep Leo from fear is one of the most important acts of the movie.

Why is this an important act? What is gained by it? What does it symbolize? What does it mean? What does it tell us about Justine?

16) One wonders, if she, like Von Trier, takes some perverse pleasure in the imminent destruction of the earth.

This approach sends me into disappointing circles each time I try for it. If Justine welcomes the end of the world, then I'm not quite sure why she's been so depressed by her visions of its destruction or why she'd act so bitterly toward her sister (which she does, right up until the final seconds). And if Justine is "just" severely depressed -- that is, if she has an actual condition -- then her sense of peace at the end is rather arbitrary. Or maybe it's a violation of character; many a depressed person wouldn't see the end of the world as a welcome end to their suffering, but rather they'd see it as something else to be depressed about.

I'm trying to be flexible in my understanding about what the film is telling me about Justine and her condition at the end, but I can find no reading that satisfies me, which is a bummer.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Hokahey. I also very much liked the film, although I wonder if its bleakness is corrosive. Did you notice that the music in the film sounds like the major theme of Vertigo?

I could only respond to the pitifulness of the "cave," but my significant other admired the two sisters' attempt to comfort the child. The bent coathanger-esque device that Claire uses to gauge the closeness of the planet also seems like a form of primitive magic. I liked the way the huge planet made for the ultimate indifferent antagonist, the way the earth could disappear (and, with it, all human endeavor) as randomly as a bubble in a carbonated drink.

Thanks, Scott. I liked the images of the prelude both because they are not quite accurate (they seem to condense aspects of the film), and because they are so evocative, hinting at the four elements, and using slow motion as if time was in the midst of stopping. I agree that the image of Claire carrying Leo is especially horrific, in part because of the hopelessness of her movement. I once saw footage of a bunch of people trapped on top of a burning skyscraper. They ran in circles because there was nothing else to do except jump, and yet, they couldn't sit still. Claire's later movements reminded me of those people.

Thanks, Jason. I mostly found the "cave" poignant as a hopeless attempt to provide shelter. As for your latter point about Justine: Melancholia raises the key question about what she knows in the opening shot. I liked the way the film suggests that she constantly knows more than she can say, and initially she can't handle it (There's no reason for her behavior to make sense at the wedding). But later, as Claire starts to freak out, Justine becomes oddly calm, maybe not happy exactly, but much more self-contained than her sister. How can she be that way? I don't know, but that's a mystery I enjoy considering. The film would have been much less interesting if we knew exactly what she's thinking just before the impact. I admire Melancholia for the stringency of its hopelessness, and yet there's a hint of something (cosmic cool?) in Justine's fortitude, much like Donnie Darko's laugh just before he's killed at the end of his film.

Hokahey said...

Yes, I totally noticed hints of the score for Vertigo in this movie's score. I often identify strains in classical pieces that might well have been the inspiration for a composer's film score. Dimitri Tiomkin said he owed it all to composers like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

FilmDr said...

Yes, I just read that the beginning of the film also has the music from "Tristan and Isolde." The New Yorker calls the prelude "the last word on music videos."

I also wonder if there might be a hint of Renoir's The Rules of the Game in von Trier's conception of the assorted guests at an estate.

The film also nicely suits Kirsten Dunst, given her work in The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette. I'll look up Jean Genet's The Maids, the play that von Trier said inspired the movie.

The Caustic Ignostic said...

I haven't seen many reviewers comment on the most resonant aspect of this film for me personally: The spooky accuracy of its depiction of depression. I tried to get at this a little in my own review. I definitely need to see the film again. I find the "Antichrist/Melancholia" Von Trier far more interesting than any of his previous incarnations.

http://www.stlmag.com/Blogs/Look-Listen/November-2011/Review-Melancholia/

humanprojector said...

Great observations. The film took me by surprise, even after having heard a million stories about it. I saw Another Earth and was wondering if Melancholia would better it. Boy was I in for some surprise!
I had doubts about the film in the first part which were only to be proved wrong in the second. This is great cinema, disturbing, engaging, beautiful, and 'just is'.
I could draw reference to Tarkovsky's Sacrifice in the unsaid nature of cosmic threat and relationships laying bare, falling apart, coming together in face of something bigger than them. Kirsten Dunst is so born for this role, so is Charlotte Gainsbourg, who I feel should be kept at an equal credit, for providing a brilliant foil to Justine's emotional powerhouse. I felt a little 'Hollywooded out' towards the end but there were certainly flashes of brilliance here. It is great how by not doing so many thing, von Trier elevates the film's effect and strengthens the whole cause and effect analogy to classic film theory elements.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Caustic Ignostic,

I agree that von Trier handled Justine's depression well, but if the movie had focused on the depression without the apocalyptic elements to balance them out, it wouldn't have worked as well for me. I may just prefer mental illness seasoned with cosmic dread.

Thanks, humanprojector,

I never heard of Sacrifice. I'll look into it. I agree with you that the film works in part because of all of the things von Trier does not do, like bringing in mass scale hysteria. The story works in part because he maintains such a tight focus on a few people.

tom hyland said...

Excellent observations on this challenging film. I especially like point #8, where you write that Justine gives herself over to the planet Melancholia. She indeed is the only character who can face death with grace.

Splendid irony in combining what should be the happiest day of a woman's life - her marriage - with that of the end of the world.

Gymkata9124 said...

Regarding 7), I think the burning of Hunters in the Snow symbolized the 'end' to come. The painting is known for its masterful handling of several seemingly conflicting elements. For instance, how the peak of the mountain far away is the most 'visible' object in the painting, while the hunters, though closest to the viewer, is dark and 'unknown.' Yet, put together they somehow work as a painting...sort of like how the Earth is. Or you could say the dichotomy of the painting represents the relationship between Justine and Claire.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe the cave was soley an act to spare the son. I believe it was a mockery of religion. Many pp would pray in their final minutes yet they hid in a cave. The correlation clearly defined his views that he places magic caves and prayer in the same categories. People would believe that god would save them, just as strongly as the peaceful boy believed the tent would save them.