Sunday, 2 October 2011
"Life is only on Earth and not for long" says Justine (Kirtsen Dunst) somewhere near the apocalyptic conclusion of Lars Von Trier's 'Melancholia'. Though much has been made of the film's superficial similarity to Terrence Malick's 'Tree of Life' - which also premièred at Cannes earlier this year and to more unanimous acclaim - this pessimistic musing on life, the universe and everything is as close as the films come to sharing theme. Malick conveys a reverence for life, whilst the Dane sees the stars as no more magical than the act of going to the toilet. Both may feature awe-inspiring CGI renderings of immense planetary bodies, but Von Trier's film is not about the grand religious concerns that defined Malick's; the director has long spoken of his struggle with depression and this, like 2009's 'Antichrist', is the cinematic product of that suffering.
An arch-provocateur with a, shall we say, dark sense of humour, Von Trier's claim to mental illness has been reported sceptically, with critics wary not to end up the butt of some obtuse, private joke. However, as someone who has long struggled with depression, I found 'Melancholia' to be a deeply affecting and well observed portrait of the condition - and as such it must rank as the filmmaker's most sincere work to date. Whilst 'Antichrist' was arguably a nihilistic, despairing outburst, 'Melancholia' is not merely depressing but about the experience of depression. With it Von Trier not only captures the feeling of being depressed but, crucially, captures the responses of others to a mental disorder that, like many others, is still not easily understood.
It'll no doubt test the patience of those unfamiliar with depression or lacking in empathy for someone with the condition. As Justine, Dunst is selfish, sulky, irrational, irresponsible and unfaithful - and all within the course her opulent wedding reception which takes up the opening chapter. Many will find her behaviour too frustrating to bear, though it's peerlessly well observed. As are the various reactions to it.
As her free-spirited, partying father, John Hurt avoids potentially depressing conversations with his daughter so as not to spoil his own mood, running away from his daughter at every turn. As the mother, Charlotte Rampling seemingly has her own problems with the illness: she has embraced a sort of hyper-rationalism that has robbed everything of joy and meaning, which is similar to Justine's own (literally) world-weary position later in the film. As her sister Claire, Charlotte Gainsbourg is condescending, unhelpfully terming Justine's lowest points as evidence of "causing a scene" and even expressing contempt for her. Meanwhile Claire's husband John, played by Kiefer Sutherland, thinks Justine is just a nuisance and potentially a destructive influence upon their young son Leo (Cameron Spurr).
Several characters seem to mistake Justine's mental state for an expression of want. Her well-meaning new husband (Alexander Skarsgård) buys her a plot of land where he claims the environment will make her happy. Claire and John believe the expensive wedding reception they have thrown her should raise more of a smile (John mentions more than once that his land hosts an 18 hole golf course). Her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) gifts her with a promotion during the occasion, but again this is not much of a boon. Here Von Trier's sharp sense of humour is in evidence as he satirises trite aspirations and our desperate attempts to give events meaning. Later Justine ridicules Claire's need for some sort of ceremony as the apocalypse nears, sarcastically suggesting they light candles and listen to classical music.
All of these interactions highlight popular, tragically Victorian misconceptions about mental illness: that it isn't illness at all but a failing of character or a sign of weakness. Justine's response is usually to find solitude, though she also takes comfort in the young Leo - presumably because he is not sitting in judgement of her. Justine's attempt at marriage doesn't survive the reception and, six months later, we find her no longer willing to fight this chronic sombreness and the film refocusses on Claire - now herself distraught by the threat posed by an oncoming planet.
It is not a spoiler to mention that the Earth is destroyed in 'Melancholia': it's an event that takes place (and quite majestically) at the very start of the film, with the human drama on the planet's surface played out as an extended flashback. The conceit here is that a hitherto unseen planet has come into view from its position behind our sun and is on a collision course with the Earth, though really this apocalypse forms part of an extended metaphor, emphasising the gloomy mental state of Justine and Claire. The planet serves as a great, oppressive weight pushing down on them throughout. The world outside Claire and John's impressive grounds is never seen and both attempts to leave (by horse and later by golf car) are halted by some unseen power, which I would suggest is representative of a depressive's tendency to sink into themselves and shun the outside world.
Von Trier has long been able to dazzle critics with his technique and 'Melancholia' is an immensely beautiful film, comprised of haunting and truly spectacular images from start to finish. Taken at face value the impending apocalypse plot is also dramatic and terrifying. But more significantly, what we have here is his most candid and revealing film. It's thought-provoking, personal, earnest and far less oblique than some of his previous work. It's a shame this movie has been overshadowed by those ill-advised and misjudged attempts at humour during that infamous press conference earlier this year that saw Cannes declare him "persona non grata". The Danish director occasionally seems to be his own worst enemy and 'Melancholia' leaves me in no doubt at all why that is. I haven't been able to get the film out of my head in the days since I saw it, making it easily the most powerful film of the year so far.
'Melancholia' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is out now in the UK.