Celestial Metaphors: Melancholia and Another Earth

November 13, 2011

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia begins with a series of tableaux that, like the opening of his previous film Antichrist, could be a demented perfume ad.  This time around, however, he’s putting his cards on the table at the very start.  The images reflect both the mental state of its two main characters and a portent for things to come. A bride is being ensnared by limbs and roots, a woman runs frantically across the 19th green of a golf course clutching a child, the bride is peacefully sinking into water like Millais’ Ophelia, and so on and so on.  Never one to hold back theatrical bombast, this is all set to a piece from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.  It ends with nothing less than the destruction of earth as a significantly larger heavenly sphere smashes through it.  This prologue is both beautiful and almost laughably overblown, but it is also turns out to be an incredibly useful mood-setter for events to come. 

After the opening, the film is split into two parts.  The first part, “Justine”, follows around the titular woman (Kirsten Dunst) on the night of her wedding at a stunning estate-cum-resort owned by her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) and sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  The reception is spectacularly opulent (the organizer is played with amusing annoyance by Udo Kier) and it comes as no surprise that it turns into an absolute nightmare.  Justine suffers from depression, and as the night wears – and expectations for her build – her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.  Filmed largely on handheld and edited together almost like a documentary, the pieces of the puzzle of Justine become clearer and clearer.  With its collection of nightmarish, sniping relatives and hangers-on, it strongly recalls Festen, the best of the Dogme movement spearheaded by von Trier.  Justine’s mother, played by Charlotte Rampling, is bitter and rude, and she gives an extremely cutting speech directed at her drunken, womanizing ex-husband, played by John Hurt.  Justine’s boss, played by Stellan Skarsgard as a not-so-subtly badgering ass, is constantly harassing her for an ad campaign catch phrase.  Claire attempts to help Justine, who disappears for long stretches, much to the annoyance of John, but in the end it is no use and the marriage to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) falls apart before it even began.

The editing by Molly Melene Stensgaard pushes this sequence beyond merely a roll call of awful people doing awful things.  It creates a palpable sense of frustration and anxiety, and also manages to pull off a real empathy for Justine, thanks in no small part to Dunst.  You can see her straining to put on a smile and act her part in a ritual that would ostensibly be about her but is in fact about everyone else.  Her quick changes of mood are believable and never annoying, and that’s perhaps the most difficult trick to pull.  What she and von Trier both seem to understand is depression, and to an outsider it can seem like petulant self-centeredness, but there’s an internal logic to the seemingly illogical.  The film never excuses her behaviour because it knows that it doesn’t need justifying.

The second half of the film, entitled “Claire” after Justine’s sister, takes place some unspecified time after the wedding, on the same, now deserted estate.  Justine arrives, nearly catatonic from depression, and meanwhile the star that she noticed on her wedding night has turned out to be a rogue planet named not-so-subtly Melancholia.  John believes the scientists who state it will pass right by the earth, and he and his son Leo (Cameron Spurr) make a device out of a stick and some wire that operates suspiciously like a noose to determine the size and, thus, closeness of the planet.  Claire is far more fearful of the possibility of a collision, and she continues to read sites on the Internet predicting earth’s doom.   As the apocalypse gets nearer, Justine becomes calmer while Claire grows increasingly frantic for her life and especially for the life of her son.

This section is shot much less frantically than the first, and instead of the ever-building tensions of the reception we get a more looming sense of doom and despair.  One can interpret Melancholia in a number of ways, but two in particular stood out for me.  The first comes with Justine’s insistence that it will definitely hit earth, and that she knows there is nobody else in the universe.  There’s a sort of elemental understanding that comes with depression for von Trier, as though the universe is so empty and meaningless that insanity is the only rational response.  Indeed, Justine welcomes Melancholia, going so far as to bathe in its reflective light in the nude on the banks of a river, ready to give herself over to it completely.  The other reading I took from it was the way in which severe depression metaphorically – or in this case, if the planet is responding to Justine, literally – envelops everyone around it.  She’s incapable of putting on the façade of happiness when all she sees is cruelty and unhappiness at the wedding, where everyone else just puts on a smile and gets on with it.  When faced with the end of all things, she can function normally as it is her comfort zone, where Claire cannot, and this gives the film its surprisingly graceful finale between the two sisters and Leo.

The meaning of the planet and the reactions and motivations of the characters are open to thematic interpretations, but the film doesn’t work because of its concept or even because of its rich visuals.  The spine that holds the whole thing together is the relationship between Justine and Claire, and the performances of Dunst and Gainsbourg.  They give difficult, nuanced performances that can be emotionally erratic while still holding onto the love and understanding they have for each other.  It raises Melancholia beyond the mere chin-stroking abstractions and talking points his films so often become.  It isn’t shocking in the least to find out that von Trier is unhappy with the ‘softeness’ of the ending, because his work as an artist up until now has felt in turns extremely cynical, pedantic, and reductive.  He’s a fascinating artist, to be sure, but Melancholia feels like the work of someone being incredibly honest about his own feelings and traumas.  Antichrist might have been about this personal grief, but it descended into an elaborate, though enjoyable, joke, as though he just couldn’t quite let himself feel too exposed.  Here he manages to pull off the absurd concept by making it, of all things, incredibly human.  I hope he does so again.

Strangely enough, there was a second film this year about a rogue celestial body making its way towards our own.  Another Earth is a low-budget indie directed by Mike Cahill, who also co-wrote the screenplay with the star, Brit Marling.  The story begins on the night high school student Rhoda (Marling) is celebrating her acceptance to MIT.  After having a few drinks, she starts driving and hears on the radio that another planet has entered the solar system.  As she’s looking up at the sky, she crashes into a truck, killing a wife and young son and leaving the father in a coma.  Four years later, she’s released from prison and moves back home with her parents, while the planet has moved much closer and is revealed to be an exact copy of our own, down to the people living on it.  She takes a job as a janitor at her old high school and soon finds out that the man she put into a coma, John (William Mapother), is awake.  She finds his address and poses as a cleaning service to get to help him with his troubled life.  I know it seems finicky to give Melancholia’s on-the-nose aspects a pass while criticizing Another Earth’s stream of obvious metaphors, but the key is in the execution, and the latter film just doesn’t have it.

The development of the relationship between Rhoda and John feels far too simple and generic, and instead of being invested and full of expectation for the inevitable reveal, we just want it to be over with to see what happens.  And what happens, of course, is exactly what is to be expected.  For it’s tiny budget of about $200,000, the film does look great.  The other earth is ever-present, convincing, and beautiful, and the style builds a decently introspective, occasionally ethereal atmosphere.  It’s unfortunate that the substance just isn’t there, and the concept of another earth with another ‘you’ on it living a similar life with the same memories is never interestingly explored.  Instead it is used as almost a too-convenient resolution that we never actually get to see resolved.

There’s a final scene after a “four months later” card that feels cheap and undercooked.  Its implications are never explored and were never meant to be; it just sits there to make us gasp and ponder its meaning, when really there is none to ponder.  It reminded me of a similar moment in Mike Figgis’ The Loss of Sexual Innocence, only that tiny moment has huge emotional and, especially, existential connotations that are dealt with through the rest of the film.  Another Earth would rather leave the audience to wonder, and it feels like a cheat.  In the end, it feels like the kind of film I might make had I any talent and a meager budget, and as such, it’s a thorough disappointment.

-M

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