Tuesday, December 20, 2011

End of Her World: MELANCHOLIA

Danish provocateur Lars von Trier’s Melancholia opens with striking slow motion shots of a metaphorical nature. A bride (Kirsten Dunst) tries to move through an ominous forest with dark, heavy strings tangled around her arms and legs. A woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tries to run across a golf course carrying her young son, but finds her feet sinking into the ground. Then the world ends. This is a movie about depression, about the soul-deadening dive into unceasing and motionless sadness. These opening shots, strikingly unnerving, are such a perfect evocation that the following film is merely a two-hour plus continuation of the themes that have been so simply expressed. This film is tiresome and oppressive and that’s exactly the point. It’s every bit as emotionally draining as I’m sure Von Trier would want me to find it. It’s a good approximation, an evocation, of depression.

The first part of the film follows a wedding reception that slowly drains of revelry as the distracted bride’s depression grows clearer and stronger. She slips away from the party to wander through the mansion of her sister (Gainsbourg). She tries to nap. She takes a bath. Meanwhile the guests are getting anxious. Her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård) grows increasingly confused. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling), who didn’t want to be there in the first place, wanders away as well. Her father (John Hurt) seems mostly oblivious. Her sister’s filthy rich husband (Kiefer Sutherland) is stewing, thinking this party is fast becoming a waste of money. The wedding planner (Udo Kier, in a very funny performance) is so upset in a dry, passive-aggressive way that he declares he will no longer look at the bride, covering his face with one hand to block her from his vision.

This poor woman is so clearly troubled, slowly sinking into her depression as if it were quicksand. She gets testy. Her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) finds reason to doubt her fresh promotion. A few different people forcefully tell her to “be happy.” As if that will help. This marriage is over before it’s even begun. There’s a destabilizing depression settling into its foundation.

The second part of the film follows this woman as her condition has worsened. She’s back at the mansion of her sister and her sister’s husband and son. She sleeps constantly. Sometimes she can’t even bring herself to move, not even to take care of herself. Her sister half-carries her to the bathroom, runs a bath, undresses her, but can’t get her to lift her leg to get in the tub. Her sister cooks her favorite meal, but one bite of meatloaf has her weeping, saying it tastes like ashes. This is truly becoming a debilitating depression. It threatens to pull in all of the characters around her.

Of course, it doesn’t help matters that a newly discovered planet many times larger than our own has a wide arc of an orbit that will swing it past the Earth with some chance of a devastating collision that would engulf the entire planet. This planet is named Melancholia, clearly marking it as a symbol of the film’s central concern. Depression is a terrible and terrifying condition that seeps bone deep into Dunst’s character then slowly infects Gainsbourg and the others. The panic over the looming potential of a forthcoming apocalypse adds to the sense of inescapable devastation and understandable pessimism. Melancholia, like her depression, may very well destroy their lives.

These are fantastic performances, filled with a kind of immediacy and depth that belies Von Trier’s more schematic aims. He’s content to lay out the themes of the film in broad, though artful, strokes, but through the skillful actresses’ best efforts, this depression moves beyond a collection of signifiers both vague and specific, both literal and metaphorical. Dunst utter helplessness in the face of it, the aching battle within her that is masked at times by her stoic unhappiness, is painfully honest. Gainsbourg joins her in a duet of emotion with a performance that, once it descends into pure anxiety, is infectious. These sisters live contagious emotional lives that bring an edge of danger to their respective, intertwined, psychological issues.

I had an intense physical response to the aesthetics of the film. The swirling shaky handheld camera, especially during the wedding reception, made me nauseous. I’ve never before had that response to a shaking, swooping camera. Something about the intensity with which the film explored such a strong, corrosive state of mind melded with Manuel Alberto Claro’s cinematography to make me sick to my stomach. Later, as Melancholia grows closer, I found anxiety for my nerves to match my stomach. By the time the film arrives at its gut-rattling cataclysmic climax, it was as if a weight was lowering onto my shoulders. In short, this film left me a bit of a wreck and in desperate need of a recovery period. This is such a powerful and upsetting film, as well as often tedious and seemingly repetitive, maddening and overwhelming in equal measure. It’s a great evocation of a seemingly insurmountable problem. In the end, it’s a film about how depression is great practice for dealing with the end of the world.

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