Friday, March 20, 2015

Melancholia (2011)

Today we are taking a look at a movie that I'm sure would never make it onto your school's mental health wellness study week. Oh who am I kidding? Your school doesn't do that shit anyway and lets mental health fall to the wayside in favor of more standardized testing, so I guess it's moot. 

Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg

Co-written with Michelle.

Melancholia is one of the more recent films by Lars von Trier, who is famous for making provocative, artistic films. Now, given the fact that this is a very abstract, strange movie, I don't think it would be right to review this in the same way I would review Species 2 or something. In fact I debated whether to review this at all...but then I went nah, it's cool, I can do this. I did preparations Rocky-style by running up and down a flight of stairs this afternoon.

If you don't know, this is the movie starring Kirsten Dunst about a bride going through depression and also the world is ending. I listed those two plot points in that order because I understand priorities!

We start off with a slow-moving apocalypse scene with the world going to hell and a woman played by Kirsten Dunst and her family running around on a golf course with horses. It's very interesting and evocative imagery, only the problem is that von Trier played it so slow that I thought my computer was lagging – which kind of lessened the effect when I had to check my Internet speed instead of getting sucked into the atmosphere. I mean, that shit does happen all the time on Netflix when you're like me and have a computer you bought for $300 at Office Max.

The aftermath to Evil Dead?

But never fear, for then we get a scene of Dunst at her wedding day with her husband Michael. They're trying to do a three-point turn in a limousine and get to, you know, the wedding party itself. The driver can't hack it, so Michael gets in the seat and tries. Then he can't do it, so Dunst has to try. At what point do you just give up and rent a Subaru instead? So far this is probably the worst wedding I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot.

I sure hope they didn't pay that driver too much for having to get him out of the limo and do it themselves...

They finally get to her sister's humongous mansion, complete with a giant-ass golf course that nobody seems to use, and Dunst pauses the whole thing to go say hello to her real lover... 


Ohhhhhh yeah.

Inside at the party, we see that things aren't quite as idyllic as they appeared – including a whole table of women named Betty and a mother played by Charlotte Rampling that constantly stresses how much she doesn't like weddings, and for some reason came anyway. Also, the sister played by Charlotte Gainesbourge constantly has a scowl on her face at the wedding and constantly says she hates Dunst's character Justine over and over. The whole mood is very uncomfortable and goes on for a long time. So, like a real wedding, then. 

"Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll have 17,000 more glasses of wine. Clearly I haven't had enough yet."
The best wedding gift is soul-crushing depression to the point where you can't get out of bed.

The problem is just that we don't really get much of a story here. Yeah, the mood is tangible, and very well done for a little while, but it drags on for over an hour and there isn't much to really latch onto after a while. We get scraps of this story about how depressed Justine is and how she's had problems in the past, and you think, oh, it'll be revealed more later. Only it isn't. It's like a date with a person who speaks a different language, and you think, oh, we'll connect more when we spend more time together. It can't be that hard. But then you just end up at home alone anyway and more confused.

And don't get me wrong here – I'm not one of those assholes who just thinks all film has to be straightforward and anything that isn't an explosion-filled action fest just sucks by default. No, I didn't go into this expecting a Michael Bay action fest – thank you IMDb commenters. In fact that whole argument is just kinda bullshit to begin with; just because someone doesn't like something doesn't mean they were expecting some ridiculous polar opposite that you made up just to be condescending. Same shit in the other direction, too - “oh, you didn't like Transformers 5: Return of the Giant Phallic CGI Effects? YOU MUST HAVE JUST BEEN EXPECTING KING LEAR!!!”

No.

Even so though, Melancholia just tends to drag on too long without enough real character or drama, so much as just the ghostly suggestions of those things. Instead of actual conflict, we get the implication of it, sort of tantalizingly waved in front of the audience's face like a slab of wet meat in front of a salivating dog. The atmosphere is still there, but where I wanted to hear some good, soul-searching dialogue that explored what was going on between them, I just got this: 

CLAIRE: It's not about the cost. It's just, I thought you really wanted this.

JUSTINE: But I do.

CLAIRE: Michael has tried to get through to you all evening, with no avail.

JUSTINE: That's not true. I smile, and I smile, and I smile.

CLAIRE: You lied to all of us.

Then Claire leaves, that's basically the end of that, and Justine goes and talks to Charlotte Rampling, because I really needed more scenes of Rampling telling her not to get married and that nobody wants to be here, so it's good the movie's got my back. I can see what von Trier wanted to do with these scenes, showing the futility of it all, but again - it's just bits and scraps of a real story; you don't actually get very much.

Oh, except for close-ups so invasive that you could pick the eye-boogers out of every character's head.

This whole wedding thing goes on for way too long, and culminates in Justine leaving her husband in the middle of wedding night sex and instead fucking some idiot who works with her on the golf course sand pit. 

"Hmmm...something isn't right here..."
"Ah, yes, this is better."

Oh, and then like a few scenes later, she calls out her boss and quits her job, despite having been given a promotion earlier in the wedding. Awesome. That's just amazing to me. Most of these wedding scenes seem to always come back to one central point – no one likes each other, no one wants to be at the wedding and yet they came anyway.

It's just that so much of this relies on interpretation – you're supposed to glean your own meaning of what this exactly is trying to say. So many of these types of movies just end up bullshitty when you get down to it. Yeah, there is some genuine artistic inspiration behind it, that much is clear, but it just doesn't make it a good movie alone. If I have to interpret things to the degree that I'm just filling in the crater-sized gaps in the movie's plot with my own imagination, I might as well just go make my own movie instead.

Oh, sure, von Trier was definitely trying to make a movie about depression, and the film has certain very interesting glimpses at what that feels like – there's one scene later on where Justine is staying at her sister's mansion and comes down to try and eat something, taking one bite and bursting into tears, exclaiming “It tastes like ashes!” It's honestly a good scene and is very evocative as to what it feels like to be depressed. 


That's just one scene though, and the whole movie is filled up with tons more vast stretches of silence and other vague scenes that sort of, kind of hint at the story, but the story you're waiting for never really comes to fruition. I don't want this to be too much more straightforward than it is – I like the weirdness and vagueness of a lot of the imagery and scenes here, but I'm a literature guy at heart; I want to see more of a glimpse into their characters and motivations and desires. Here, all I end up getting is more scenes of people scowling at one another, and none of the characters really get fully fleshed out.

Oh, but we do get Kirsten Dunst beating up a horse. Can't forget that! 

I never saw a "no horses were filmed in the making of this movie" disclaimer!

This whole movie is kind of like going on a road trip to somewhere and seeing vast, beautiful sights and scenery – and then ending up turning around and going home without doing anything or learning anything. I mean, look at some of the rest of these scenes in the last part of the movie. I'm tempted to think, with how glacial the pacing is, the actors could all just die on set and von Trier would never notice. 

"Sir, I think they've stopped breathing!"
"Keep filming! We need to get this right!"

The ending has some good scenes of Justine monologuing about the world ending, and also another one where they hide in a tent made of sticks against the fiery comet-death of the Universe. 


I guess soul-crushing hopelessness is one way to deal with it, and child's cowboys and Indians games are another. It would admittedly be funny if it worked, though, and the smoke cleared and they were fine underneath those sticks – which really are the only defense against fiery comets bigger than the Earth hurtling towards the whimpering, cowering planet, when you think about it. 

They could still be OK.

Too much of this whole movie is just what you bring to the table from your own subjective life experience – so much so that there's really nothing there in the movie by itself. Some people will probably watch this and see a very evocative, beautiful and haunting portrait of depression and how depressed people see the world. Others, like my friend who helps me do these reviews, will absolutely hate this and find it pointless and dull beyond belief. Personally I thought it was weak with little character development and even less of a real story.

Movies as a whole are like that. Melancholia is an extreme example, and really takes the “subjective experience” thing to a whole new level, being almost entirely reliant on it for the viewer to get something out of it at all, or else they'll just hate it. But the answer, no matter where you stand, is never just strawmanning it up and painting the opposite opinion as somehow hysterically wrong. Going either “you just want every movie to be a big dumb action movie if you hate this” or “you clearly only like butt-sniffingly pretentious arthouse crap and are obsessed with your own intelligence if you like this” is just too far. How about just not being a jackass about it?

I'd also like to take the time to point out that this movie was actually a prequel to a timeless classic released about 25 years before. The events that come after that comet hits the Earth are truly terrifying...

Indeed.

Images copyright of their original owners; I own none of them.