The moon is full tonight
And hurts the eyes,
It is so definite and bright.
What if it has drawn up
All quietness and certitude of worth
Wherewith to fill its cup,
Or mint a second moon, a paradise? –
For they are gone from earth.
– Philip Larkin
Melancholia, dir. Lars von Trier (2011, 136′)
It probably hasn’t escaped your notice, Dear Reader, that Melancholia doesn’t exactly fall under the category of Latin American film. Though I could attempt to downplay the incongruity by saying that I saw the movie in a little cineclub in Buenos Aires (it won’t be getting full distribution down here because of some inopportune remarks made by the director at Cannes), I’m opting instead for a defense of intellectual promiscuity. And this may be just the film to start with.
One of my favorite things about this little cineclub is the way the films are introduced. An affable and generally knowledgeable gentleman associated with the club comes up and provides a bit of background information on the movie, and offers a few things to keep in mind while viewing. Not surprisingly, last night his remarks focused mainly on the title of the movie/ name of the planet on a collision course with earth. Melancholia, he reminded us, was not always exclusively associated with depression. Yes, the melas and the chole that comprise the word do indeed evoke the black humours of the clinically depressed. But there was, for centuries, another valence to the word, that of the clarity of vision that comes from withdrawn reflection – often as a fundamental part of the creative process.
A.O. Scott has already covered the connection between the way Justine (Dunst) is able to see the world and the melancholy that inflects her every movement (to Dunst’s credit, its weight is palpable even at the character’s most buoyant moments). My own lexical fixation took root in another term: gravity.
It was impossible not to have gravity on the mind during the film’s overture, in which dead birds fall from the sky, a black horse collapses under its own weight, and a small planet is ineluctably drawn toward a larger one; they meet, and one is absorbed by the other in a moment of mutual and absolute destruction. Gravity also seemed like an apt characterization of the overture itself: its slow motion cinematography and somewhat heavy-handed use of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (the only piece of music heard in the film) made for a difficult point of entry. But my ambivalence was only temporary: any claims of excess that might be levied against Melancholia‘s opening minutes are immediately offset by the sensitivity and precision of the two acts that follow.
Act 1 unfolds over the course of Justine’s wedding. Through artful screenwriting and a stunning performance by Dunst, we are quickly brought into the world of a young woman who loves her partner and has a remarkable creative gift, yet who alternates between being paralyzed and impelled by her depression. She drifts into reverie at her own banquet. She slips away numerous times over the course of the night, to take a bath, a nap, a piss on her brother-in-law’s putting green. She apologizes helplessly for not being able to do anything about any of it. The actors who play the members of her family, and particularly her sister Claire (Gainsbourg), do an excellent job of conveying the collateral fallout of Justine’s moods; they, too, cower under the looming mass of her melancholy.
This mass is rendered explicitly in the second act, as the planet from which the film gets its name imposes itself on the carefully constructed tableau of the estate in which Claire lives with her husband, whose outward bluster and inner frailty are deftly conveyed by Kiefer Sutherland. This second part of the film revolves around this microcosm and its inhabitants, and particularly around Claire, the responsible sister who married rich, if not entirely well, who loves her son, and who cares for Justine as she convalesces in her cavernous home. Comfort food is made, personal hygiene is insisted upon. And yet, as the film draws to its close, Claire finds herself unable to cope with the reality before her, while Justine seems to grow into her own skin, shedding the veil of numbness in which she had been tangled and shepherding her sister and nephew toward their end with dignity and, if it’s not too much to say, grace.
Despite the absolute finality of the film’s final moments, at its heart a question remains unanswered: what is it that Justine is afraid of? At several points in the first act, she confides to those closest to her that she is not just sad, or overwhelmed, or scared, but really terrified, yet no one thinks to ask her what, exactly, she fears. It seems all too obvious, perhaps, that someone in her condition would be frightened, in a generalized, free-floating kind of way. But I would venture that Justine’s fear is more specific, and that it is the axis around which the film spins. I would venture that Justine sees, in her wedding day, the shadow of her own annihilation.
Gravity. Two bodies exerting force on one another, rarely in equal measure. The apple that falls from the tree is likewise tugging at the ground, imperceptibly; when this is a matter of planets, or people, the result can be a bit messier, even catastrophic. Remember that it is the opening strains of Tristan and Isolde that provide the film’s only musical accompaniment. Remember that, in the second scene of the second act of Wagner’s opera, one finds the following exchange, which isn’t an exchange at all, because it is sung by both lovers as one:
Du Isolde, / Tristan ich / Nicht mehr Tristan / Nicht Isolde / Ohne Nennen / Ohne Trennen
You, Isolde / Tristan, I / No more Tristan / No Isolde / Without names / Never to be parted
Like the planets that are fused together and disintegrate during the overture of the film, love represents a violence that only Justine seems able to see. But it is there for the seeing, nowhere more clearly than in the ghostly presence of Claire, who seems to have been completely absorbed by the imposing edifice of her own marriage, and by the opulent grounds that are its physical manifestation. Never before has a person seemed so small, so overwhelmed by the space around her, and yet so dependent on it. As the apocalypse nears, Claire panics and tries to escape, to leave the compound. She takes her child in her arms and runs frantically between the family’s brightly polished SUVs, trying to find one that will start. She eventually turns up a golf cart and takes off down the long gravel driveway at a surprising clip. But we know that she won’t get very far, and suspect that she does, too. The moment for escape is long past.
Melancholia is not a film without flaws. The levity introduced by Udo Kier’s wedding planner feels both rote and out of place, and von Trier occasionally dips into a sort of audiovisual sentimentality that does not do justice to the careful equilibrium of the rest of the film. That said, it is an extraordinary work that creates, from the darkness at its own core, images of aching beauty and the vision of a certain, difficult truth: we circle around one another, hoping to be nourished in the reflected light, but in danger always of passing too close, of giving in to gravity.