The Trouble with Quibbles: Melancholia

Say what you will about Lars von Trier, but the man makes some interesting films. His latest film, Melancholia, is a complex intermingling of genres and ideas that is sure to intrigue. Imagine if Chekhov or Ibsen wrote a sci-fi story and you’ve got an idea of what to expect (think: The Last Three Sisters on Earth or The Cosmic Cherry Orchard or A Doll’s House on the Moon).

The film follows the back and forth between two sisters who struggle to maintain their relationship in the wake of opposing worldviews. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is a pragmatic realist/pessimist who suffers from severe depression and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is the long-suffering older sister who perpetually hopes for the best. Oh, and there’s also a newly discovered rogue planet named Melancholia that may or may not be on a collision course for Earth. Hijinks ensue.

BP: I think we should mention at the start, that neither of us saw Melancholia in theaters.

AS: True, but I would. I’m just broke. Thank goodness for VOD. I don’t think watching in the comfort of my home took anything away from it.

BP: I only mention it as a full disclosure thing since I have read 3 separate people insist it be seen on the big screen. And I will admit that I think a small something was lost, not enough to change my opinion but something.

AS: Well, you also watched it on your computer screen, which I don’t recommend at all. That’s just silly.

BP: Well, that aside, what did you think of the movie?

AS: I enjoyed Melancholia as much as you can enjoy such a somber film.

BP: I think I was a lot more mixed on it than you. Its tone notwithstanding.

AS: It has its ups and downs, especially during part 1 (Justine).

BP: Interesting, it was the “Justine” half that I enjoyed most.

AS: The wedding reception feels like a watered-down version of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, which I prefer over Melancholia. I also like Von Trier’s last film, Antichrist, more than Melancholia.

BP: I have not seen The Celebration.

AS: Oh, you have to see The Celebration! That’s a great movie.

BP: I need to see a lot of the early Dogme films. In fact, I haven’t seen any Von Trier pre-Dancer in the Dark. They’re actually hard to get a hold of, without Netflix of course.

AS: Breaking the Waves is great.

BP: Yeah, I want to see them all. His films are nothing if not interesting. And even though I wasn’t as high on Von Trier’s last film, Antichrist, as you were–I thought he was rubbing our nose in it a little too much–I do prefer that film’s batshit go for broke lunacy over Melancholia‘s much more restrained approach.

AS: I really enjoy the Antichrist-like super-slow-motion opening. I thought that was gorgeous, almost on par with Tree of Life.

BP: Oh yeah, I agree with you there. In fact, the prologue to Melancholia is just as masterful. Easily the best part of both movies. He can be so good, when he wants to be, at creating these beautiful and evocative montages, with great slo-mo camera work and perfectly plucked music.

AS: It’s like Melancholia is the negative yin to Tree of Life‘s more hopeful yang.

BP: I don’t know that I would compare the two. Especially when the film has its own yin and yang with the two main characters played by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

AS: Sure, Melancholia has its own yin and yang, but I still feel like the film is a counter-balance to Tree of Life. Even in Claire’s half of the film, her hope is so tinged with despair. It’s a much darker examination of finding meaning to life. Maybe I just have a weird sadistic streak, where I enjoy watching Charlotte Gainsbourg suffer and despair. I love her here and in Antichrist and her section of I’m Not There is one of my favorites. Like a crazy Charlotte Gainsbourg-centric Schadenfreude, she plays suffering so well… and now I’m starting to creep myself out.

BP: She is good. I just thought the first half had a lot more going on and the second half was just killing time until everyone died. On a different note, to me the film wasn’t about meaning of life, but depression, and that is a tough subject for me to wrap my brain around. It’s hard for me to care and not just think the characters are being mopey and need to get over their own shit.

AS: I think it’s totally to do with the meaning of life, even if it’s a lack of meaning. But more importantly, how do you misunderstand depression!?! What does that even mean? True depression, true major (or chronic) depression is definitely what the movie is about, yes. But how do you misunderstand that? The entire film is the least subtle representation of exactly what major depression is; it’s like an entire planet crashing down on you. Depression isn’t just, “Oh, I’m feeling down today,” it’s inescapable, soul-crushing desperation. It’s not just feeling sad.

BP: I’m not trying to be flippant. I understand these things, I just felt the movie relied too much on either the metaphor or the internal feelings of the character, but there was never a sense of their external lives. I think it works well in the first half cause there is a party and lots of people and it is enough to get an idea of Justine’s life, but in the end the film is set in one location with very little outside happenstance. Does any of that make sense?

AS: No, not really.

BP: I understand what the point of the film was, I just didn’t find watching all of it as compelling as the ideas behind it.

AS: I still don’t understand your issue with the second half taking place in one location. The whole thing takes place in one location. What do you mean, happenstance?

BP: I mean that: yes, the whole thing is one location, but there is enough happening in part 1 that it doesn’t irk, whereas by the end of the picture, the cast is downsized, and very little is going on. While this is purposeful, it felt like more of a slog.

AS: Well, I think it works. And the more that I think about it, the more I like it.

BP: My other problem, which is similar, is the hand-held camera. Again, I recognize what he is trying to accomplish, but when there are moments where the camera is overtly cinematic and lush, I just wish he shot the whole thing like that, like the prologue, and ditched the shaky stuff, not that I’m always anti-shaky.

AS: I didn’t have a problem with that.

BP: These gorgeous images would be dangled before my eyes, and then replaced with low-grade shakiness and I kept thinking, “No, no, go back, do the other thing, do that.”

AS: See, but I think that is part and parcel with what the whole movie is about…

BP: I know, I know.

AS: …these two different perceptions of reality.

BP: Again, ideas conquering watchability.

AS: I disagree. I found it very watchable, even sick and up late at night, I was glued to the screen. And as much as I enjoy watching Gainsbourg’s despair, I think Kirsten Dunst gives an equally excellent performance. I especially enjoy her zen sort of transcendence in the second half of the film.

BP: Well, I did say Von Trier is always interesting, so I would watch this again. And yeah both actresses do very good work. Not my favorite performances of the year, but very good. Udo Kier FTW!

AS: Indeed. He brings a much appreciated sense of levity. It’s weird, to me Melancholia is this strange sort of depressive’s affirmational, finding solace in the eventuality of your own demise.

BP: I agree with that. I think I like the idea of the movie more than the movie. Not that it’s terrible, just you know. Anything you didn’t like?

AS: Now that I’ve been thinking about it more and more, no… not really. I kinda wanna go rewatch it right now

BP: A little long? A little slow? A little strange at times? Although, I do like the strangeness, like randomly having Dunst on a golf course naked, looking at the stars.

AS: That’s a definite plus. I didn’t find it too long or slow. I think the prologue helped, set the stage perfectly, and then I was more than willing to sit back and wait

BP: But this wasn’t a good as Antichrist for you?

AS: Not immediately, no. I knew I loved Antichrist as soon as I finished watching it. With Melancholia, I’m finding I appreciate the film more the more I think about it. Also, I love how fucked up Antichrist is. That helps. Or, how much more fucked up than Melancholia, I should say.

BP: I find them both difficult at first pass, but I respect their singularity and expect to like them more in the future, but I do not love them like my first viewings of Dancer or Dogville.

AS: Dogville… ugh… I couldn’t even finish watching Dogville. I was not feeling it at all.

BP: No way dude, it’s awesome.

AS: Meh…

BP: You have to warm up to it, but you have ample time to do so.

AS: One day I’ll finish it.

BP: But I think the difference with those and these is a more rigid structure, like it was more controlled than some of the free association he practices here. That’s a personal taste thing though. I tend to prefer one over the other.

AS: All I can say is: I gladly watched Melancholia all the way through; I couldn’t stick with Dogville.

BP: You know, I think that actually says a lot about the two of us.

AS: You like the rigid framework to adhere to, whereas I’m more willing to go with the flow of free association…

BP: Amongst other things, but the subject matter, the stylization of each. There’s a lot there, I think.

AS: I really couldn’t get past the “no style” stylization of Dogville, but I was interested in the story. Maybe “bare bones” is a better phrase…

BP: If you ever watch it you’ll see that the “bare bones” set design and presentation is actually as thematically relevant as the 3D in Hugo or the B&W in Ed Wood.

AS: I would hope so. I think it was more of a personal thing, just not in the mood for a movie like Dogville when I tried to watch it. I fell victim to my Netflix queue.

BP: But anyways, despite some fascinating ideas, and two solid lead performances, Melancholia didn’t blow me over. I think it needed either more weirdness or a tad larger scope. I don’t mind the bleakness, I just want a better balance between the external and the internal. Still something to admire. Grade: C+

AS: Again, I didn’t love it immediately, but I do find my appreciation of the film growing as I think about it more and more. Dunst and Gainsbourg are both great. It’s gorgeous, and if you have the chance, spring for the big screen instead of VOD. Grade: A

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