There’s far too much going in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia for me to attempt a proper critique just now. All I really want to say are two things. Well, maybe three … or four …
(For those who haven’t seen the film or are unfamiliar with its plot, all you need to know is: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is chronically depressed and comes to stay with her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) on an 18-hole golf course in the country; a planet, ‘Melancholia’, has come out from its hiding place behind the sun and is now hurtling towards earth; and her father (John Hurt) likes to steal teaspoons.)
Firstly, this guy thought the cinematography sucked, but unlike Bonnie Prince Billy I’m not a cinematographer, so I’m not going to comment on that. Suffice to say, regardless of your stance on digital film vs … er … film film, Melancholia deserves to be watched in a proper cinema. Preferably a large one. I watched it in Le Grande.
I will however comment on the breathtaking soundscape to the film – not the score, which was fittingly sparse, but the detailed projection of everyday noises that fill the spaces left inbetween.
I’m not sure I’ve heard a sex scene quite as real as when Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) get it on in the honeymoon suite on their wedding night. All those sloppy kiss noises and ruffling tulle … (It wasn’t even a sex scene, actually – they didn’t get very far before the melancholia butted in. Three’s a crowd.)
And I’ve never heard a galloping horse the way I heard it here, so vivid I could feel Abraham’s hooves contacting with the gravel as he moved, felt Kirsten’s heels in his ribs, felt … (I’d better not spoil this bit, it’s quite emotional.)
There are many more striking instances such as these – quiet noises made loud, little things made huge. In contrast, the sparse and mainly classical score becomes heightened in a few carefully peppered moments when it crescendos to theatrically loud levels, as in a dramatic Hollywood score of old. I have a feeling that the already much talked-about scene (in which Dunst basks naked on a river bank, under the glow of the fast-approaching planet Melancholia) will become canonised as a classic film reference. The scene is rendered all the more powerful by the careful placement here of loud, symphonic music – lasting no longer than a beat – which injects a knowing, almost comical element of meta-film into the movie.
Also, mainstream Hollywood starlets rarely get their kit off these days, so the scene was always bound to make an impact.
These heightened musical moments, contrasted against the quieter moments – and combined with an increasingly eery, sci-fi plot development – add to a thriller-ish feel in the film’s second half. If Justine’s story (Part 1) depicts melancholia, her sister Claire’s story (Part 2) expresses anxiety. These are arguably two very ‘contemporary’ illnesses: Justine’s inability to be happy despite being swamped in buckets of money (and her wedding gown) can be read as an oblique critique of all that is wrong with the affluent West; while the impending Armageddon is a strong metaphor for contemporary fears about our climate crisis and the future of our planet. I also like the symbol of melancholia as a planet: depression is often described as a black dog that follows a person around everywhere, but this looming presence on the horizon is far more frightening, with its constant threat to obliterate all life.
It would be wrong, however, to view Melancholia only in terms of these somewhat obvious motifs. I think there’s a lot more going on here, and it deserves at least a second viewing in order to begin to decipher its many layers.
While Melancholia is in most respects a brilliant film, I do have just a couple of nits to pick:
If Claire and Justine are close enough sisters that one looks after the other as tenderly as she does, how is it that Claire has a British accent, while everyone else is American? I know Gainsbourg’s your muse, Lars, but you clearly don’t skimp on details much smaller than this.
Also, why doesn’t that little boy cry when he should? It was creepy. But perhaps that was intended.
When the horses were stirring and Gainsbourg came down to calm them, I suddenly mistook her for Patti Smith, who, fittingly, prattles on about a baby sister in “Horses”. I’ve since discovered that Smith’s wonderful memoir Just Kids – one of my favourite books this year – is being rewritten for the screen, and plenty of people have already suggested Gainsbourg is ideal for the role.
Perhaps Von Trier has ambitions to direct it? Well, the book did make me cry, and there’s no denying Von Trier gets his kicks from emotional porn.
And here’s a final bit of trivia: Smith was mad keen on Rimbaud. Rimbaud wrote a poem called Ophelia. Here’s some bits of it:On the calm black water where the stars are sleeping White Ophelia floats like a great lily; Floats very slowly, lying in her long veils… … For more than a thousand years sad Ophelia Has passed, a white phantom, down the long black river. … The wind kisses her breasts … The ruffled water-lilies are sighing around her …
And so we have come full circle. And a very cultured circle at that.