May 8, 2012
Posted by Julia Milne at 6:37 PM
Let's say you have diabetes. It's not really front and center in your mind, but it affects your lifestyle. Sometimes you can't do all the stuff you want to do because hey, diabetes. And every now and then you wish you didn't have to deal with it. Now imagine you see ads for a new movie called Diabetes, filmed by some weird Nazi-loving misogynist and about diabetes as a metaphor. You'd want to see it, right? You have a personal stake in it so it matters to you. Naturally this wouldn't apply to a lot of diseases (nobody would line up to see Erectile Dysfunction and talk about the deeper meaning of floppy dicks) but you can see why I figured it was worth a night's rent from Redbox.
Melancholia is actually a very specific and rare form of depression that is whollydue to a chemical imbalance. Unlike other forms of depression, people with melancholia eat less, sleep less and usually degenerate into sea slugs. When left untreated people can become catatonic, sometimes unable to talk or even move. Melancholiacs are at an extremely high risk of suicide provided they have enough energy to pull the trigger. Because it's purely chemistry, it can't be treated with therapy or lifestyle changes, so they rely exclusively on medicine. The weird counter-evolutionary concept of innate depression is of great interest to brain docs, so if you're willing to skip meds and ruin your life for a few months you can make a handsome sum as a test subject at NIH.
In a conventional review the writer tends to give the bottom line up front, then loosely describe the plot and his opinions. I can't do that here. Melancholia is too weird to even rate. I recommend it while also acknowledging that as a movie it mostly sucks. You will want to throw shit at the screen while you watch it and yet it's kind of compelling. I don't even know. So bear with me as we wander around for a bit.
The first eight minutes of this movie are the only ones you need to see. No, really. They're stunning. It's a composite of scenes with motion so slow it looks like still frames, and some of the shots are just amazing. I don't even give a shit about cinematography and I was impressed. You also get a nice overview of the story: people runnin' around and doin' stuff while the world ends around them, all set to the love and death theme from Tristan and Isolde. This is basically the entire movie, only better, and if you are impatient you might as well quit. I wish I had.
So you've been pleased with the introduction and you're all settled in to watch a drama about the end of the world---but first, an hour of meaningless bullshit about Justine (Kirsten Dunst) getting married. It starts with some genuinely touching scenes of Justine's inexplicably British-accented sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourhgougrhgouh) trying to get Justine out of bed. Whatever sympathy you might have evaporates as the director forgets about the "melancholia" title and decides to make Justine a complete raging bitch. She stomps around, sulks, calls her boss an asshole, throws shit, gets drunk, and neglects her husband to rape a guy on the lawn. This isn't depression, it's sociopathy, and it's seriously half of the entire movie. You have spent one whole hour of your precious time on earth following the intricate shenanigans of total douchebags for no narrative purpose. If you tried to pull this shit in a book somebody would chop your hands off. Just to drive home the "total waste of time" thing, 90% of the characters are neither seen nor mentioned in the second half of the movie. You could be watching something else entirely except for the weird red star in the sky. Every time we see this star, it's accompanied by the music from Tristan and Isolde, which might be tolerable except that there is no other music in the entire goddamn movie. I think it lost its dramatic punch somewhere around the 235th time they played it.
The second half of the movie is about Claire and takes place at some undefined length of time after the first. There are only four characters left: Claire, her husband, her son, and Justine. By this point the red star, apparently dubbed Melancholia, has been discovered to be a planet destined to come perilously close to Earth. Claire's astronomer nut husband is thrilled to watch it but it creeps Claire out. Meanwhile, in addition to wife and mother she has also become a full-time nursemaid to Justine, who is too ill to do anything but sleep. There are a couple parts here that are so genuine I fucking hate to admit he got it right: Justine sobbing at the dinner table and not being able to take a bath is absolutely 100% accurate. Yes, in the middle of this train wreck of a movie he delivers something truly moving. Fuck you, Lars.
This is where the movie starts to get kind of good, or at least suck noticeably less. The depictions of Melancholia are inspired. There are a number of shots that are just lovely, like Justine stretching out naked by the creek and the double shadows on the bushes. Unlike the petty first half that's like a bad soap opera, the second half of the movie is obviously more open-ended and imaginative. At times it's beautiful to look at. It is decidedly less beautiful to hear---oh look, there's the love theme a-fucking-gain and holy Christ this dialogue is so stilted it's embarrassing---but it's somehow enjoyable. Claire is still bothered by Melancholia despite her husband's reassurances that the planet will fly by Earth. Eventually Claire conducts an ominous Internet search in the most hilariously literal sequence ever made. She types "Melancholia" like someone only minimally familiar with a keyboard and goes through two pages of Google results that, to the best of my knowledge, are the actual Google results for "melancholia". Don't you think that if a giant planet were to come dangerously close to earth, it might warrant a news article or two? But no, there's nothing on the first page of these Google results, so Claire searches more until she finds something about the planet Melancholia. The results come from what appears to be a Geocities site circa 1999, complete with 12-point Times New Roman and black and white MSPaint graphics. The page says Melancholia is going to spin close to earth, turn away and then come back for a collision. And this is another moronic thing about the movie: why the fuck was this sequence even necessary? If he had gone full-on artsy and metaphorical, I could buy the fantasy estate in the middle of nowhere. When people are symbols they don't need to be real. But he somehow feels the need to make it kind of real, if not wildly implausible (they have a computer but no TV or cell phones? radios? other humans?) and in doing so he ruins all of it. Whatever.
The basis of all this is that as the planet comes closer, Claire basically freaks out and Justine gets better. She regains her sense of self and is actually pretty psyched about Melancholia wiping humans off the face of the earth because, in her words, "people are evil" and Claire's desire to be happy is "total bullshit". If you have a hard time buying the depressed act at this point rest assured you're not alone. Most depressed people are filled with self-loathing; melancholiacs in particular are distinguished by their extremely disproportionate feelings of guilt. Lars von Trier said that part of his point is that depressed people are better at dealing with crisis than normal people...but Justine isn't depressed. She's a psychopath who enjoys needling her increasingly fragile sister. If this is Lars von Trier's idea of depression, then he's probably a psychopath himself. Actually, that would explain a lot of this movie. If you really want to get simplistic then this movie is about two women who suffer horribly in their own way until they die horribly. It's like psychological torture/snuff porn. Anyway, Melancholia is indeed going to hit Earth, and we have some more gorgeous scenes for a while in between what little narrative elements remain. Claire's husband swallows a bottle of cyanide capsules and Justine ends up being the one to protect Claire's son as Claire sobs uncontrollably. The planet hits (another artsy thing; I guess everyone dying months before due to the effect of a new planet approaching Earth's orbit is a lot less romantic than fiery explosions) and everyone dies. The End.
I just don't know how to rate this movie. So much of it sucks! It totally fucking fails to say anything about depression in a remotely meaningful way. Anybody with any kind of depression, melancholic or not, is probably going to be offended or even more depressed at such a wack-ass portrayal. The violent end of life as we know it could be such an interesting exploration of people's attitudes and the director totally whiffs it. Having said that, it's still a really beautiful movie. At least some parts of this should be excerpted in amateur filmography classes. It doesn't hurt that the theme of the movie is so interesting that no amount of suckage could make it totally dull. I also thought it was neat to see how many people have gotten different things out of it. When I went through reviews I saw people focusing on the story, the (nonsensical, poorly defined) symbolism, the nature of relationships, and so forth. Watching this movie with a date or a group of friends would definitely lead to some good discussions. I wish I had a better way to sum it up or something even remotely witty to say but I'm just done. This movie is pretty and baffling and frustrating as hell. Watch it or something, I guess. Oh, and Kirsten Dunst's tits are fabulous.