The Title Says It All

This week has been a very interesting period of film viewing for me.  With the exception of May 14th, my roommate Ryan and I watched at least one new film every day since school ended – thanks to theaters, the school’s library, and Netflix.  During this time of extreme cinematic and cultural growth, there wasn’t a film I looked forward to more than Lars von Trier’s operatic tour-du-force, Melancholia. Having done so well at Cannes and what with the controversy surrounding its director (largely blown out of proportion in my opinion), I had been enthralled by it’s trailers and had already fallen in love with Kirsten Dunst’s performance.  The visuals looked fantastic and the story seemed very intriguing.

So when I found myself not liking it, I was extremely taken aback.

I was thoroughly shocked by how underwhelmed I was.  Whereas I had gone into The Avengers with low expectations that were thwarted towards the positive, Melancholia did not live up to the hype I had built up for it.  Throughout the film, I caught myself struggling to enjoy it and despite my efforts to look for the good in it (which is what I always try do with films), there simply were things that I could not get over which ruined the film for me.

NOTE:  In the course of this review I am going to be airing a rather personal and perhaps controversial opinion about the subject of this film.  Please realize that my intention is not to be rude or cruel to people who suffer from serious psychological disorders, and that I do my best to respect all people for their beliefs and attitudes.

Breifly summing up the plot, Justine (Dunst) should be having the greatest day of her life.  She has just been married but cannot seem to overcome her crippling depression and her somberness on what should be a Special Day infects everyone around her, particularly her sister Claire (Gainsbourg).  After the wedding party gets a damp and dreary conclusion, Claire’s husband John (Sutherland) begins to study the rapidly approaching planet Melancholia, set to “fly by” Earth, while Claire and Justine’s misgivings about it leave a dark emotional cloud hanging around the family.

When talking about Melancholia, one cannot but pause in wonder at how masterfully the cinematics are accomplished.  The visual style is a wonderfully crafted dual-tone between the amber oranges of the sun and the party, and the morose blues that mimic the emotional tone of the film and reflect the ominous presence of the ironically-titled planet.  Filmed in documentary style, the viewer feels like they are one of the party guests, witnessing Justine’s collapse firsthand.

Beyond that, this is one of my favorite uses of score of all time.  Minimalism (even loud minimalism) is a wonderful change of pace from the driving Hans Zimmer scores of most films which could stand alone as narrative works.  Using the theme of German composer Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde and allowing it to under- (or over-) score the film was a brilliant choice.  It contains all the emotional poignancy the film needs and creates that wonderful contemplative atmosphere that I have come like so much.  We, the audience, are lulled into a state of thinking by the soundtrack alone which is a wonderful development in the world of cinema.

And finally, I have to credit the actors for giving truly excellent performances.  Kirsten Dunst rightly deserves her Cannes Laurels because she gave an incredibly true performance of a person suffering from a several emotional trauma.  Gainsbourg also gave a stand out performance as an almost Shakespearean character – falling into madness as the story progresses.  And the supporting cast did a phenominal job as well!  Sutherland was brilliant.  John Hurt was hilarious.  Skarsgard, Rampling, and even little Cameron Spurr all did a brilliant job.  I have to give credit to the excellent directing von Trier elicited from his cast.

And here comes the bad news…

However, while I can sing the praises of von Trier’s directing and his cinematic style, I can’t say that I liked his script at all.  And I don’t mean in the shallow “I didn’t like the movie” way.  I very simply found myself hating the protagonist.  As I warned earlier, this stems from my opinions on depression itself.

Ever since High School, I have struggled to accept “Depression” as a serious issue for people.  It seems to have become the ADHD of the new generation of hypochondriacs and probably because it is so damn convenient.  It is easy to look at yourself and say “I am sad; therefore I am incapable of doing things” because no one can really say you are wrong.  As I often say in jest, “Well you can’t with THAT attitude!”  Previous generations looked on this attitude not as a clinical issue but as weakness which needed to be stamped out by rigorous discipline and, while I wouldn’t dare dream of defending all of the ways that this was accomplished, I do believe that “masculinity” or determination as a positive attribute is all but lost in a new generation of “Meta People” (more on this in a later post).

However, while I view the common garden variety of “depression” as valid but sad excuse for inactivity (and understand that I am no less prone to this than any other), I must admit that there exists such a thing as serious medical depression, which for clarity and appropriateness I shall dub “melancholia”.  Melancholia is a verifiable mental condition which leaves its victims emotionally inept and physically disabled.  My contact with this form of depression is lax so I will refrain from speaking about it other than to acknowledge its existence and admit that I do respect melancholia as something which people genuinely struggle with.

Now that I have perhaps burned several bridges irreparably, if you will permit me to go a bit further, I will speak about the film Melancholia and why I found myself unable to like Justine.

The film opens with the humorous obstacle of driving a stretch limo up a sharp curve on a country road.  The newlywed couple laugh and enjoy the ridiculous moment.  And I like them.  I even liked them when they got to the Reception to which they were several hours late.  Watching the wonderful mood be shattered by old family drama was easy enough to take and I was so engrossed in the performances and the visuals that I was fully willing to accept Justine’s response to the fact that everyone was making such a big deal about making her Special Day perfect – with or without her.

However, I soon found myself losing touch with Justine as she sank further and further into that first type of depression I spoke of.  Of course I recognize this as an early phase of the later mood she experiences but at the time all I could see was a woman who had no reason to be somber being so. She stole away from the crowd which I could understand; a breath of fresh air must have seemed nice amongst the chaos of the party.  It was when she left her husband preparing to consummate the marriage to walk on the greens of the nearby golf course and promptly has sex with an intern at her workplace that I began to disconnect.

Ultimately the problem comes down to this:  this is a film about rich, white, American people who are inexplicably incapable of being happy with their existence.  People have told stories about this for generations (Pride and Prejudice, Importance of Being Earnest, anything by Dickens) and yet I found this one to be offensive.  I could not shake the thought that, “of course they are sad!  They have such a MULTITUDE of soul-crushing problems.  How on earth have they lasted this long?”

That is much more sarcastic than I intend but it is the closest I can come to summing up my thoughts on the first part of the film.  Dunst gives a phenomenal performance but I find myself despising her rather than feeling for her because she has no reason (social, medical, or otherwise at this point) to throw away her life and be in such a funk.

It is not until we get to the physically disabling depression stage in Part II that I am able to care about Justine or her family.  The first section focuses on Justine on her special day and provides the set-up for the plot about Melancholia approaching earth.  From there, we shift into Claire’s story as her husband, John, tries to reassure her that the planet will bypass earth and sail past.  Early on, Justine is brought to the family in a state of complete deconstruction.  When I saw her as disabled to the point that a simple bath was a physical impossibility, my compassion for Justine finally developed.  And because of the effect her problem has on Claire and John, the same occurred for them – over an hour into the film.

I understand that this film to be an exploration of humanity and mortality, as well as brokenness being the natural human condition.  This task of exploring humankind’s weakness and fragility is one near and dear to my heart, as I am currently writing a short film about that very subject.  However, I found this film challenging in that it was impossible for me to care for the characters when they were introduced.  I fell justified in saying this because I genuinely tried – several times during the film breaking out of the world and trying to re-enter with a more positive outlook.  Yet, despite my efforts and my profound love of the cinematics, I could not make myself believe that these people should be cared about.  Perhaps this was intended but I highly doubt it.

However, overall I would say that this was a beautiful and brilliant film.  Despite the misstep in the emotional connection department, I would not say that my experience was entirely ruined.  As expected, Melancholia delivered a magnificently crafted cinematic vision that is well told by every element.  The technical aspects are phenomenal and reason enough to see this film.  The story, when the characters become likable, is good and I like the messages the movie delivers, though they may not be what you want to hear all the time.  Certainly not a date or family-outing film, Melancholia is, I believe, important because it speaks a truth not said often enough: that we are destitute and in need of a Savior because we are such fragile and mortal creatures.  I definitely plan to see the film again and hopefully upon a second viewing my opinions will be changed for the better, but until then I will suggest that serious cinephiles find a bluray copy and be prepared for a seriously deep, visually gorgeous, thinking-person’s film.

Rating:  8//10

I hope you enjoyed the review, if you made it to this point. 🙂  I know I have brought to light a rather insensitive and frankly rude attitude toward modern culture and depression that has most likely offended a few of my friends.  If this be the case, I would love to hear from you  – for or against my opinion on the subjects of depression and melancholia.  Perhaps if someone has more firsthand experience with serious melancholia and shares, I could be better aware about how it affects people. Anyway, please leave a comment below about either my thoughts or about the review itself.  As always, I love to hear what you have to say.

Again, thank you for sticking it out with me for this long review and I hope you’ll check out some of my other stuff.  I am still extremely behind on my review roster because of this One-Film-Per-Day deal, so expect many more reviews in the very near future.  My next review is one I am very excited about and so I leave you with this teaser until next time:  “The Angel-lady made me do it.”

Please Comment Below and Subscribe!

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Author: Tyler D. Welch

Filmmaker, Storyteller, Scholar

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