I don’t tend to watch many movies. I don’t particularly love movie theaters, and finding two solid quiet hours at home is nearly impossible. That being said, last night I watched Lars von Trier‘s new film Melancholia. I’d originally heard about it on an astronomy blog, in a post primarily about the film’s scientific impossibility. Now, I’m normally not a fan of science fiction (2001 being the exception), I really dislike action films, and I tend to be a nightmare movie-watcher in that I get some kind of perverse excitement in finding and pointing out every historical and/or scientific flaw that I can find. But after watching the trailer back in July, I was hooked. Was that Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde I heard in the background? Was that an allusion to Millais‘ Ophelia? And no mention of cowboy-astronauts trying to blow up the rogue planet?? It may have taken five months, but I finally found the time to sit and watch it, and I was not disappointed. The film stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kirsten Dunst, Kiefer Sutherland, and Alexander Skarsgard.
In the film, according to Nils Thorsen,
we follow two sisters till the bitter end. Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst. A melancholic by the grace of God, she has a hard time finding her place in the world and assuming all its empty rituals, but feels more at home when the world draws near its end. And then her sensible big sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who thrives in the world and consequently finds it hard to say goodbye to it.
But its more than that. There’s more depth there. Although the film is uncharacteristically smooth and pretty for von Trier, that smoothness belies a deep study of our very natures when confronted with such a horrifying reality. I found myself identifying strongly with Claire…confronted with the loss of everything, I think I, too, would crumble, as I have a lot to lose with my daughter. There is a scene where she (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is running, carrying her son in a hail storm, and although a silent scene save for Tristan and Isolde, it seemed to scream the anguish and helplessness of that moment.
Melancholia is also a beautiful film, almost heartbreakingly beautiful. The first sequence where everything is shot in extremely slow motion, showing you the entire story before it even begins is simply stunning. I couldn’t avert my eyes. The film itself is shot in an estate in Sweden that can only be described as something out of a fairy tale. There is something about the juxtaposition of the beauty of the location with the hopelessness of the narrative truly underscores the sense of longing that pervades this film.
The music von Trier selected is also downright haunting. Although I’m not generally a fan of Wagner, I love Tristan and Isolde, and the prelude which carries the viewer through the movie provides the perfect backdrop for all that unfolds. It sometimes actually felt as if the music was a character in itself, providing a forward motion when the narrative did not.
From the start, the end is revealed, the world will end. There will be no happy ending, nor will this be a suspense film. As I watched it, maybe because of Wagner, maybe because of the Millais allusion, I felt as if i was watching a modern take on Romanticism. The film seemed a two-hour exploration of our inner sturm und drang, where nature is awesome, terrifying, and beautiful, and our souls are equally awesome, terrifying, and beautiful. It epitomized the sense of the phrase weltschmerz. Von Trier himself has acknowledged the influence, although in typical fashion, he does so rather dismissively.
With a state of mind as my starting point, I desired to dive headlong into the abyss of German romanticism. Wagner in spades. That much I know.
I think this may be one of those films that one either loves or hates. The pace is exceedingly slow, the ending is revealed at the start, and the characters all have their fair share of flaws. Von Trier himself isn’t sure whether or not he liked it. I did, however…I found it refreshingly beautiful, moving, and thought-provoking. The kind of film that will stay with me for quite a long time.
Here is the trailer…
And here is the opening sequence of the film…