Melancholia (Denmark, 2011, Lars von Trier)
Just as NHL addicts love to pick and choose from the whole league to create their dream team, film buffs make Top Ten lists. And just like a hockey fan who wants to see nothing more than a show-down between his best goalie and his favorite forward, cinema enthusiasts enjoy programing the ultimate double-bill.
I rarely read reviews so I really do have to ask: Is it just me or has everybody else also observed that this film paired against Terrence Malick's latest is the ultimate double-bill this year? Come on! Is this not a match made in heaven (or hell, however you want to conceive of it), a fight to the death (or the after-life), a contest between the eternal light of God's grace and the black hole of nothingness?
Both films deliver outstandingly arresting visuals that establish inescapably affecting atmospheres that speak to the human condition. And the two films are (almost) equally pretentious. They find it in every way legitimate to fill up a massive metaphysical frame with the paint of personal psychology. In the shoot-out between The Tree of Life and Melancholia, however, I am inclined to cheer for the latter. My reasons are three.
In the first philosophic place, my supposedly supernatural soul about which believers are so optimistic is just too supposed for me to take optimistically. You know. Death and taxes. In that order. Couple things you can count on. Death of me, death of you, death of the planet...eventually. Can't avoid the void. The first rule of the realist.
Secondly, I respectfully request a splash of irony from all painters on the cosmic canvas. Von Trier's picture is somewhat ironic, whereas Malick's painting is dead serious (not-dead serious, that is, angels-forever serious). This is not to suggest that Melancholia has a sense of humour. It is just as un-funny as The Tree of Life. My point is that von Trier's film is somewhat less pretentious because the depiction of the end of the world is less literal event and more metaphoric device than the opening of the pearly gates in Malick's movie.
(On the other hand, maybe von Trier does crack what he considers to be a joke. Many scenes in Melancholia are precisely paced, choreographed, to the Prelude of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. This is THE Romantic work of art that functioned as the point of mediation between Schopenhauer and [yes, I'm reading him right now, having just finished my course in] Nietzsche. The emotional power of the music is repetitively borrowed by the film almost to the point of being camp. Yet, the parallels that may be drawn between the so-opposite sisters in the film and the antithetical conceptions in Wagner's tragic opera of day/life/illusion and night/death/actuality are there for the drawing. About this, I believe von Trier is sincere. And, duh, he sides with night/death/actuality unto nihilistic despair. [Unlike Wagner who also sides with this but on behalf of erotic pathos.] )
My final reason for my preference is positively prosaic, which is to say that I am positive about prose that makes some goddamn sense. The narrative in The Tree of Life is incoherent. I suspect that it is intended to be poetic and I am confident that it is meant to be profound, but it's an ineffectual parable as far as I can make out that attempts to pass off inept drama as a glorious aesthetic experience. Melancholia, conversely, is one hell of a two act play. Not only did it make perfect sense as a story, the formal construction of the narrative is remarkably powerful.
Much of this resides in the control of our cognition von Trier achieves by telling us the ending at the beginning. But the radical stylistic juxtaposition of the two acts is equally important. It facilitates the inversion of the binary represented by the sisters. They effectively switch places with respect to our sympathies and in so doing validate von Trier's attitude that existence is just so much non-existence. Correction. His take is more explicitly negative. The sister that is his stand-in says not just that life on earth is the only life in the universe. She declares further that life on earth is evil.
According to what moral compass this orientation is charted, I notice von Trier declines to disclose. What is plain is that this is no "disaster movie" since the end of the world can hardly be considered a disaster if life on earth is evil. Guess we just have to accept the opinion of a clinically depressive film-maker as reliable testimony on this topic. Or not. Personally, I have put meatloaf in my mouth many, many times and not once has it tasted to me like ashes. But I would be a liar if I failed to confess that Melancholia made me wake up in the middle of the night, unable to fall back asleep. It's a very intense trip, the artistic authority of which cannot be denied. I think it is an excellent film.
I propose we adopt the notion that von Trier has become - if he wasn't already - a master of horror. In support of this campaign, I hope I will be forgiven for quoting at length from my review of his Antichrist:
It's title notwithstanding, there is no moral reference point - period. Call me a prude but I have to side with the Sunday school types who would no doubt label it degenerate. I prefer the term decadent because for me it suggests a less individualistic, more general sociological decay. At some point, it behooves us to wonder what a work of art is reflecting about the culture at large, and this film is universal nihilism posing as a piece of personal psychosis. The nasty supernatural trappings are just that; pretentious window dressing, just the stuff to fool lots of reviewers into thinking the film is philosophically assertive. But given all the rest of the uber-grizzly fare, some of the supposedly occult implications about the natural world were sorta goofy; not full-out funny, but dorky nonetheless and therefore laughable. The ending is a head-scratcher, to be sure. But so what? We've been too badly brutalized to care. In short, it's just another horror movie folks.
I stand by that review and I maintain now that Melancholia is another horror movie. But I do not think it is "just" another one. Again, I think it is excellent. This time out the ending ain't no head-scratcher, that's for sure. And this time out, the individual mental illness does not "pose" as the apocalypse. This is because the occult implications in Melancholia are in no way conceptually shabby. Tracing the etymology of the word "melancholia," Wiki arrives at Old English terms including "saturine," as in, under the influence of Saturn. The depressive sister is a kind of witch, an intuitive astrological seer, Nostradamus in a dress. She looks at the sky and knows - just knows - it's over. In keeping with a Stephen King protagonist, this character is made sick by her own power.
Until she isn't.
Never mind religion. We are long past spiritualist hope. Turns out the man of science can't face the fact. The lord of the manor with his telescope hedges his bet with a full grocery cart of survivalist supplies. But his devolution from advanced technologist to hoarder of basic necessities is secondary to him living with a false faith from the get-go, the belief that practical rationality will render him invincible. Hence, going over to manic panic, he kills himself in supreme selfishness.
And forget about the noble bearing of true love, a mother's love, a sister's love. The earthy woman of social bonds who honestly cares for her family and thinks it only proper to seek the company of others in town when confronted by crisis, turns out to be yet another who can't face the fact. Her personality as the reliable nurturer decomposes to reveal that her essence is anxiety which manifests as incapacity. She too is subject to manic panic, just happens in fits and starts. Hence, it is only due to her crazy sister that she does not loose her own mind completely.
So it turns out that the depressive, the previously incapacitated, is finally calm, cool and collected. She is the truly brave person, the sane one in the end, because she has been facing the fact all along. Only fools and cowards live life to the fullest, feel any sort of purpose that might bring about some sort of immortality. These foolish cowards, these cowardly fools, want to leave a legacy. But even if they do write their own epitaph, it is no more meaningful than a commercial copywriter's tag-line. It is the girl who can't get out of bed in the morning, the gal who is forever mourning, she is the one who is able to shake off the covers come Judgment-less Day. For she is under the sign of Planet Melancholia. She has always known that this ain't the age of the dawning of Aquarius. Hence, she strips naked to bask in the glow of death.
I have nothing much to add to this excellent review. Melancholia is not only a far superior film to Tree of Life, it is a superior film, period. Not quite in the same league as von Trier's best, such as Dogville, Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, but it is also a welcome return to form after the heinous Antichrist.