I am watching Melancholia for the second time. Had I been able to get tickets when it came to the Toronto International Film Festival I would have seen it on a big screen. Even on a small screen it’s quite powerful.
I go in circles making sense of its microcosm and macrocosm, the two senses of the title, as indications of what does and does not matter.
Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is getting married, and she is depressed. If this had been the 1950s she would have simply taken some pills to fight off her moods. Nowadays there’s an entirely different set of meds that are prescribed for what’s ailing Justine; but this is a movie and not to be mistaken for a realistic tale. Lars von Trier’s world is mythological, its characters at times larger than life. Neither Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) nor anyone else has a solution to her melancholia, given that it’s writ large, an emotional landscape that we are exploring as if it were another planet.
Hm, was that a strange segue? But in fact, there is a second sense of “Melancholia”. The film tells us of a new planet that is coming into the solar system, Melancholia. Lunacy was the old notion that you could become mad if you looked at the moon too much. By those standards, the arrival of a new planet in the solar system would be an occasion of emotional upheaval if not wholesale madness. When John (Kiefer Sutherland), a wealthy man who dabbles in astronomy, speaks glowingly of how “Melancholia will pass right in front of us”, it’s hard to know whether he means the planet or the mood.
The first time through I was thoroughly frustrated at the use of music, largely because I have a lifelong relationship with the music from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Any Wagnerians coming to this film might be frustrated that the film doesn’t work in the expected ways with its music. The large composition (the three act music-drama) avoids cadences, remaining in a state of suspended desire, just like the protagonists of the opera. But over time Wagner does release the tension. Von Trier’s use of Wagner, however, denies us even those satisfactions, often stranding us high and dry. But this music is not a music drama, as it’s underscoring something entirely different. When we hear that music we’re inside Justine’s pained sensibility, stuck in a place without any possible satisfaction.
Melancholia begins with some amazing images, the opening a surreal series of compositions whose context only unfolds for us in subsequent viewings. Second time through (and likely every subsequent time I see this film), it’s deeper. The opening images are like a prelude accompanied by the longest chunk of Wagner, from the Tristan prelude.
Then we watch “Part One: Justine”, concerning her bizarre mess of a wedding, a conspicuous display of wealth to no purpose, even if we didn’t have the twin spectres: killer planet and mad bride. At one point John explains why he paid for Justine’s extravagant wedding. He offered it to her as a deal. He’d pay if she would agree to be happy (and you may wonder: “which one is really mad?”).
In “Part Two: Claire”, we’re at the big estate of Justine’s wealthy sister. John and Claire have lots of money and a son, and are taking care of Justine. As the planet comes closer, scaring anyone who is “sane”, Justine finds a kind of lucidity. The planet Melancholia is in some respects the love of her life, the objectification of her condition.
In our time of social inequity & conspicuous displays of wealth this film feels very relevant. Whether the world ends or not (and this kind of big bang threat seems like another kind of madness…It’s vanity. Eliot had it right, that we’d end not with a bang but a whimper), the film is like a colossal set of symptoms.
But I am sorry I missed it on the big screen.