FILM REVIEW: Melancholia (dir. Lars Von Trier, 2011)

Beautifully symbolic, though occasionally incoherent; intellectually dense; emotionally affecting.

At a certain point in Melancholia I actually started feeling the strange hot-cold waves that precede anxiety attacks: that sense of your body trying to expand beyond itself and inevitably becoming pressurized and restrained within your actual form. On paper Melancholia reads like a disaster movie, seeing as the Earth is completely obliterated in the first few minutes of the film; but all that is actually a metaphor, as it turns out, for depression and anxiety, although how the metaphor operates is up to individual interpretation. Melancholia can be a trying experience if you don’t really feel like pulling threads of meaning out of the tangled ball of string that this movie is, but there’s something about the concept of Melancholia that taps into humanity’s irrational, persistent fear of the universe at large.

The film begins with a metaphorical, super slow-motion sequence (at times tedious, but that’s a minor point) of three of the film’s characters. These shots are pretty incomprehensible on a first viewing, but much of it makes sense by the end of the film. One shot, for instance, shows Justine in her wedding dress being snared around the ankles by gray vines, an image that Justine later describes to her sister to illustrate the grip of her depression. The opening sequence thus encapsulates a lot of what the rest of the movie does: representing inner emotional life visually through a kind of magical realism, representing the mind’s attack on itself through externalized images. But even in the scenes where all the insight we have into Justine is her words and her face, the film’s emotional core is still immediate and highly personal. In one scene, Justine, nearly catatonic with depression, wakes for a brief moment at the smell of her favorite food, only to break down in tears when it “tastes like ashes” in her mouth. It’s the kind of abuse of the innocent that makes me sad when horses get killed in war movies.

And in fact, that brings me to what I think is the heart of the movie (the heart of this movie is fairly arguable), which is human awareness, particularly of death, and how it affects life. The movie brought me back to thoughts I had as a distressed teenager about how the human mind was not suited for modern life, and though that mindset faded over the  years, I’ve found that thought returning to me more lately. In the past I’ve found myself worrying about what would happen if an asteroid struck the Earth, and it’s such an arresting thought because it is something so completely out of human control. Sure, it seems a ludicrous thing to worry about, but tell that to the dinosaurs. How are we supposed to live with this kind of knowledge of our own mortality? Is the human mind capable of processing this kind of information? Melancholia explores these issues, and sometimes it feels like the movie goes galloping on ahead of the viewer in a few cases, in images that are too symbolically esoteric, but the essence of the film strikes at the quick of our existential fears.

At times it feels like the film’s characters buckle under the thematic weight that they’re trying to communicate; Justine and Michael seem devotedly in love, but then Justine has sex with a stranger on the lawn outside of their wedding  reception party and Michael leaves her the next morning although it’s not clear if he knows about the sex, and he kisses her goodbye…? There are a few moments like this in the movie where there seems to be some kind of narrative force guiding the characters to actions that are more poetic than psychologically realistic, but then that can easily be a summary of the entire aesthetic of the film. Even with these blips of irrationality, however, the characters are still deeply relatable, particularly Justine, whose depression ironically elevates her to an angel-of-doom status. It’s suggested in the film’s second act that she has the ability to “see things,” and it’s unclear whether this should be taken as a literal preternatural skill of forsight or a more metaphorical suggestion. It would make a difference,too,  because the first act would read much differently if Justine knew ahead of time everything that was going to happen in the rest of the movie. It’s uncertainties like this that make it difficult to mine the full potential of the emotional impact that seems hidden somewhere in the film; there’s a sense that if certain things were made clearer, the film could be even more poignant. But even with these instances of murkiness, Melancholia contains exceptional portrayals of depression, anxiety, and emotional unrest in general, both in realistic human terms and in literally larger-than-life symbols. Once the planet Melancholia comes lumbering along in the second act, the tension ratchets up and doesn’t abate, because the audience already knows what will happen and can only watch it unfurl.

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