As is often the case, one need look no further than MUBI to achieve an overview of Lars Von Trier's Melancholia (2011). After offering the trailer, David Hudson rounded up the reviews from the film's premiere at Cannes (where Danny Kasman also weighed in), reported on the controversy surrounding Von Trier's press snafu that earned him the status of persona non grata, and then expanded his critical round-up from the New York Film Festival. Most recently, Hudson has reported on Melancholia's multiple nominations at the European Film Awards.
I caught Melancholia at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and was stunned by its somber beauty and its unflinching infatuation with the apocalyptic. The film opens theatrically this week and—though I don't really have much to add to what's already been written—I do have a few tangential impressions I wanted to share. When I watched the film, I was struck by its depressive weight, its gravitas if you will, where gravity is determined by the pull of celestial bodies upon each other. If ever the "inner reaches of outer space" could be palpably felt, Melancholia achieved that microcosmic / macrocosmic correspondence in shaded spades. For me the film was a grim and dark fantasy about inauthentic weddings and the clay feet of the paterfamilias.
It was Charlotte Rampling's stony performance as Gaby that most unnerved me. Gaby possesses what Jungian analyst Sylvia Brinton-Perera has brilliantly described as the "death eye" in her groundbreaking study Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women (Inner City Books, 1981), which explores the deeper meaning of the wedding ritual by way of the Innana / Persephone mythologem. In essential ways the death eye is grounded in the authentic experience of marriage, even as it mercilessly exposes the false marriage (one might say the marriage of convenience) through lancing insight. Brinton-Perera provocatively suggests that what feels at first like a curse might actually be a key to feminine strength and freedom. Gaby's psychological attitude triggers Justine's descent and Justine (in an award-winning performance by Kirsten Dunst) does, indeed, go down under the weight of her mother's negativity. But it could be argued that Justine needs to find her own strength because she cannot rely on any of the men around her. Her philandering father Dexter (John Hurt) is of no help, weakened by a penchant for saturnalia; her spouse-to-be Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) can't live up to his namesake and conquer the devil of her depression; and her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) favors science and reason to ill effect, trying to ward off an impending loss of control, only to succumb to the ultimate act of cowardice and abandonment. The archetypal underpinnings of Von Trier's narrative are so pronounced that they are nearly hidden in plain sight.
This visually ravishing descent narrative cogently captures the oppressive influence of a suffocating familial environment and—as I watched the film—I kept thinking of an early memory of Carl Gustav Jung's, poignantly recalled in his autobiography Memories, Dreams and Reflections: "I had anxiety dreams of things that were now small, now large. For instance, I saw a tiny ball at a great distance; gradually it approached, growing steadily into a monstrous and suffocating object. ...I see in this a psychogenic factor: the atmosphere of the house was beginning to be unbreathable."
Melancholia takes my breath away on multiple levels, both oppressive and liberating. It is, indisputably, one of the year's best films and will be a front runner in the oncoming awards season (which sometimes feels like an impending planetary collision in its own right). When the cast of Melancholia appeared on-stage at TIFF, Kirsten Dunst saw the film's opening sequence—frequently interpreted as oneiric—as less Justine's dream than the very real possibility that Justine was actually from the planet of Melancholia, which was how she worked with the role. Kiefer Sutherland added that Von Trier shot much more specific footage for the opening sequence that he decided not to use. By doing so, he allowed the sequence to be sparse enough so that it could be interpreted variously by each audience member, which Sutherland believed was "a strong move."
Regarding the strength that Justine develops to face the apocalypse, a strength that is nowhere evident earlier in the film, Dunst stated, "Lars and I talked about that a lot. When people are depressed, they're less afraid or not afraid of what's about to happen. In having no fear, you can be the strongest one in such a situation." For me, this is a clear confirmation of the value of Brinton-Perera's notion of the "death eye."
Sutherland: "One of the things that Lars did that was truly unique from any other experience I've ever had in film, we didn't block scenes out and we didn't do a lot of rehearsal. We were actually forced to find moments as they were happening. There was some panic and fear about that. At first, I thought it was his way of trying to control the thing, but there was actually a reason for him to do it like that. It had a profound impact upon me as an actor and Lars and I talked about that a lot. I think that was one aspect that allowed us to focus on the moments instead of the whole scope of the film." Udo Kier added that—after having worked with Von Trier for years—he's learned that Von Trier hates actors who act. He wants them to be in the moment, reacting honestly.
One hilarious moment in the TIFF Q&A was when an audience member asked Udo Kier how he maintained his youthful, sexy appearance? "You've made my evening," Kier beamed, and admitted that—since he has had no plastic surgery—he must be sexy by nature. Another respite arrived when the cast was asked what working on the film had taught them about the anxieties and depressions of people in their own lives. Skarsgård was quick to refute: "I'm from Sweden and we're all very happy in Sweden." When asked if he thought things would have "turned out differently" if Jack Bauer had been on the scene, Sutherland fessed up that Lars Von Trier would have kicked the shit out of Jack Bauer.