In an uncanny instance of festival synchronicity, Melancholia (which I’ll go ahead and review immediately, since I got shut out of last night’s screening of Naomi Kawase’s Hanezu) plays as if Lars von Trier saw The Tree of Life on Monday morning and then somehow shot a feature-length rebuttal in less than 48 hours. Conflating the personal and the cosmic with equal bravado, but focusing on the opposite end of the universal timeline, it’s clearly every bit as autobiographical as Malick’s film, though in this case the details have been shrouded in allegory. Would people even know what to make of Melancholia were it not public knowledge that Von Trier has been suffering from clinical depression for the past few years? (I guess maybe the title might be a wee clue.) More to the point, is it possible to “enjoy” it—whatever that word might mean in this context—if depression is something that you fundamentally don’t understand?
Opening with an impossibly gorgeous and eerie succession of slow-motion tableaux (which may sound like an oxymoron, but we’re talking motion so slow it’s often barely discernible), Melancholia wastes no time in announcing that it’s about the end of the world—that a heretofore unknown planet, Melancholia, ten times larger than Earth, will smash into us and incinerate all life, right down to the microbes. We see this happen just a few minutes into the movie, and it’s no fantasy. The body of the film, divided into two sections of roughly equal length, observes the reactions and worldviews of two diametrically opposed sisters: Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is by all appearances “normal,” and Justine (Kirsten Dunst), who suffers from depression so deep that she can sometimes barely even move. As it becomes clear that the planet is doomed, however, the two effectively swap psyches, with Claire understandably growing more and more distraught while Justine, perversely, seems to find a measure of genuine peace.
What that means, given Melancholia’s structure as a diptych (plus prologue), is that fully half of the film is devoted to a portrait of Justine’s depression, which gradually overwhelms her on her wedding day. And by the time that half had drawn to a close, Von Trier had pretty much lost me. As I suggested above, that may in part be just a matter of sensibility: Real, hardcore, DSM-IV depression is something I’ve never experienced (thankfully) and can’t really comprehend, despite the best efforts of David Foster Wallace to describe its suffocating, recursive grip. (See “The Depressed Person,” or the Kate Gompert material in Infinite Jest.) I don’t necessarily need to “relate” to a character in order to find her compelling, but a lump of free-floating unhappiness perhaps demands more in the way of empathy than most.
On the other hand, as much as I generally love Von Trier, his forte is the schematically conceptual. Complex human emotion just isn’t what he does. And while two-dimensional stick figures were ideal for a Brechtian piece like Dogville, here they fail to convey the situation’s true ghastliness. Kiefer Sutherland is only a minor irritation as Claire’s rich but money-obsessed husband, but when Charlotte Rampling, as Justine and Claire’s mother, gives a toast that essentially boils down to “fuck marriage and fuck all of you, this is a farce,” or when Stellan Skarsgård, as Justine’s boss at an ad agency, spends the entire reception hounding her for a tagline—even going so far as to demand it in front of the assembled guests!—their cartoon boorishness undermines the most crucial aspect of depression: that it’s entirely unmotivated. Weirdest of all is the film’s treatment of Justine’s new husband (Alexander Skarsgård), who apparently agreed to marry her despite knowing about her condition, then merely shrugs when she rejects him.
Granted, Melancholia isn’t taking place in the real world, which Von Trier makes clear right from that hypernatural prologue. And the film’s second half, in which the metaphorical threat becomes imminent, and Justine takes to sunbathing naked while Claire goes shopping for suicide pills, makes for a thought-provoking contrast, not just to its own first half but to The Tree of Life’s celebratory animism. But there’s a disconnect here between concept and execution—a sort of desultory, moment-to-moment clumsiness—that makes Melancholia feel like therapy poorly disguised as drama. When Justine tells Claire that she simply knows certain things, and that one of those things is that we’re utterly alone in the universe, the only speck of life in that eternal void, and then adds that we’re evil and won’t be missed, I’m surprised that Von Trier didn’t go all the way and have the words AUTHOR’S MESSAGE flash in red at the bottom of the screen. As always, I’m gratified to see him swing for the fence, but while this is a less spectacular whiff than was Antichrist (which was also depression-inspired), it’s a whiff in my book all the same. Grade: C
That’s decidedly a minority opinion, for the record—almost everyone else I know loved Melancholia. Likewise, it’s wall-to-wall raves, excepting yours truly, for Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, in which Finland’s only significant filmmaker (apart from his brother Mika) concocts a feel-good fable involving a friendly shoeshine man’s efforts, with a little help from his friends, to hide an African illegal immigrant from the cops until they can send him to his family in London. Kaurismäki makes no bones about his romanticism, and the movie is just a succession of slight, crowdpleasing bits, most notably a “trendy benefit concert” featuring real-life French rock star Little Bob, performing as himself. Few of this film’s glowing reviews see fit to mention that Little Bob is a terrible musician — that would spoil the convivial mood, even though we have to endure an entire mediocre number — and I just assume that largesse was applied uniformly; my audience even applauded a deus ex machina that clearly has no function except to inspire applause. I don’t want to beat up on this small, well-intentioned, passably pleasant trifle, but people are actually touting it as a favorite for the Palme d’Or, which is insane. Or at least it oughta be. Grade: C+
Finally, I really have nothing to say about Alain Cavalier’s Pater, which I mention only for the sake of Competition completism. The director himself and French star Vincent Lindon play both themselves and political candidates of some sort, in what seems to be a home-movie, election-year equivalent of a fantasy sport league. Or something. I didn’t get it, and neither did any other American I spoke to, but the French were applauding madly throughout, apparently in response to policy statements. Director and star have an easy rapport, but that’s all I got out of it, I’m afraid. Grade: D+
Tomorrow: Well, it was gonna be Melancholia, but you got that early. But I’ll still be seeing Takashi Miike’s 3-D remake of Harakiri. Hope he doesn’t screw up one of my all-time favorite films.