Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ode to Melancholia

I saw Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut when it came out in 1999 at a weekend matinee in Westwood with the man I then called husband.  We walked out into the light of late afternoon, planning, as usual after a movie, to grab some dinner. We'd not gone a block or two when I realized that I was so emotionally overcome by the film that I could barely walk.  I told him I needed to go home. Clearly he didn't understand, but he took me back, where I got into bed alone and wept.

Ironically, he bore the same name as the groom (played by Alexander Skarsgard) who leaves his bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) on the night of their wedding in Lars von Trier's latest film, Melancholia.  Like Eyes Wide Shut, Melancholia profoundly affected me.  It made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as I watched it, especially its climax.  At the end, no one spoke, or at least I didn't hear them.  I drove home in a kind of trance, and then I broke down in tears. 

Justine and Michael are a handsome couple, but it's clear from the groom's lame speech to his bride that he's no match for her depths--in all senses of the word.  He's understandably angry and disappointed by Justine's sudden odd, withdrawing behavior, but he hasn't the capacity to see her; to, as Keats put it, "let her Rave,/And feed, deep, deep upon her peerless eyes."

Only Justine's sister Claire (played by a wonderful Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose anxiety ebbs and flows in counterpoint to Justine's depression, has empathy for Justine.  They are, one might say, sisters in arms against their world, one in which there is far worse darkness in other people, exemplified by Justine's mother (Charlotte Rampling, decrying marriage at her daughter's wedding), father (John Hurt, who runs out on his daughter's pleas to speak with him) , brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland, who throws in Justine's face how much her wedding is costing him), and employer (Stellan Skarsgard, who rewards Justine with a promotion but expects her to deliver the tag line he needs on her wedding night; she responds by literally fucking over the lackey he sics on her).  These are shadow sides run amok; von Trier exhibited his own via his sympathy-for-Hitler gaffe at Cannes.  As Justine remarks when the Apocalypse looms as the planet Melancholia approaches instead of passes by, "The Earth is evil--we don't need to grieve for it." 

Earth may be evil but it is also beautiful.  The movie begins with a gorgeous stylized and symbolic prologue/encapsulation of the entire film.  Then Part 1 opens with a white stretch limo taking the couple to their wedding reception; it's too long to navigate the narrow winding road.  This scene has its counterpoint later in Part 2 when Claire frantically tries to escape with her son from the estate to the village in a golf cart as Melancholia threatens to collide with Earth. The bride and groom are inexcusably late to their reception after the limo gets stuck on the road; Claire and her son Leo (Cameron Spurr) run out of road.  At the end a terrible beauty is about to be born in a teepee-like "cave" that Justine and Leo have made of sticks.  Claire joins them inside, her panic finally subsiding.  

This is a film that must be seen in the largest theater you can find, in communion with others.  It's rare to find a film that is this affecting.  It's the reason we go to the movies.  That, and to be left slack-jawed with awe.

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