Lars Von Trier invented depression in 2007. Upon his hospitalization, Von Trier wondered for a minute if he’d ever make another film. All over the planet breath was held. It’s rumored that lesser people experienced tiny funks prior to this landmark event in human culture, but now, four years later, with Melancholia, mood disorder has purpose and has properly arrived as fuel for his genius! Let the bells ring out! Strike up the City of Prague Orchestra and waft some Wagner our way! Take to the cinema!
I actually wondered if I’d stumbled into the wrong theater yesterday. Surely the place wasn’t packed for a long art film about depression? Had I wandered into the new Adam Sandler by accident? Nope, all the trailers looked intelligent—so summer’s definitely over.
I’m super excited to see Tilda Swinton in Lynne Ramsey’s film of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Wim Wenders’ 3D tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch (Pina), Keira Knightley looking like a real actress in the Cronenberg-does-Freud flick (A Dangerous Method), and something that looked like an old silent Hollywood movie about old silent Hollywood movies (The Artist), which won its lead a best actor nod at the Cannes film festival. I was quite sorry when the previews ended and the feature began. Not half as sorry as I was 14 hours later when the world ended on Kristen Dunst crossed-legged in a golf-course tee-pee.
It’s the story of an expensive wedding of a depressive copy-editor, Justine, to a tall, handsome man. He leaves her before the honeymoon because she keeps taking baths. Her sister, Claire, picks up the pieces and then the planet Melancholia crashes into earth ending everything.
Are there good things about this epic bad mood? Yes. Kiefer Sutherland commits suicide, it opens with a rock video of Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, there’s a bit of light in Kristen Dunst’s eyes (only when the flashbulbs go off), and no one lets Charlotte Gainsbourg near a power tool. Oh, and it’s stunningly beautiful.
But seriously: an ecstatically gorgeous movie about depression? Pah. Maybe Von Trier’s depression was a planet-shattering feast of gorgeousness, but most people’s episodes are grubby famines of the soul.
There are two moments when Justine’s depression troughs. In one, her sister, Claire, has to drag her to the bath. Justine screams and collapses beside the tub. Her long-suffering sib says, “Well that was a good practice for tomorrow when you’ll really take a bath.” It could have been a wonderful moment from the real life of mood disorders, documenting the effect on the loved ones of the ill, the perspective-less agony over nothing, the concurrent emotions of anger and anxiety, and the humor and pragmatism needed to ride it out. But I think the viewer gets something else from the pale beauty of Dunst’s bottom against the fabulous stone tiles of the world’s classiest bathroom.
This is a depression anyone would love to have because it’s so pretty and so grand. Worse yet, is the moment Justine sneaks off to the river in the night. Does she throw herself in it? No, she poses nude in a slant of silvery moonlight. Lovely breasts and tousled hair, art history is topped. Take that Renoir, Gaugin, Cezanne, and Klimt! You’ve been outgorged!
I’m obviously angry at this movie. It tramples on something I care about. As a psychotherapist working with people experiencing mood disorders and as a person who has struggled with depression myself, I was not in the mood for a film that fetishizes despondency. Call it despairporn and send it to its room without its Palme d’Or. And yet, I’m also a fan of stylish cinema and grand egomaniacal artistry, so the truth is I loved every minute of this movie all the while I was hating it. Von Trier is a talented asshole. Whenever that ascending minor sixth in the cellos announced another ravishing sequence to the Wagner prelude my heart leaped. In menacing slow motion a horse implodes, sparks float up from Dunst’s white hands, a boy whittles the bark from stick with a pocket knife, a planet comes out of hiding from behind the sun to slouch our way and end the world.
Should you see it? I’ll report that I’ve never seen so many walk out of the theater for a film that wasn’t tasteless or violent. It bored people into a dash for the exits. And when the final credits came up on the black screen a single pair of hands three rows up from me gave two timid claps. The rest of us sat there in silence. Stunned by the beauty or appalled by the waste? Or both? Plenty of reviewers are calling this a masterpiece, but I wonder if they didn’t just drink the Kool-Aid. In crystal goblets on a castle terrace, who could blame them?
This is a movie designed to impress critics. There’s a great actor in every bit part. Udo Kier is the wedding planner for goodness’ sake! He has three lines and a couple of sight gags. John Hurt is the stupid dad. Charlotte Rampling is the mother-of-the-bride and the world’s most bitter hippy. Alexander Skarsgård has wandered in off the set of True Blood only to take off before the halfway point when he senses there isn’t any life in Dunst to suck out. And poor Charlotte Gainsbourg as the sister, looking so plain, a pinched, ugly doormat. She wanted to sit out the end of the world with a glass of wine on the terrace, but the depressed sister drags her onto the golf course to build a magic cave out of sticks. It’s the great shame of the film that this is presented as some kind of triumph. Aren’t we so lucky the gloriously mad are around to bring the whimsy?
Von Trier understands nothing about the world, not about depression, not about family, not about the ordinary or the unique ways people shape their lives. But nobody’s ever had such an astonishingly magnificent way of saying that nothing.
Better Bets for Your Movie Bucks
If you want to see a good Lars Von Trier movie, check out The Five Obstructions. It’s about movies—the only subject he’s qualified to discuss. He plays his own villain. The hero is poor experimental filmmaker Jørgen Leth, who submits to Von Trier’s cruel command to remake his award-winning 1967 short film five different times with fresh “obstructions.” It’s an artistic duel and an intellectual exercise, but somehow a real heart beats at the center. I credit Leth.
If you hanker to see Dunst in a dreamy art film, The Virgin Suicides is mysterious and beautiful. In this one, it is the suburbs of the Detroit ’70s that are fetishized, giving the stylization a root in the real. Specificity is the doorway to the universal.
A better movie about the end of the world is Don McKellar’s Last Night. Matter-of-fact and enamored of the ordinary quirks of just about everybody, this is a funny and moving film right out of left field. Sandra Oh is in it! Anything with her in it is worth seeing. Ditto Jackie Burroughs. And David Cronenberg (speak of the devil) plays the head of the gas service determined that this public utility will run smoothly until the end.
And if an egomaniacal filmmaker doling out the end of the world appeals to you—but you wanna have a bit of a laugh—Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb never seems to lose its lunatic charm.