Thursday, August 8, 2013

Melancholia - Lars von Trier (2010)

For those who still doubted von Trier was the greatest film-maker working today, Melancholia should furnish definitive proof. The sheer cinematic intelligence and brazen subtlety invested in this whispering, sublimely evocative film makes it immediately iconic; the fully realized emblem of the state of cinema in our new century, seamlessly weaving into the fabric of film history. Yet its full impact may not be felt until after it ends, when reassembling its facets preoccupies the mind--a dynamic enormously encouraged by the tantalizing prologue. A great film creates a residue. Melancholia leaves an veritable halo; a dream-like suffusion of consciousness.

The prologue gives away elements of what’s to come. That takes suspense out of the equation, but introduces an element that is loaded with mythical moment: the inevitable. With its forecast of events the prologue foretells the end. We are left to focus on the way four persons--Justine, sister Claire, her husband and son--come to terms with the unknowable through their various and evolving appraisals of impending doom. Being in on the secret, we stand apart and above their struggles. Against this distance von Trier’s unsteady, looming, and occasionally veering camera work mitigates. His signature mood of intimacy is powerfully yet gently present, imparting the sense that we are eaves-dropping on moments of privileged confidentiality. 

In a film everything is related to framing and mis-èn-scene. One virtue of the roaming or “pointing” camera is that it never lets the audience forget that an event is being captured, even if the notion of pointing is a bit of conceit, as I will elaborate below.  Von Trier captures the moments of confidential exchange between the sisters in flat tenebrous half-tones, immersing us in a murkiness that feels entirely natural. It too works against our ostensible distance from the proceedings. The sense that we know the end before it happens never attenuates the sense of unfolding mystery. 

There is an oneiric, somnambulistic quality to the film, a mood we caught glimpses of in Antichrist. A full-moon mind-set in spaced-out ecstasy. The visceral is nearly non-existent. Only in the scene where Claire tries to drive-off in her rovers does her sense of being trapped rein reverie in and begin to suffocate us. Von Trier isn't interested in horror-show dynamics, but something closer to a memory, a pregnantly present yet elusive recollection of terror.

That Claire, the sensible, take-charge sister, surreptitiously preoccupied with determining whether the passing planet will  be a “fly-by” or a full-blown collision and the end of terrestrial life as we know it, represents the principle of no-nonsense realism. One half of the complex of sisters, she mediates the increasingly dire proceedings with the skeptical aptitude of an amateur scientist and makes provisions for the worst-case scenario, should it eventuate.  While we may find her research a silly waste, putting us in the position of the disillusioned fatalist (or melancholic) who sees the vanity of all exertion, we eventually experience the full impact of the inevitability of the end through her mounting desperation, while Justine, the dreamy fatalistic depressive, seems realistically resigned and strangely at peace with the doom impending. The beauty of it is precisely that the prologue allows us to share in her fatalistic vision. For in the one instance of the end of the world, fatalism mirrors reality and the melancholic’s vision is vindicated. Reality discovered of its hopes and illusions.

Besides giving away the end, the prologue sets up certain expectations, and we are made to wonder how the film will fulfill them.  Strangely, even with the factor of suspense diminished, I found myself, thinking of Hitchcock after the initial wedding-night scenes. Especially during the over-head track of the horses racing down the fog-enshrouded country road. The thrill of the sudden forward momentum after all the stalling and failed starts felt exhilarating in a good-old fashioned cinematic way. And reassuring. A sense that von Trier was going to marshal the full repertoire of cinematic conventions to mount his doomsday scenario. At least to the extent that is compatible with his basically austere Northern sensibility.

The film is not without its moments of levity. The wry, ironic humor of one without pretenses or illusions. Lacking is the nastiness of previous efforts. Especially as it relates to women, though there will inevitably be some who continue to insist von Trier’s vision is misogynistic. They are idiots. What should have become increasingly clear is that women seem for him, as for Bergman, to be all there is: the world and its existential crises are enacted through female personages. In Wagner Isolde and Brangaene host the transfigurative final moments, while in films like Breaking the Waves, and Dancer in the Dark it is the female leads who are dangled over the abyss, before being offered up, like modern day Graetchens. In both cases, we are dealing with martyrs. Yet the contrast, while intending comparability, actually reveals the dissimilarity of the deployment of female personages, as Wagner’s heroins are philosophers, and von Triers, trapped by a will to goodness taken to quite unfemale extremes, more closely resemble insects.

Anyone searching for examples of martyred innocents in von Trier’s work soon discovers their dearth. The imagined pattern just doesn’t obtain. One would be hard pressed to find commonality between all the main female personages--from Europa to Dogville, Antichrist, and now, Melancholia. Except perhaps the fact that each is the focal point and invested with a stupendous moral moment. One might best describe his use of women as apocalyptic. But that puts him in the  company of artists of all ages and persuasions.

I found the film represenced previous motifs both in von Trier’s work and in the Dogma 95 movement. Most obviously, the newly wedded wife mounting and satisfying herself  in Vintenberg’s A Celebration and Mifune. The gathering at a countryside villa was also the scenario in The Celebration. The big-sister as counselor reminded me of the relationship between Beth and her friend (Catherine Catlidge) in Breaking the Waves (and, for that matter, of Isolda’s with her maid). The hubristic know-it-all scientist husband reminded me of Dafoe’s analyst-spouse role in Antichrist. The template for that character is presumably Charles Bovary and represents a triumph (of the artist-creator) over the failed/vanquished father figure.  An unmasking of pretension meant to expose and humiliate.

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