Friday, March 23, 2012


Lars von Trier's Melancholia reminded me of The Tree of Life. It's long, ambitious, vaguely philosophical, and features wordless shots of planets while classical music plays in the background. In this case the music is Wagner, who is not really my cup of tea. [Autobiographical side-note on Wagner, which you might want to skip: in my early twenties I bought a cassette tape that had highlights of Tannhäuser and Lohengrin on it. I loved this tape and used to take very hot baths while listening to it and drinking a glass of Scotch (one glass per bath, that is, not one glass stretched over several baths). I've tried since to find a CD that I would enjoy as much, without success. So I own and have listened to a bunch of Wagner's music, and I'm capable of enjoying it, but I don't know it very well because I have never found a recording that lives up to my expectations. I can't find that tape on CD either. And long baths in the afternoon are not part of my lifestyle anymore. The last time I tried to listen to Wagner I laughed involuntarily at what I think I struck me as its pomposity. So I'm not a fan, but this isn't pure philistinism on my part.]

The film is in two parts, each focusing on one of two sisters, each of whom is depressed for different reasons and, as a result, in a different way. One has a kind of Antichrist view, according to which life is evil. (Actually she specifies that life on Earth is evil, but she also says that this is the only life there is.) Mostly what we see, though, is various ways in which she feels trapped. She is surrounded by people who let her down: bickering, divorced parents, a bitter and pessimistic mother, a drunken and stupid father, a selfish employer, an uninspiring boyfriend, a judgmental sister, and no one who seems like a real friend. Her job seems meaningless, and she is apparently unenthusiastic about the prospect of marrying her boyfriend (the movie begins with them arriving very late to their wedding, and she shows no sign of wanting to hurry things along or avoid further delays). She is depressed about life. The other sister is depressed about death, or about the prospect of life coming to an end, and, presumably, the meaninglessness that this might seem to bring to everything we do. The first sister seems somehow more insightful or intelligent, but also nastier. Neither can resist showing kindness in adversity to a child though.

This fact reminds me of my take on Cormac McCarthy (that his stories tend to be about man handing on the torch of faith to his sons, no matter what hardships may come [gender-specific language intentional]), but McCarthy treats the gift of hope as a good thing, while in Melancholia it is clearly dishonest. Faith is bad faith in this world. But perhaps necessary all the same, for the sake of the children. Honesty here would be unthinkably cruel.

It's worth seeing, but I was disappointed. For one thing, it seems to want to say something about life generally, rather than America (as in Dogville) or one particular, mentally ill woman (as in Antichrist), which seems over-ambitious. I was also distracted by some oddities of the story. One sister looks German and has an American accent, the other looks French and has an English accent. Of course it is possible for sisters to differ in these ways, but it's never explained (unless I missed something) and it came across as symptomatic of laziness in casting. The house where the film is set at times seems to be a hotel and at other times as the home of the French-looking sister and her rich husband. Maybe I missed something again, or perhaps these inconsistencies are supposed to tip us off to the fact that none of the events portrayed are real. Perhaps it's all in the minds of the sisters, or some kind of metaphor for depression. But do we need a whole, long movie for that, however tastefully done? And if it isn't meant to express a depressed view but simply the truth about life, then isn't it dishonest? Life just isn't that bleak.

Oh well. It is all well done, the theme of what to tell the children is an interesting one, and the film reminded me of Cranach the Elder's painting of melancholy, which I like (just imagine the blue ball the size of a planet):


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