Monday, November 14, 2011

Melancholia [2011]

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Melancholia [2011] (written and directed by Lars Von Trier) is easily one of the year’s best films and if not for Von Trier’s stupidly controversial comments this summer would deserve a host of Oscar nominations for (1) Best Picture, (2) Best Director, (3) Best Cinematography, (4) Best Original Screenplay, and certainly (5) Best Actress in a leading role (Kirsten Dunst).  Additionally, Melancholia contains interesting stylistic and thematic similarities to two other recent films, Tree of Life [2011] (written and directed by Terrence Malick), and the award winning independent film Another Earth [2011] (directed and co-written by Mike Cahill along with Brit Marhling).  On a purely stylistic/technical level, I do believe Von Trier's Melancholia is probably the best, though the other two movies are certainly more optimistic.

So what did Von Trier say that made him so controversial this summer?  Well, late in a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival about his film (at 34:30 of  the conference's 38:51) with the film's stars Kirsten Dunst and Charlette Gainsburg seated increasingly aghast around him, Kate Muir of the Times of London referring to previous comments by Von Trier (Danish) to the Danish press about his appreciation of "the Nazi aesthetic" asked him about this in relation to this film.

Muir's was a serious question near the end of an otherwise jovial and even "soft ball" press conference.  It was clear that Von Trier tried to respond in the same "light" tone that characterized the previous 34:30 of the press conference.  However, his "joking" fell horribly flat. He first called himself someone who "first thought [he] was a Jew" (?) who turned out to be "a Nazi" (of German heritage) and continued to say that as a consequence he felt that he "understood Hitler" (??).  It was obvious that Von Trier himself knew that this was not what he wanted to say and at one point stopped and asked "How do I get out of this sentence?"  "With another question..." the moderator interjected trying to help him out.  It didn't help because Trier continued... saying among other things that "while [he] liked most Jews, Israel is a pain in the ass."  At the end of the conference, an exasperated Kirsten Dunst is heard saying out loud, "Well that was intense..."

Did Von Trier mean what he said? And what exactly did he mean to say anyway?  We'll probably never know, though he's both tried to apologize and explain himself since except that (1) by his tone, he was clearly meaning to be funny and (2) he did/does seem to conflate/equate his German heritage with Naziism.

Regarding the latter and lest others make this mistake, I would like to note here that the famously dark, introspective/broodish, and arguably nihilistic Germanic artistic / literary tradition that Von Trier's movie Melancholia so obviously leans on grew out of a milieu dominated and developed by celebrated anti-Nazis including the likes of  Franz Kafka (the Jewish, German-language author who lived all his life in Prague who was so obviously anti-authoritarian that Hitler apparently hated him by name); Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize for Literature winning giant who wrote against the Nazis in Germany even before they took power, stayed in Switzerland after they did, continued on then to the United States as war was about to begin, and even served as a broadcaster of German language anti-Nazi programming for the Allies during the war); and Herman Hesse, another German Nobel Prize for Literature winning writer who also spent the Nazi era suspect / opposing the regime.  Swedish director Ingmar Bergman who was a teenager in the 1930s, did visit Nazi Germany during that time and confessed in his memoirs that as a young man he did have an admiration for Hitler, nevertheless came into his own long after the Nazi era was dead and buried.  And when he did come into his own, he was more or less obviously influenced on the brooding (anti-Nazi) German literary giants that I list above.

So for the sake of others who might fall into the same trap of somehow conflating "all things German" (or all things recently German) with "Nazi," I wish to correct Von Trier here.  For while Von Trier he would be certainly correct in aligning himself with a long (and legitimately thought provoking) line of “Northern European”/Germanic thinking/art-creation, it is an amateurish’s mistake to mistake this brooding/nihilistic tradition for Naziism and for several obvious reasons:  First, this celebrated literary/artistic tradition was famously populated by opponents to Naziism (above).  Second, the Nazis themselves criticized much of this literary/artistic tradition as “degenerate” (nihilistic). Finally, the Nazis, after-all, were ultimately “positivists” promoting a pro-German/pro-Aryan world view that these brooding “degenerate nihilists” would have logically dismissed (and in the case of Thomas Mann, did dismiss) as self-evidently illusory.

And I wish to conclude my point evoking the script of Von Trier's own film here.  At one point in Melancholia, the increasingly depressed Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) tells her sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsburg) her more traditionalist (and more optimistic) sister: "We will all die, and no one will miss us."  How exactly would one set out to build a Thousand Year Reich on such emblematically nihilistic sentiments?   

To the film... It can be broken-up into three parts.  The first is an overture or preamble in which highlights of what is to come in the film, notably the eventual swallowing (annihilation) of Earth by the arrival of a previously unknown and far larger planet (apparently arriving on the scene due to a very elliptical orbit).  And apparently due to its lifeless yet bluish-green color the planet comes to be known as Melancholia.

So after the first 10 minutes of this movie, we all know that the world is going to be annihilated.  The rest of the movie is divided into two halves.  The first part is called Justine and the second is called Claire.

The first part chronicles the wedding reception of Justine.  It's beautiful, it's elaborate and it becomes clear that Justine is just going through the motions.  She does try to be happy, but on cue.  And it becomes clear that Justine just doesn't believe in the wedding.  And neither do her divorced parents, her father Dexter (played by John Hurt) who's taken to hedonism calling every women "Betty," and her angrier, more intellectual/feminist mother Gaby (played by Charlotte Rampling).  It seems that the one who most cares about the wedding is Justine's more traditionalist sister Claire who hosts it at her and her significant other's (husband's?) palatial estate that Claire's husband/significant other named John (played by Keifer Sutherland) keeps pointing out "has an 18 hole golf course."  Even Justine's nice-guy husband Michael (played by Alexander Skarsgard) is not all that much into it, though he does wish that Justine be happy.  But she's not.  Why?  An artist, who apparently "worked for an ad agency" before her wedding, she seems unable to find ultimate meaning in her (or anything's) existence.  So as beautiful, indeed as "perfect" as the wedding is, she just doesn't understand really why she is there.  She feels melancholy ...

The second part takes place 18 months later.  The new planet, that Justine just happened to spot in the sky on her wedding night, has come far closer and become far bigger to the point of becoming a possible threat to Earth.  It is then that Claire, who still instinctively "believed" in the first part of the movie, starts having her existential crisis.  What if? 

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Melancholia treads similar stylistic and thematic ground as the recent movies, The Tree of Life and Another Earth, though Melancholia is certainly far more pessimistic.

The Tree of Life seeks to be a current-day cinematic expression of the Book of Job's response to the cry "Where are you God?" in the face of personal suffering and, like the Book of Job, presents a God who is as awesome as all Creation / the Universe. In contrast, Melancholia asks Justine's question above: [What if we really are nothing] and no one will miss us when we're gone?  It's an honest question.  The Christian response to that question is a rejection of it (by faith if not by reason): We are important, we count (and here I'd insist, that we all count, or ultimately no one counts), simply and only because God wills it so.  (One is reminded here of the first chapter of the Baltimore Catechism: The Purpose of Our Existence).  But it is a position that, facing the Abyss (beautifully expressed in Melancholia), comes by the Grace (gift) of Faith.  Reason can lead one to a point, but ultimately one has to make the leap.  And Lars Von Trier illustrates in his film what many believers and non-believers have long observed: Those who are able to believe are generally happier than those who apparently are unable to believe.

Then a new previously unknown world is a device that appears in both Melancholia and Another Earth but the device is used quite differently in the two movies.

In Another Earth, the appearance of the "other Earth" expresses a relatively new metaphysical idea born out an application of Quantum Statistical Mechanics to all of Reality (the Universe):  Just like the exact position of electrons orbiting an atomic nucleus can never be determined precisely but a "probability curve" of where it could be found can be mapped and individual electrons (and other quantum particles) behave as if they are located in exactly the same proportion as those probability curves produce, perhaps, all of Reality behaves in the same way.  That is, at every decision point, where "history" could go one way or another Reality (the Universe) splits into the two parallel realities/universes each following one or the other trajectory and Reality becomes the "canonical sum" of all the possibilities that can exist.

Applied to the individual, the concept offers an interesting aspect of hope: When one makes the major decision in life by this theory an alternate reality/universe would exist where one "chose the other path."  So even if one chose poorly at some point in Life (in this Universe), perhaps there is/are alternate Universe(s) where one chose better.  That's ultimately what Another Earth is about.  (Note: In recent years, a great television series popularizing such new philosophical/metaphysical possibilities as "parallel universes" based on quantum mechanical insights has been the Science Channel's Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman).   

In contrast, in Melancholia, the "new planet" becomes a planet of doom and actually behaves in a way that readers of Zecharia Sitchin would recognize.  Zecharia Sitchin a self-professed student of Sumerian and ancient Semitic languages has proposed the theory that Life on Earth was seeded here by aliens from an unknown planet, which orbits the sun in a highly eliptical orbit (much like that of a comet, only it is of planetary size), and that this unknown planet may have been responsible for the destruction of a planet that existed between Mars and Jupiter (the remains of which we observe to this day as the Astroid belt) the destruction of which was expressed in the ancient Babylonian Creation myth where Marduk destroys the Goddess Taimat before creating the Earth.   In Melancholia, a previously unknown planet (previously unknown because it apparently followed a highly elliptical orbit) suddenly appears. However, keeping to the "All existence is senseless" this planet appears not to give hope.  Rather it appears as an enormous inanimate object that comes and destroys the Earth.

So if nothing else, Melancholia is a very artistic and thought provoking movie.  And we are provided with a choice.  Do we choose to believe that life, indeed all existence / all reality is meaningless?  Or do we make the choice to believe, that life, existance, all that is, has meaning?

And we are invited to realize that believing that life/existence has meaning is, indeed, a leap of faith.  That is, meaning comes from who believers call God.

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1 comment:

  1. Dunst was very good in this role but her character was just a little mopey for my liking. However, von Trier keeps his artistic vision in-tact and although there are moments of boredom, it still all comes together so well in the last 40 minutes. Great review. Check out my review when you get the chance.