Melancholia Lars von Trier ( 2011 Den; Swe) Kirsten Dunst; Charlotte Gainsbourg
Viewed: 6 Oct 2011 Tyneside Cinema Ticket price: £7.99
What planet is Lars von Trier on?
When I tried to think what Melancholia was about, I arrived at the idea that it was about nothing. From its filmic form to its expressive content there is vacuity, a stylised vacuity, but still an emptiness that characterises this movie.
Melancholia (M) points to the metamorphosis of Lars von Trier (LvT) from film director into brand.
M has the look and feel of a photo installation. It’s a film that makes its statement through stylistic expression rather than content. A film that has apocalypse as a theme but is not about dieing; it’s about the look of dieing. Or perhaps just ‘the look’. A film for people for whom the important thing is always to look cool. A film for the sort of people who are always an advert for themselves, dieing or being, level or bipolar.
M, in particular it’s opening pretitle sequence, reminded me of the work of Bill Viola. The selling point is that hyper realistic images lock the viewer into the immanence of presence, a presence in which context and other determined social criteria are excess baggage. I think that this works because the hyper real rendition of image, in particular the face, determines that the focus of cognitive attention as an empathic imperative. As when we gaze at ourselves in the mirror our attention is transfixed to the surface. Some think that surface is all there is. That’s OK.
LvT’s M is a filmic installation structured on the idea of stylised juxtapositions divided up by title cards named after the two female roles: Justine: individual state of mind and set piece social ritual; Clair: cosmic disaster and family. The characteristic feature of the expressive elements is their overwhelming visual hyper presence and the abandonment of history and context. All that matters is the now and the watching of the performers go through the motions of projecting an image of the now.
The set piece reception is put through its formulaic paces: the bad behaviour of a dysfunctional family, the intimation of the corrupt business underlying the event, linked to a highly visible falling out between two of the occasion’s central parties, and a less visible falling out of the newly weds. Justine’s behaviour is erratic cool, alternatively accommodating and disruptive.. . of course whatever she does she continues to look drop-dead gorgeous. And the event continues to look sumptuous. Nothing really happens. Everything is cool. Perhaps this is LvT’s point. With everything anchored in the hyperreal we gaze on image. The beautiful people remain the beautiful people. Dead and unchanging. Beautiful people like it this way.
What’s in it for the audience ? Unless you’re one of the ‘cool set’, once the eye ceases to be bewitched by image, there is little else to attend to. Even the handheld camera work, which initially lends a stylised cinematic life to the sequences, becomes tedious. It offers only repetitive movements, with its sound led splicing overlaying too many shots composed in the same way: a whip pan off action onto a talking head. Again and again and again.
Without context to anchor events, M’s reliance on associative juxtaposition is similar in to TV advert for an anti-wrinkle cream. There’s a before and after structure (in M’s case inverse to the ad structure as the mood movement is from confidence to depression); and LvT’s cosmic physics is as wonky and suspect as the science behind anti wrinkle products.
A key element of the second section of M, intertitled Clair, is the house where the action takes place. Characteristically it has form without history, it’s is located nowhere without space time or social referents. It is (I think) the same house where the reception was held. It looks like a house in a hotel ad or a real estate brochure. A house in the middle of nowhere, occupied by people in the middle of nowhere; a situation in the middle of nowhere. And then! A planet from nowhere!
Justine’s precognition of the final catastrophe is very detached and melds imperceptibly with her utterances – the earth is evil (wow!) – and behaviour which indicate she is a very cool person in particular when she and LvT indulge in a little ‘Melancholic light’ naked bathing. She looks so good and ravishing, really cool thing to do that!
Of course in the past where societies were attuned to a religious cosmology and demonology there was typically a collective response to catastrophe: mass flagellation, mass gatherings. On planet Earth today in the West there is no collective belief to sustain life. Only denial or mute acceptance. Apocalypse now will be experienced as a family occasion like an advert for a family holiday in Florida. To this extent LvT makes a point, but it seems a secondary afterthought to his primal concern, the image.
LvT ensconced in the Zentropa may feel like his little pretend household at the end of the movie. They seek out the sanctuary of the child from cosmic disaster in a little birch frame wigwam. Is Zentropa LvT’s little magic cave? A bubble world from which he can look out and comment on the world. Insulated from the world remote from its concerns, he has little to say. It worked for him with Antichrist because of the psychic forces he set in motion were intertwined from a ruthlessly internalised re-mything of Freud. In Melancholia it is mere arrogant indulgence.