Monday, November 28, 2011

Melancholia

In the new film Melancholia, written and directed by Lars von Trier, Melancholia is the name of a planet that has been hidden behind the sun and is now visible, rapidly moving toward a collision with Earth.

Melancholia (from Greek meaning sadness) according to Wikipedia is a mood disorder of non-specific depression. Dictionary terminology defines it as: a gloomy state of mind, especially when habitual or prolonged; depression. In his New York Times review, A. O. Scott quotes Freud’s description of the emotional disorder melancholia as: “a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.”

It seems appropriate that a planet ready to wipe out our very existence would be given a name meaning depression. A gloomy state of mind with loss of interest in all activity seems par for that course.

The film is broken into two parts. “Justine” and “Claire” respectively. Justine is a girl battling her demons of depression and Claire is her sister, the one who holds it all together. In part one, we see Justine on her wedding day. Claire is trying to keep everything moving smoothly as Justine tries to just be present. In part two, we see Claire become the unhinged sister as the threat of total annihilation sets in while Justine remains calm. Inspiration for the film is said to have come from Trier's own life after suffering a depressive episode and gaining insight that depressed people remain calm in stressful situations. This makes the title an apt choice. Nothing I’m saying here is a SPOILER. All of the above plot points were revealed to me in the New York Times review.

What’s it all about? That’s a question I kept posing to myself during the first part of the film. I have to say here that I thought it was slow. I found myself interested but wishing for something to happen. I was intently watching Kirsten Dunst who plays “Justine” so as to not miss a look or breath. She has been well received in the film and already won Best Actress at Cannes. However, I found myself wishing to see Alexander Skarsgard, the man playing Justine’s husband (and the hot vampire Eric on True Blood) strip down to less than his wedding tux. Alas, we managed a glimpse of him in tuxedo shirt and boxer briefs, but that was all. Focus!

I kept thinking, “What is going on at this wedding?" "Why is she so weird?" "Why is no one talking about the planet?" Then everything changed and my reason for sticking with this film was made known.

What would you do if you knew you were going to die? In the distance, that planet you see approaching. Yeah, it’s going to hit us.

Charlotte Gainsbourg plays “Claire” and to me she was the breath of exciting air that this film needed. The moment that her story took center stage I was more intrigued. She’s a wife and a mother. She fears the approaching planet. She tries to not look up information on the Internet about its approach but fails. She can’t stop herself from viewing the planet’s ever-nearer proximity to Earth. She doesn’t want to believe the inevitable, but can’t resist. When she checks one more time to see if the planet is closer her despair is palpable. As Claire began to have trouble breathing, I found myself focusing on my own breathing. Watching her was like getting a glimpse of the way I would act should this be happening to Earth in 2011. Or for that matter December 2012. Thanks Mayan calendar. Prepare to comfort me folks. I tend to get a little unhinged myself.

If life as you know it were going to end in a matter of minutes or days, what would you do? Would you freak out? Would you remain calm? Would you cry? Would you be able to leave your house, your bed? Would you spend every moment with your family and friends? Would you be able to sleep? Would you be able to not sleep? Would you enjoy your favorite glass of red wine? Would you sing a song? Would you soak up the sun and breath the air? Would you commit suicide?

Life is fragile and precious. Do we take the time to live every moment as if it was our last? No. I don’t think most of us live as if we might not take another breath. I don’t. I get inspired to live that way when I see a film like this or hear a song about said ending, but it doesn’t always stick. Life is fleeting. It may seem like we’ve been here forever when we’re 40, 50, 80 years old, but we’re just a speck in the great scheme of life. We have to enjoy it while it lasts. Live it while we’re in it. What Claire suffered from is the fear of impending doom; it all but paralyzed her ability to continue living. I suffer from that dread when something – a spanking from my father, the results of the doctor’s exam, the rapture, a planet crashing into Earth – is pending and I have to wait for it to happen. I know it’s coming and that makes everything worse.

I’m left to ponder the question, “What would I do?” I know myself well enough to know that I would freak out. I would stress myself into a blithering heap of blood and bones, barely able to leave the house. I would probably take a sleeping pill to ensure that I calmed my anxiety-prone self into sleep. There would probably be no relief from the pain that would take up residence in my chest. That dread of impending doom. How do you even pretend to live when you know the worst is coming? Even though I know man cannot predict the rapture, I was a wreck the day of its predicted happening. I sat at my desk, the very desk where I am now writing, and I watched the still water in the glass sitting next to my computer. I thought if there was going to be an earthquake and we ascended to Christ the water would surely move. It didn’t move. I was watching for any ripple, ala Jurassic Park. Nothing happened. The appointed time came and went. The sense of relief I felt was stupid considering I had worked myself into the frenzy.

Melancholia will not be for everyone. It can be slow and tedious, but it can also be beautiful and thought provoking. The acting by its two females – especially as they change emotional positions – is the first reason to get sucked in. I do not regret watching it if for nothing more that to connect the beautiful pieces together and to see a little bit of myself that I know I should change.