I find it dangerously stupid to dismiss a work of art as pretentious. I don’t think half the people using the word really knows what it means, but that doesn’t stop them from seeing something they don’t understand and immediately labeling it as the unfortunate result of the artists pomposity. It is, of course, simply shorthand for: I don’t get it and anyone else who pretends to get it must be putting on airs. Calling a piece of art pretentious shuts off thought and discussion and puts any of its defenders on notice: defend this art at your own peril, you elitist phony.
That being said, I have to say I found Lars von Trier’s Melancholia hopelessly pretentious. By my own standard, of course, I am dangerously stupid… but von Trier often brings out the best and the worst in me. This one brought out the worst.
For his latest Lars takes us to a vaguely American (but maybe European) wedding. The bride, Justine (Kristen Dunst), is going through the motions of happiness for her new husband (played by the dashingly handsome Alexander Skarsgård). She’s also feigning happiness for her sister Claire and brother-in-law who have planned an excruciatingly intricate festivities schedule. But Justine just can’t shake the blues and, it is intimated, she has been struggling with depression for years. At every turn, she puts on the smiling face, but it’s only half a smile. We can feel the emptiness a little deeper. And it doesn’t help that the events go on and on. I couldn’t help but wonder why Claire would plan such a taxing reception for a woman she knows struggles with eating breakfast, let alone major displays of happiness.
I was pretty much with Melancholia through all this, but von Trier doesn’t have anywhere to take his characters. The second half shifts to Claire (in a wonderful performance by Charlotte Gainsbourgh) and her fears of a giant blue plant just found to have been hiding behind the sun. Will it collide with our planet? No one is certain despite assurances from the scientific community that it won’t, but the anxiety throws her into fits of panic. Justine, however, takes it in stride, finally being the calming element in their relationship.
So what are we meant to take away from this? Depression prepares you for the end of the world? Von Trier seems to think that those who have grappled with depression operate on a higher level of consciousness, as if being calm in the face of death means anything except you aren’t panicking. Who’s to say that panicking at the prospect of the end of the world isn’t the right reaction. (As if there is a right reaction to something like that.) All I see is someone who thinks the worst is going to happen having her expectations confirmed and in the face of it, accepts it with calmness. What’s revelatory about that?
I was left with a nagging feeling of pointlessness. He never gives us a chance to connect with Justine or glimpse some truth about her condition those of us who haven’t had clinical depression wouldn’t already known. To be fair, there is probably no harder subject to make a thoughtful film about than depression. Heck, there aren’t a lot of thoughtful books about it. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is often mistaken for profound and is, unfortunately, still circulated on high school reading lists. But Plath, like Von Trier, offers no real insight into depression. We simply plod through page after page of melancholy. The only truly insightful book I’ve ever read about depression is The Trick Is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway, but that’s about the heavy lifting of surviving depression, not the self-indulgent wallowing of Plath and von Trier. By the end of this picture I suspected that von Trier was just trying to make himself feel better about his own depression. Not a bad goal, I guess, but he couldn’t have made something more constructive, thoughtful, insightful?
Other things I enjoyed in the picture are Kristen Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Dunst does what she can with the thin material and contributes a depth to her character that isn’t on the page, but it isn’t enough to salvage this material that plods along on von Trier’s rigid course. I think Gainsbourg really steals the show from Dunst’s flashier performance (if I can use that term for the role of a severely depressed woman). She carefully constructed her refined, maintained, and organized character, only to slowly unravel her in the face of impending doom. It is, however, too neatly schematic for my taste to have Justine unravel at her wedding with Claire trying to help her through it in the first part, while the sisters trade places in the second. It’s this sort of lazy screenwriting that often gets mistaken for profundity.
I still think von Trier is a very good, close to great director. Von Trier teases us with some stunning imagery, only to let us down with a vapid narrative. I will never forget the stunning opening sequence of Antichrist, only to slowly realize that that was the best the movie was going to offer. Likewise, Melancholia has some giddy and provoking dream-like (or nightmarish) visuals in the opening sequence, but the rest of the picture fizzles out. Maybe von Trier should stick to making classical music videos.
I have ruffled anyone’s feathers too much by labeling the picture pretentious, I would be curious to hear what you found worthwhile in the movie.