Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to the Apocalypse: A Brief Melancholia Story

It gets worse.

Since it’s a slow week, I thought I’d share this brief experience I had a little while ago during a screening of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, a movie which I will hopefully write more about as it nears its release date. The film itself is really good -- perhaps even a masterpiece -- but also quite upsetting, for a variety of reasons which I won’t get into but you can probably guess, given its ostensible plot.

Anyway, Melancholia is a profoundly grim movie, but its final twenty or so minutes are a real doozy -- a relentless march of almost unendurable pain. (But, y’know, in a good way.) Still, while watching the movie, I realized that there was a couple directly behind me giggling through the last twenty minutes. Lightly, but noticeably, and very much together – as if one’s giggles were setting off the other’s.

So the characters onscreen would be taking slow but inexorable steps towards annihilation and, in the background, I’d hear, “Teeheeheehee.” Who were these people? These jerks who dared snicker at the apocalypse. Were they kids? Too cool-for-school hipsters? Rex Reed and Richard Schickel out on a date?

At first, I didn't look. I figured they were just a couple of the usual Von Trier naysayers who had gotten into an early screening just to scoff at the Melancholy Dane. Whatever. I wasn’t going to let them bother me. And, like I said, they weren’t being too loud or anything. Just that they were…giggling. Teeheehee. Heeheehee. Like a couple of little kids.

And so it went. A low level but high-pitched giggle fest for the last twenty minutes of this amazingly sad film.

Finally, the credits began to roll. And they kept at it. Snickering. Giggling.

The lights began to come up. I decided to take a quick glance in their direction to see who they were, what these a-holes looked like.

And then I saw them.

They weren’t laughing.

They’d been uncontrollably whimpering, their faces covered in tears, holding hands, for the last twenty minutes. They were crying so hard it had actually sounded like giggles to me.

Enjoy Melancholia, everybody!


  1. Wait, the ending is unbearably sad? I must have misunderstood the film entirely.

  2. Well, this won't be the first time you and I saw two very different movies.

  3. Bit of a SPOILER, but: Seems to me you'd have to reject everything Von Trier is trying to say to view the finale as "a relentless march of almost unendurable pain." That's the *first* half of the movie. Life.

  4. I'm not so sure. If we were still in Dunst's POV, then, yes, probably. But I see the finale as being mostly Gainsbourg's story. (Isn't there even a title card to that effect? I don't remember.) And since I mostly "identified" with the latter...

  5. Yes, the second half is labeled with the name of Gainsbourg's character, and she's a more central figure in terms of screen time. But that seems like a red herring to me. It's Dunst's transformation as Melancholia approaches that Von Trier is truly interested in, and it's Dunst's sensibility that informs the final moments in particular.

    (Which is by no means a criticism, btw. My beef with this film is mostly the first half, which I think is quite badly executed on a moment-to-moment basis. On second viewing a lot of it seemed borderline inept. "What about that tagline," I mean jesus.)

  6. You've seen the film a couple of times, I think, so you probably have better insights into this, but I didn't read the labeling of the final section "Claire" as a red herring. I think you're right that LVT is most interested in Dunst's transformation -- in part because he probably understands and identifies with her to such a degree. But Claire's pain at the very end is very real, especially since she's got her young son with her.

    I feel like that final scene is LVT trying to position two different approaches to the end of the world (and in his mind I think "end of the world" = "world in general"). He identifies with Justine, to be sure, but I wonder if he also wishes he could identify with Claire to some extent.

  7. I don't disagree with any of that, actually. Just wouldn't have imagined that the emotional dichotomy you describe could move anyone to tears or whimpers. Melancholia plays as a highly intellectual film to me, almost theoretical, even though Gainsbourg emotes up a storm in the second half. (Hard not to respond to Wagner, admittedly.)

  8. I guess it helps if you have a young child.

    I didn't think though that the film played on that pure an intellectual level. At his best (and I do think MELANCHOLIA is LVT at his best, about which you and I definitely disagree) I think LVT manages to marry his conceptual ambitions with an ability to create convincing, committed melodrama. That's also probably why I prefer BREAKING THE WAVES to DOGVILLE (though I certainly do like DOGVILLE).

  9. Ah, see, and I think Von Trier can't portray credible human behavior, even melodramatically, to, uh, save his life. DOGVILLE is his masterpiece precisely because it's so totally abstract, abandoning any pretense that we're seeing real people rather than ideological chess pieces.

  10. I guess if I were to classify behavior into action and reaction, then I could agree that LVT's characters, at least on paper, don't portray credible human *actions* -- that is to say, nobody on Earth would actually do the things that they do. But he nails it with reaction -- that is to say, emotion -- and thus provides a credible context for the truly bizarre human actions that he depicts. (For example, Emily Watson's palpable despair in BREAKING THE WAVES renders her truly insane actions in the film plausible.)

    Part of this is just that he's such a f*cking great director of actors (particularly female ones), but there's a bit more to it than that, I think. Indeed, I'd point to DANCER IN THE DARK as one film where he managed to get a great performance but still didn't always convince me that this character would do the things that she did.