DIRECTED BY LARS VON TRIER
STARRING: KIRSTEN DUNST, CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG, ALEXANDER SKARSGARD, KIEFER SUTHERLAND with STELLAN SKARSGARD and JOHN HURT
Lars Von Trier has successively won his lead actress an award at Cannes. In 2009, Charlotte Gainsbourg bagged the honour for her portrayal of a mother who retaliates with sexual aggression against the pain of having lost her infant child in ‘Antichrist’. This summer, Kirsten Dunst walked away with the same for ‘Melancholia’, where she plays a woman who’s crippled by her fear about the end of the world. Crippled, as in mentally/emotionally. The film is said to be based on Trier’s therapy sessions during a depressive episode in his life, and it features Gainsbourg who’s already proven her worth in grieving with grace. Here, she’s comparatively cheerful. Dunst herself has had a popular bout of depression for two years, breaking the ice with her 2010 release ‘All Good Things’. This film is part of her comeback, and could very well be her definitive, breakthrough act.
That’s as much trivia as is required to understand where this film comes from and what nurtures it to an organic and rotting whole. Its achievement, I felt, was in the semblance of home as well as the equally-incisive portrayal, both of which had firm roots in the people involved. In other words, it’s a depressing film from a depressed person about a depressed character played by an actor who has faced the worst herself. That, I think, would sum up what the viewer can/will expect even before the film opens.
There’s very little to speak about the film, which actually doesn’t come as a surprise. It’s in two parts, one named after Justine (Kirsten Dunst) the bride-to-be who destroys her own wedding in a sort of defeatist endeavor like in a move to make the end of the world more sufferable. The other is named ‘Claire’ after her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) whose consumption by fear is procedural and intensifies with time and event. Justine plays the aggressor, Claire is submissive in the broadest sense of the word. This is not the first time I’ve watched Trier situate the entire emotional crux of the film with his women, their men accessorized. But here, he polarizes it. Justine and Claire are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. They, in all essence, complete the picture that he breaks in the end.
Does this imply that Trier is the feminist of this generation? Perhaps. It’s complicated, actually. He relates his depression to the suffering of a woman; somehow, I felt that he feels something very feminine about it. His men are plastic. He associates them with science, with logic, with power; with humour that he derives little pleasure from. His women, on the other hand, are pinnacles of expression, chasms of depth. We see shades of the woman in ‘Antichrist’ in Justine. She corks her sadness with sexual aggression, and suffers more at the relapse she helps trigger with it. I imagined for a second how it would be if he were to centre his story upon a male equivalent – that is, if ever Trier decided to write himself in a story. I think the concept of a woman has such an inherent sense of pity it’s bound to incite, which a male character, in his sexual dominance, would only lead away from himself. Somehow, the idea of a woman predating and suffering from the same seems far more acceptable. Even artistic. Or else it’s a consequence of Trier’s craft that renders us to believe so. I can’t tell.
Accepting that it’s backed by exemplary craft and deft use of ideas in Trier’s impeccable quirk, I take the liberty to call the film pathetic. It’s unendurable. It’s not even a film that can be enjoyed by a depressed individual; it’s no key to suicide either. I felt that it was a film that be enjoyed only by those in it; those snared by commitment and self-propelled interest to carve a way out of their heads in form of this film. Trier HAD to make this film, Dunst HAD to act in it – it’s in convenience to help resurrect her fallen career as well. She fits like a glove and he wears her performance like a crown. Dunst is both actor and character for the film that Trier knew exactly how to make. It comes easy for him, he extracts performances effortlessly. He’s backed by a talented bunch of actors who are well-cast and devoted as well. It’s tailor-made.
But what about the viewer? There’s this one film that Willem Dafoe as Carson Clay writes, directs and stars in at the Cannes Film Festival in ‘Mr. Bean’s Holiday’. The man is ruthless. He eats screen-space and deletes other characters to facilitate his own. I was reminded of that film when I watched ‘Melancholia’. There are films which disrespect the viewer. This one disregards us. It doesn’t care. It prides in its depression and destroys the world to beat its gloom. I’ve always had this theory that one would miss life lesser in its absence if one lived lesser. The film destroyed that theory of mine simply by reveling in it. I felt tainted. It does not eat into your optimism. It leeches on it and comes out strong.