30 January, 2012

Too Late to Matter: A Review of Melancholia

Too Late to Matter: A Review of Melancholia
How Being Rich and Pretty Will Kill You Right Fucking Dead

James Kislingbury

I'm really trying extra hard to not sound like a smart ass when talking about Meloncholia. Besides being an ostensibly portentous film and is directed by Lord Jag Hole, Earl of Fuckwad-upon-the-sea, the movie deserves better than that, not only because even shitty films deserve some level of serious attention before they're thrown down the well, but this film is actually pretty good. Pretty darn good, in fact. It even ends with a big explosion, which is nice to see after the appropriately named dirge that is Melancholia.

Let's get started with the rambling, shall we?

This movie made me think of the great "Cultural Vegetables"

(or your "Cultural Vegetables", or whatever) argument. The argument itself is a more or less bullshit and I've always felt that it was invented by people who didn't want to admit that movies without robots fighting made them dumb, but it's one of these things that loom large over the whole medium. It's not a terrible argument, at all, and I've certainly encountered the exact opposite of the robot-movie pride crowd at film school (which is guys who think that scenes of somebody driving from Barstow to Mexico in real time is the height of artistry and not just boring, pretentious nonsense).

The vegetable argument stems from this idea that movies are either supposed to be fun and critically bulletproof or boring and built for the elites (read: snobs). In this world films are only meant for popular entertainment and anything that deviates from that must be the opposite (and again, for snobs). That isn't the whole argument, it's just that for the most part I've only ever seen morons press for this worldview.

It's a crock of shit that wouldn't have flown back when people like David Lean were making blockbusters about Russian poets. It speaks of something else besides the content of movies. Of course there are boring movies and there are intellectually vapid movies and every other kind of movie on other. The fact remains, though, that just because something is serious, it doesn't mean that it has to be boring. The whole point of Melancholia is to make you feel bad-- and it completely succeeds for all of the right reasons. How is a movie being compelling and emotionally engaging a vegetable? There is value in a movie being as successfully unpleasant as this one.

A great example of this is The Seventh Seal which I just re-watched on glorious Blu-Ray. While watching it, I realized even the most infamously sullen film makers of all time, Ingmar Bergman, is capable of making light and funny scenes juxtaposed between, well, scenes of a knight playing chess with Death. It's not all chess and death is what I'm getting at. This bares on Melancholia, because, like Bergman's masterpiece (or one of them), this gloomy and existentially horrific story doesn't get in the way of it being a good film and, I dare say, an entertaining one. While The Seventh Seal is far and away a better film (which doesn't need to be stated, but here we are), I think this film falls into the same class of "movies that are explicitly about the end of existence, but are still kind of fun in a weird way."

With all of that said, Melancholia doesn't have any of the irony or even mirth that Bergman's movie does, as instead of being divided among an entire troupe, it's divided in two halves, "Part One: Justine" and "Part Two: Claire," which could be negatively described as "Catastrophically Poorly Thought Out Wedding" and "Catastrophically Unlucky Celestial Event." I don't think I'm out of line in saying that the first half, with its passing resemblance to Festen, offers the most laughter and mirth (I mean for catastrophe).

There's an entire worthwhile film in the reception alone. It has ancient drunken poon-hound John Hurt dancing with a fat chick, a rageaholic Kiefer Southerland, and Udo Kier doing his Udo Kier act. Oh, and it also has Stellan Skarsgaard and Alexander Skarsgard, which nobody else finds as funny of a pair as I do.

The second half starts sometime later with the sudden discovery of a massive doom planet that is (apparently) headed directly for earth. It’s a strange shift in content, but not one in tone. There is just as much of a looming demise on the horizon in the first half as in the second half, it’s just that at the wedding it’s not literal. There’s a lot more going on in the first half, which is odd because, again, there’s a giant metaphor headed for the Earth and you’d think that would be enough to keep one’s attention.

It’s almost as if the film was assembled from two entirely different scripts. Disconnect would be a good word for it, but both halves work on their own. It’s almost like complaining that Kill Bill Vol. 1 was all over the place. That’s kind of the point. In Melancholia it does work as this bizarre split as they’re tonally and thematically similar. With that said, if the first half of the movie was dragged out to be ninety minutes long and the arrival of the planet was ignored entirely, I’d be fine with that. In fact, I might prefer it.

With all of that said, as enjoyable and technically well put together as the movie is, there are hiccups within the story that go beyond the splitting of the two halves. The script is the primary hiccup and I can't tell whether it's because the script is purposefully overwrought or because this isn't von Trier's native tongue (at least Bergman was allowed to hide behind translators for the most part). Those moments of distraction are minor and even in the scenes they occur in it doesn't interfere with the overall tone (which is, in most scenes: Deep-seated psychological gloom teetering on sudden violence). The problem with the screenplay isn't that it’s a mess it’s that it has to compete with how everything else in the movie is so incredibly well composed. It sticks out more than it should as a result. So, even if it doesn’t ring true to the ear, it does ring true to the emotions.

If there's a weak link in the cast, I regret to say that it's Skarsgard (again: The hot guy from True Blood, not the sort of doughy guy from Thor—who are apparently father and son). For whatever reason he's played as somewhere between "affable dope" and "actor who isn't sure of his lines." I can put up with a lot of ambiguity (the fact that I liked this movie sort of proves that), but that's a distracting one as it just leads to me not wondering about the character but if Skarsgard is a good actor. He probably is. Looking at the rest of the cast I would find it odd for him to sneak through as a shitty actor. All of that said, it's an odd experience to watching a scene where a husband explains to his newly-minted wife that he bought them an apple orchard and having the sudden realization that he might just be Lenny and we're two steps away from owning a rabbit house.

It's that twilight area between normal guy and full-blown retard that I seem to be getting hitched up on. Maybe, though, that's the point as who in their right might would marry a woman that distressed and, well, sort of a bitch.

There are a few other, minor hiccups along the way. Or, maybe interrogative hiccups (like, the hiccup has a higher pitch at the end, somehow). Like, what exactly happens with her husband? And if she's this depressed and fucked-up why not just put her in a fancy mental home? And why would this dope marry her in the first place? The mind boggles.

If we had an answer, though, he wouldn’t have a movie. The entire movie hinges on poorly thought-out relationships. That and a planet colliding with the Earth. I guess the basic premise does require a little bit of leeway and in the movie’s defense, it handles these things pretty well. They are just hiccups after all.

Though that can of worms makes me start wondering why this movie exists. What is this movie's purpose? If it can’t handle something as basic as why the relationships exist, then either it’s missing something or I am.

As I said I enjoyed it, I would recommend it if you want a bummer movie, but I still don't know what the point of any of it is. "Being sad is shitty and it will kill you" is not the lesson we go to movies for. We go to be told killing the Nazis was great and that nice people bag the right member of the opposite sex and that black men in fat woman suits is hilarious. Sad semi-European people, though? Well that fucking escapes me to be honest.

I guess it's a worthwhile movie in that there isn't any apparent rhyme or reason to the work other than that idea that melancholia is not goddamn good. It's either a sign of excellent direction and vision to make a movie with no real answer to it or it's a sign that you have no fucking idea what you're doing. I'd like to think it's more the former than anything else.

Maybe the lack of a satisfying answer is somehow a reflection of depression itself? Too far? Sorry. I'll take that one back.

I'm lucky that the moment I gave up on was about ten minutes from the end and at the end I felt a kind of relief that I almost exclusively reserve for movies that suck (like Outrage, which I saw about a week later in the same theater. God. What a stinker). In this case I felt it because it succeeded in the task it set out to do, which was make a horrific, brooding meditation on depression. Mission accomplished. Melancholia works exactly how it should. It’s a well acted and well made movie and yet it’s not one I would recommend anyone to rush out and see. I’m glad my friends asked me out to see it because otherwise I would have spent the night dwelling on my own home-made misery instead of someone else’s on the silver screen.

But don't just take my word for it!

Alright, let me get my Melancholia jokes out of the way (ahem):
1) I'm really surprised that they had the budget to attract and crash an entire planet into the earth.
2) When I go to a Scandinavian wedding movie I damn well expect some laughs.
3) I can't decide which lame title is funnier to me "Melonbowlia" or "Cornholia." Both suck. Both almost make me want to giggle.
4) Watching The Seventh Seal immediately before this movie was not a great choice for a number of reasons.

Good. It's all out of my system now.

SIDE NOTE: Here's another article about defending "boring" movies. Unless I already posted it. Which is likely.