Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Monday, December 05, 2011

Gimme Cockaigne: MELANCHOLIA (2011)

"When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams—this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be." –Don Quixote
When true doomsday comes perhaps the manic depressives and bi-polars amongst us will at last have an opportunity to shine in calm perfection while walking through slow motion rain --that seems  to be the message of Lars Von Trier's latest, MELANCHOLIA (2011). Until then of course the ordinary madness of our civilization and all its unconscious munching, adherence to unexamined cultural mores, and slow death momentum--will have to be endured. Lars, I feel ya.

MELANCHOLIA makes me nervous because I don't want to lose one of the best auteurs of our post-art house age and the film has the earmarks of a cinematic suicide note, a message from someone planning to be dead by the time you read it. His whole post-Dogme 95 life is flashing before our eyes and on some level he's reached the frontier from which no traveler returns. In order to keep going into the wilderness the film ceases to be about a frontier, or returning, but about endurance - the inability for some to handle normalcy vs. others to handle apocalypses. And Kirsten Dunst has never seemed more Nordic, as if she's spent her life scowling through meaningless sex and animal fat-enriched meals solely to get to this one vanishing point.

For in MELANCHOLIA, Von Trier dives headfirst into the same abyss that Terence Malick only wades up to his knees for THE TREE OF LIFE.  There is no real comparison between the two other than their ponderous linking of 2001-style classical music-scored outer space vistas with close family relationships but it's fun to compare them anyway: a tale of a woman's depression coming to life in the form of a wedding and world-destroying planet named Melancholia is the suicide note to TREE OF LIFE's faded funeral notice. TREE mourns my dead father but MELANCHOLIA mourns for me, and the son of my unborn son, and the ground beneath our unborn feet.

My girl and I saw the film this past Saturday night at the charmingly dilapidated Brooklyn Heights Cinema with its blaring, distorted speakers rumbling the seats with Wagner's aria to Tristan und Isolde as Kristen Dunst and company writhed in Bill Viola-style (see above) slowness. It was so loud I had to cover my ears. But rather than be the one to complain to the ticket taker, I tried my best to accept it. And then suddenly the music stopped. I missed it soon after.

The 1st chapter is a long tres chic wedding for our melancholy heroine Justine (Dunst) over the course of which the bride flits with ecstasy before dissolving into a deep depression. The sight of a distant star unnerves her. Soon she's telling off her boss (Stellan Skarsgard), losing her groom (Alexander Skarsgard), sleeping with a kid on the 18th green, pissing off her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her sister's rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), infuriating the wedding planner (a great Udo Kier) and drawing gasps from everyone but her loving drunk of a father (John Hurt) and psychotic mother (Charlotte Rampling), who makes the toast "I think marriage is a crock of shit."

Handhelt verite for large social gatherings is by now almost quaint: Demme's RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, Vinterberg's THE CELEBRATION, Baumbach's MARGOT AT THE WEDDING. But unlike theirs, LVT's is a picture of a cold planet bathed in warmth but unable to feel warm, and if you can survive the whiplash handheld camera nausea in these scenes, you can move on to the next course. The bride, however, won't be there as she's upstairs, catatonic in the bath.

After some portions of the reception are over, Justine ducks into the library and  changes the open art books on display from abstract geometrical shapes (put there no doubt by John as they reflect his dull patriarchal-modernist tastes) to archaic pictures of female suffering, death and peasant post-wedding debauchery: ""Land of Cockaine" and "Hunters in the Snow" by Bruegel; "Ophelia" by J.W. Waterhouse; and "After the Hunt" by Bogarde. As in DOGVILLE and ANTICHRIST, this book swap seems a full rejection of the flat, dull left-brained scientific rationalism championed by Sutherland's materialist know-it-all in favor of a return to the mythic unconscious where every day is your last so you better get connected back to your Jungian roots, and hammered, before the whole tree of life goes up in flames.

John rejects such Dionysian nonsense, but his own left-brained thinking falls apart, unable to to deal with the loss of his empirical toe-hold, deluding and denuding-- as DaFoe did in ANTICHRIST-- via smug dismissal of Gainsbourg's intellectually eroticized 'feminine hysteria,' and the neglect of their co-owned horses. Dunst's depression is never fully explained so we naturally look for clues and there are plenty if you hate the fact that a rich razzle dazzle, the 'very expensive' fairy tale wedding is the closest we come in the modern era to keeping 'myth' alive. In going for high class in a materialist bourgeois competitive manner, the wedding becomes a Bruegel land of plenty fairy tale combination control freak's dream and overload nightmare, where the more money spent the less fun it's possible to have.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "Luilekkerland" ("The Land of Cockaigne"), 1567. Oil on panel.
Cockaigne is a medieval mythical land of plenty, an imaginary place of extreme luxury and ease where physical comforts and pleasures are always immediately at hand and where the harshness of medieval peasant life does not exist. Specifically, in poems like The Land of Cockaigne, Cockaigne is a land of contraries, where all the restrictions of society are defied (abbots beaten by their monks), sexual liberty is open (nuns flipped over to show their bottoms), and food is plentiful... Writing about Cockaigne was a commonplace of Goliard verse. It represented both wish fulfillment and resentment at the strictures of asceticism and dearth (Wiki)
Justine prefers dearth
So a ceremony that should be mythically enriched with archetypal energy is stifled by the trivialities which the wedding planner (a marvelous Udo Kier) and the host couple cling to, insisting on guesses from guests as to how many pebbles are in the foyer vase, for example. John's outrage over Justine not coming down to cut the cake relates to her boss's slimy demands for a tag line, his weird head games resonate meta as the producers of MELANCHOLIA were no doubt hoping a tag line to this film would occur to Lars (the image the boss shows being like a Vogue cover premonition of mythic poses Justine herself will assume later in the film).

While we struggle to not get nauseous from whiplash shaky-cam, the heavy breathing Dogme sound keeps the wedding unbearably intimate: we hear every cut of the meat and every clang of cutlery on the china plates, every breath and wheeze from the gathered throng, amplified like we're tripping our faces off and boiling over in claustrophobic anxiety, trapped in this crowded dining room with all these acting actors talking over each other all at once like real people do in groups. At first we don't know why Justine is losing her grip, but we feel it's something to do with the oppressive worry of her sister ("Don't ruin this!") her brother-in-law ("this cost a fortune") and the insane ravings of her mom. The wedding is a public de-pantsing of artistic success, wherein the best riches and opulence can be is thrown up as buffer against the onslaught of Lars' depression, and crumbles like fairy dust. 

It is only in Justine's subsequent sad melt-down and later ecstasy over the approaching doomsday planet that she blossoms, for the planet is her true groom and its destruction her true union. I was reminded of my own strange exaltation on the day of 9/11 as I went racing up deserted 2nd Avenue at midnight, brain thrilling that it might the world might end any moment. New York City was a ghost town - I managed to find one cab, and me and the the cab driver were like the post-apocalypse, like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, map of the bridge! Hey! Hey! HEY!  I knew my exaltation was not 'proper' but also, later, learned I was not alone in feeling it, especially at the uptown AA meeting I attended in the weeks that followed. We have a lot of firemen and cops up there and we felt the pain and grief, but we were strangely calm. In this apocalyptic moment, we were at peace because our constant existential dread, so useless in normal life, was suddenly the norm. Now that the world was blind, our impoverished vision made us royalty.

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks—is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

                 –Theodore Roethke, “In a Dark Time”

John however, will have no such apocalyptic acceptance, and in the period after the wedding, he belittles and dominates Claire in a vain effort to allay her anxiety about the approaching planet. In his bland pretense he resembles past Von Trier male characters, authority figure wannabes who do their best to dominate the women in the room but come off sad and impotent. 

In TREE OF LIFE we saw the dawn of the earth, and the first vague gestures of compassion, leading up to some beach-side dream jazz heaven cast party. That's the kind of soiree Claire wants to have as the planet looms, a Cockaigne-style acceptance of the end through drink and song and togetherness. From her new husband's picture of an apple orchard he's bought for her, to 'rest' in, to the pebbles in the jar Udo Kier wants everyone to guess the number of, everything but the strange request to 'build caves' from the son, to return to Werner Herzog's CAVES OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, perhaps, and to the mythic inner reality of Jungian archetypes of which we are the shadows on the Platonic walls, is contemptible. 

Von Trier shows that all the money in the bourgeois world of wealth and rationalism won't allay or abet this impending cloud, only Justine's resolutely transcendental delusion is some kind of salvation. Hers is the peace of the twisted, the women and men who have writhed backwards through time due to years of enduring the stale, hollow pleasures of Cockaigne. Like Jack in the 1920s New Years eve picture at the end of THE SHINING, Justine moves backwards into the representations of the past until she's as indestructible as the planet Melancholia itself. I hope Lars doesn't mean to follow her quite yet, though at this point he's running out of language, image, and time. Every new film shows a little less sand in the hourglass and MELANCHOLIA shows the hourglass itself breaking into slow motion splinters. Soon he will have nothing left but sand, unless... May I suggest an Effexor + Wellbutrin + Neurontin cocktail, sir? It works wonders! Cockaigne is for suckers, as Bruegel, and Lacan, well knew. When life gives you only lemon orchards as far as the eye can see, no amount of lemonade-making can allay the soul-curling sourness. One must burn and run, even if there's nowhere to go but deeper into the ash crevasse.

POST-SCRIPT (12/7/12): As Justine gets out of the limo to head into the reception, she spots the incoming planet--still just a dot in the sky but she recognizes it--and five days after seeing the film it dawned on me that even so far away she recognizes it as our onrushing doom and her deliverance. So fuck it, she tells off her boss and dumps her groom. But isn't that what depression is all about? She doesn't bother to share her realization though, knowing perhaps that in the house of a coddling imperialist like John it's useless to bring it up. Considering this, the film suddenly comes into sharper focus for me, so thought I'd add it! 

Special Thanks to Jennifer Boyer,


  1. Watched this on On Demand this weekend (there's some deal wherein you can watch indie films still in the theater form the comfort of your bed) because your write up about it here.

    I've never seen a von trier film before, but I loved this one.

    There's a disconnect between the message the images are sending your head the whole film and what your common sense movie-brain tells you the film OUGHT to be about.

    Eerie stuff, and it feels like there's a lot I didn't catch. No one ever makes it across the bridge to the village - although they make it up TO the bridge on 3 different occasions. First half is the breakdown of Dunst's character during a "positive" event - the second half is the breakdown of Gainsbroug's character (and build-up of Dunst's) during a very negative event.

    It's sort of as though M. Night Shyamalan had gotten much better and not much worse after "Unbreakable."

    Thanks for inspiring me to take a chance on this film!

  2. Saw it yesterday and loved every bit of its depresseive sad vibe. This was Von Trier's "Fuck You!" to the way the world is. What an ending! I just posted a review for it if your interested.

  3. Very impressive and well-written takedown of Von Trier's mess. So detailed in his overblown contrivances and you didn't even get around to the god-awful dialogue that's downright painful to endure.

  4. T... takedown? That's no takedown, it's a love poem.

  5. I finally saw this on netflix last week, and I was glad to find that you had written about it already. And Glad All Over that I so agreed with everything you said. What a great movie. I loved the c-Print quality stills at the very beginning, laying out a rough set of plates of what I was about to see, and still surprising me with its story. The dramamine (drama mine?) wedding half was exactly how I always feel at weddings, they are all so forced and pressurized. That said, If I ever have another I would love to have Udo Kier wander around like he was my planner, kind of a performance art piece layered on high state spectacle in the hands of the working class. And good on you for pointing out the painterly classicism of the compositions. Kirsten Dunst lying nude, a lovely adult woman, was a revelation. On the flip side, I, being 49, have never been able to buy Keifer Sutherland as the CIA operative who defends our country through perseverance and grit. He just never sold me on his being tough. He's Donald Sutherland's son, which is a lot, but isn't tough. So to see him play the first to do himself in - You can't fire me, I quit! - was a welcome adult actor decision. This movie is great. It's beautiful, literal, and withstands scrutinizing its own elements. It would work if dvd chapters could be played on shuffle.


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