The mad ones see it coming.
Given the current climate of uncertainty and powerlessness, it’s small wonder that at least a few creative folks are expressing themselves via the apocalyptic narrative, in which a man or woman, eyes glazed in horror, points to a terrifying horizon. Most ignore it; the few who look smile condescendingly, may even laugh outright, then mouth some twaddle along the lines of “everything will be ok.”
In Take Shelter, Michael Shannon is the designated loony. A modest, even tedious chronicle of a storm foretold, the movie throws Shannon’s character into a wrestling match with visions that portend madness; are they real, or simply confirmation that he’s destined for the mild psychosis that runs in his family? Sober and strange, Shelter mixes a few scary dreams with long scenes that would be dull without Shannon’s riveting presence. But even with his great performance and very good ones from the supporting players, who include the lovely Jessica Chastain, Shelter neither haunted nor took over any part of my brain.
That distinction belongs to Melancholia, Lars von Trier’s gorgeous meditation on depression and acceptance. Juxtaposing an Altman-esque ensemble piece with a quiet and devastating thriller, the movie pulls you into its gravitational field from its majestic opening frames and never lets you go.
Much has been said about the film’s accessibility, but really, von Trier’s not that inaccessible. He just tends to be depressing as hell, often because, as in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, he’s focusing on the problems of someone with several strikes against her trying to function in a terrible situation. All of his movies mesmerize; the naturalism of the acting and pacing create an illusion of eavesdropping. Melancholia adds some of the most stunning nature graphics since Tree of Life (a movie with an almost uncannily similar feel), as well as a nightmarish sci-fi predicament and ravishing set pieces; it’s one hell of a couple of hours.
It centers on Justine, Exhibit A of the harrowing emptiness that is Successful 21st Century Life. There’s a special poignance to Kirsten Dunst’s performance since we’ve virtually watched her grow up onscreen. Her face hasn’t changed much since she played the undead child in Interview with the Vampire; then, her eyes conveyed an age and sorrow well beyond her years. Now, that sorrow is all the more unsettling because it’s so believable. We watch those eyes change from giddy with the distraction of her own storybook wedding celebration to ravaged over the course of a blisteringly inappropriate reception speech by her mother, played by the still beautiful but granite hard Charlotte Rampling. (That Dunst repeated the performance for real during von Trier’s infamous rambling press conference where he mused about Nazis makes her acting no less powerful.)
But Melancholia doesn’t simply chronicle Justine’s losing battle with depression; it makes her the film’s moral compass, and argues that her response is the sanest one in the room. Certainly it’s preferable to that of her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who flits around her castle-like estate smoothing everyone else’s feathers in vain, or of Claire’s husband, a smug tycoon (a wonderful Keifer Sutherland) who reminds Justine that she had better enjoy the happiness that has cost him so much money. Her pretty, clueless groom offers nothing – certainly no escape from the emptiness of her advertising career or his chosen best man, her boss, who hounds her with increasing drunken menace to come up with a tagline prior to night’s end.
That crass request seems to be the straw that breaks Justine’s back. Her rejoinder is hardly a resounding victory; we sense, as she does, that he’ll always be looking down on her ready to spit or worse, and that her job, her work, her marriage are all components of a soulless life. As dawn arrives following the sleepless wedding night, Justine has achieved an eerie calm, even as the horse she loves balks at some portent of disaster that only he can see, and which becomes manifest in Part 2, named for Claire.
From invisible, personal disorder, Melancholia becomes a literal object on a collision course with Earth. There is nearly zero presence of any type of outside world; Justine, Claire, her husband and child are the only occupants, all waiting, with different expectations, Melancholia’s approach. When, through the child’s makeshift device, it becomes clear that there is indeed something to be afraid of, something that cannot be escaped, the hollow centers of Claire and her husband begin to utterly implode.
And now it becomes clear that Justine has not suffered in vain. Having faced the abyss, she alone handles the impending reality with grace and courage. She alone knows how to comfort a frightened child; after all, she’s been there. And in the end, she alone sees the beauty in obliterating white light, even as she turns her back on it. Nirvana, after all, means extinction, not bliss. Finally, she achieves it.