Awesometism At The Movies: Melancholia

November 11, 2011

I’ve decided to start recommending some of my favourite bits of pop culture and art on this blog. I have a few reasons for this:

1. As a “professional” pop culture writer and a master time-waster, I spend a lot of time listening to music, watching films and TV shows and reading almost anything that I can get my hands on and, by sharing it, I hope to elevate my useless knowledge to a level that’s only semi-useless.

2. I believe that there are certain intangible aspects of Asperger’s, its comborbitities and life in general that are best expressed through art and I’m interested in discussing them.

3. I also believe that being able to reference pop culture can be a really useful substitute for more tedious and sometimes even painful explanations of certain things, and I want to share certain works that have been helpful, powerful, or amusing to me in that way.

 

I’m going to kick things off with Lars Von Trier’s latest film, Melancholia.

First of all, from a purely aesthetic perspective, Melancholia is completely brilliant. It is Von Trier’s most full realized feature, the perfect marriage of his nihilistic, antisocial and rebellious nature with his burgeoning artistic impulses. It features the sometimes criminally underrated Kirsten Dunst’s greatest performance to date in a role that finally uses her sunny blonde looks and her stormy internal life as more than a surface, Virgin Suicides-level juxtaposition. It is visually stunning, emotionally devastating, and the single best thing I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.

If I can get over my current bout of lower case- m melancholia in time for the film’s release, I’ll write a more traditional review over at Risky Fuel. But for the purposes of this blog, I want to talk about one specific aspect of Melancholia: its exploration of depression.

Of any of the issues that I’ve experienced in relation to my autism, depression is the one that I find the most elusive. It might more widely known than AS, even more so than anxiety, but it’s also more misunderstood, and even harder to explain. It’s all consuming, and everything that you can possibly say about it somehow feels like an understatement. The closest I’ve ever come to saying something useful on the subject is explaining my inability to explain it.

Depression is the epitome of the intangible experience that I mentioned earlier. Clinical descriptions and nonfiction accounts tend to fall short of the mark because they can only appeal to logical and the intellect. But the disease is a full-out assault on a person’s logic, intellect, emotions and body and any halfway good description of that attack needs to appeal to those same things.

Few things I’ve ever seen, heard, or read have accomplished that in quite the way that Melancholia does.

On a grand scale, the film is about the end of the world. In, perhaps, the most obvious metaphor that has ever been used in a film of any quality, a planet named Melancholia crashes into Earth and destroys our planet (this is not a spoiler, the actual collision is part of the title sequence).

On an individual level, it is the story of a depressed young bride named Justine (Dunst) whose life unravels almost in tandem with apocalypse. As the rogue planet looms closer and closer, she systematically tears apart her wedding reception, her marriage and her already strained relationship with her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

As a backdrop for Justine’s story, the greater cosmic drama is ingenious. What might be too heavy-handed on its own becomes the prefect of amount of emotional weight to her personal plight. With end of days-level dread, doom and, well, melancholia permeating every scene and every image, the audience can actually experience her struggles before she even attempts (and fails) to explain them for herself.

The character of Justine herself is refreshingly complex and devastatingly realistic. Outside of a few static images in the title sequence in which she is, at turns, weighed and tied down by outside forces, she is similng and laughing the first time that we see her. Although her deeper struggles slowly reveal themselves as the wedding night wears on, those original moments are never completely dismissed as a mere facade. She is always represented as a human being capable of a wide range of emotions, motivations and actions. She is, at turns, both a victim of her disease and an architect of her own misery. She is capable of moments of joy and tenderness, moments of nihilism and pain, and moments of  crippling inertia. Above all else, Justine is always presented as both human being with a disease and a human being with normal human faults and attributes.

Although I like to believe that I’m a little less cruel and maybe a tiny bit more functional than its main character, Melancholia is a film that I can point to when people ask me what it’s like to have depression.

As for my fellow depressives, the film is a bit of a double-edged sword. As I quipped to my friends after seeing it in September, the experience is half validation (“This is exactly what it’s like! I am not alone!”) and half confirmation (“Lars Von Trier is right. Life really does suck that much and I wish that a planet really would hit Earth and destroy us all.”). But it’s also 100% stunning. If you think you can handle it, please try.

Melancholia opens in theaters today, but if you’re in Toronto, I suggest waiting the extra week for it to come to TIFF Bell Lightbox, where it will begin playing daily on November 18. Not only is the Lightbox a state of the art cinema lover’s paradise, it’s also pretty autism-friendly, as it’s not prone to the kind of garish sensory overload endemic to so many theaters these days. TIFF is also running a Lars Von Trier retrospective, Waiting For The End Of The World, in anticipation of Melancholia’s release, for more information click here.

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One Response to “Awesometism At The Movies: Melancholia”

  1. Laurie Says:

    It wouldn’t be my normal kind of movie but I might check it out. A friend is suffering from depression and she gets a lot of that, ‘but you’re laughing.’


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