Blu-ray Review: MELANCHOLIA
I'm not entirely sure when my own personal melancholy evolved into full blown clinical depression, but I'd guess it was about the time I left home to go to college. I was accepted by, and offered an academic scholarship to my first choice school. I'd always been bright, and high school was more or less a breeze, standardized tests were even less challenging, and with my credentials I was accepted into the top public university in the US.
Once I got there and began what I fully intended to be a successful college career, something bad happened. My past caught up with me. Not only was university significantly more challenging academically, but I was without what little support system I had. I never really needed support in high school, but once I reached college, I needed it more than ever and my learned inability to make friends caused me to isolate to a dangerous degree.
About three quarters of the way through my freshman year at UC Berkeley, I overdosed on over the counter medication.Obviously I survived, and, in fact, I was hardly even worse for the wear physically, but it was a desperate act, nonetheless. Ever since then, even into my adulthood, I've struggled with depression, though thankfully the suicidal thoughts are pretty much eradicated, but it still can be very challenging these days.
Lars von Trier's Melancholia is a not so subtle dissection of depression, and for my money, the most affecting such attempt I've seen yet. The film begins and ends with a great cataclysm that ends our world, a collision with a planet called Melancholia. In between those bookends we are allowed to watch the ways in which several members of a family interact and react to both regular and extreme stimuli as a way of illustrating depression and its debilitating effects.
The character with whom I relate most closely is Justine, played flawlessly by Kirsten Dunst. Justine suffers from severe depression that comes, like most, in waves of varying severity. We open on the reception to Justine's wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), who is probably most people's vision of the ideal husband, willing to do anything to make Justine happy. All around her, Justine's family, a troupe consisting of some incredible actors, absolutely fall apart at the seams from their own insecurities and various neuroses. We are given a peak at an outwardly ideal situation that visibly entropies before our eyes. While the ancillary characters attempt to fake their way to the illusion of happiness, only Justine's reactions realistically mirror the growing dissonance in her family.
In the end, everything falls apart, everyone leaves, and what should have been a wonderful evening turns to complete shit. Strangely, it isn't Justine's anti-social behavior precipitating this devolution, it is everyone else's madness and greed that is at fault. Yet, as with many sufferers, her depression is the most obvious outward gesture, and therefore the easiest to blame.
I know Justine's reactions. She pulls away from difficult situations. She feels as though she's out of control. She is constantly tested by those who most love her, and those who would use her, and she feels like a complete failure. Worse, she feels as though that's all she'll ever be, so why bother? Justine's sister and maiden of honor, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), cannot abide her depression. Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), have hosted this massive event, and John can only think of the money he's wasting on a wedding reception that is dissolving before his very eyes. Even this is Justine's fault.
Depression is not a choice. As Claire begs Justine to cheer up and Michael attempts with all his might to be a light unto his new bride, they only manage to undermine their own efforts. Justine almost certainly wishes she could be happy, we all do, but the last thing that we want is to be told to cheer up. This constant denial of the intrinsic nature of depression only serves to further alienate those who suffer every day with their own pain that they cannot explain away.
In the second half of the film, named for Claire, an errant planet named Melancholia is on a possible collision course with Earth, which brings a whole new set of challenges. Claire, while not a wide eyed optimist, is certainly a person unfamiliar with the feeling of helplessness that Melacholia's approach and threat proposes. As such, her reaction to the idea that the world is literally near its end triggers inexplicable emotional outbursts and breakdowns. Justine, on the other hand, has always felt that the world was ending, that is what depression in like, even when there is not necessarily any outside stressor to exacerbate the condition.Their dichotomous reactions to the same stimulus becomes increasingly evident as the zero hour approaches.
The feeling that the world is ending is not an unfamiliar one. In my own attempts to understand my depression, I've examined the stress I'm under, both from outside sources and self-inflicted. I've also attempted to examine the differences between the reality of my situation, and my perception of the same, though that is far more difficult to distinguish. One thing I have learned about myself, and which I've not yet managed to conquer, is the globalization of my pain and anguish. There are times that I commit actions of which I am not proud, all in the service of my own insecurities. However, there are also times in which I'm able to separate myself from realistic stressors and disassociate from those around me, which can be even more painful to others.
As Claire falls apart in the hours and days leading up to the cataclysm, Justine remains calm. Though her calmness is alluded to as a kind of clairvoyance in the film, it seems more accurate to me to think of this as the fulfillment of the calamities she always knew were right around the corner. When Claire's world ends, she loses everything; when Justine's world ends, it's merely the logical conclusion of a life lived in constant fear. It is much simpler to say goodbye to life when you already feel as though life has given up on you.
These last few weeks in my personal life have been very rough. Some major, life-altering events have dropped into my lap and triggered by own, mostly controlled, depressive tendencies. As I try to pick myself up off the floor for the sake of my family, I still feel the way that Justine does. I pull myself together most days and manage to do what I need to do to make my world, and my family's world go around. Sometimes I'm more successful than others, sometimes my distant affect serves me well. Certainly there are times I wish I could emote more effectively, and my lack of efffusiveness unfortunately makes others uncomfortable, but I'm working on all that. I am like Justine, the calm voice in the storm, even when it isn't appropriate.
Melancholia, like Tree of Life before it, knows me. It hits me where I live. I know that it seems indulgent, and I know that Justine seems like an insufferable character to many people out there. Whereas Tree of Life exposed my insecurities and made me question my own abilities as a son and a father, Melancholia affirms my place in a world that isn't all it's cracked up to be. One thing that I've found about my depression is that I constantly feel alone, even in the presence of loving family, and I've always felt disconnected and guilty for my inability to respond in kind. Justine shows me that I'm not alone. I'm not saying that either one of us is sane or good, and I'm certainly not saying that either one of us is well, but affirmation that I'm not alone is a powerful thing, even when it comes in the form of a film.
Melancholia, like Antichrist before it, is a spectacularly beautiful film. Lars von Trier's attention to detail and artistic eye is on display here in a way that I've never seen. Thank God he abandoned that Dogme 95 bullshit, because this is what an art film should look like. As has become so often the case these days, Melancholia was shot digitally, and as such there is no print damage in the transfer, because there was no print. The colors are impeccable, the clarity outstanding, and the fine detail is just as it should be, especially in the cosmic sequences. Equally impressive is the completely immersive sound mix. Melancholia's DTS-HD 5.1 audio mix is incredible, and if you are fortunate enough to have a good system with a powerful subwoofer, I urge you to crank that sucker up for the last 30 or so minutes of the film, it is a spectacular experience.
In terms of extras, Magnolia has provided several interesting featurettes, though several that are present on the UK's Artificial Eye disc are MIA here, including a commentary. The longest of the extra bits is a ten minute "making of", which essentially consists of von Trier, Dunst, and Gainsbourg explaining the film and its symbolism, which seems a bit silly. There are also a couple of technical featurettes showcasing some of the digital compositing required to make the film work as well as the visual style of the film. I do wish that all of the UK extras made it over, but for those of you out there who are locked to Region A, this is a very competent release and one I highly recommend.