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A little cheese and a little whine

Film Log – Melancholia

Details here.

I can’t decide if this is a terribly clever film or a clever, terrible film.

Let’s start by saying that this film simply doesn’t function as science fiction, and that probably, no-one involved in its production is bothered by that, and say nothing more about that aspect.

The film is divided into two parts. In the first, we see Justine, who suffers from depression, implode and generally have her world fall apart on her wedding day (a background of joy and life) while her sister Claire tries to hold things together. In the second half, Claire falls apart as planet earth is destroyed (a background of pain and death) and Justine tries to hold things together. So there is an overarching symmetry: two worlds are destroyed, one literally and one figuratively; the sisters exchange roles; and it is melancholia – in the first case the condition, and in the second, the planet of that name – which is to blame in both cases.

The film has many clever ideas like this, some of which quite frankly went over my head (the significance of the 19th hole on the golf course, for example,  is still lost to me). The acting is very sophisticated, with the naturalistic, understated feel of many recent “serious” US films, and the photography has that shakey, slightly unplanned documentary quality that makes us feel that the cameraman is responding to the action rather than anticipating it.

The problem is that none of this adds up to a film with any real passion or direction. The characters do what is necessary to make the symmetry work, and in the end lack credibility, let alone empathy; and while the film looks lovely, it never develops anything like a visual language or even a distinctive style. It takes itself so seriously that at times it edges into parody: at two points in the film we have the figure of the bride, in her wedding dress, driving into the distance in a golf cart to the sound of Tristan and Isolde, aparently without irony. Justine’s depression is rather poorly observed, and the relationships between the central characters are clearly stated but never explored or developed. Everything, in the end, is simply a vehicle for the intellectual exercise: an aesthetically pleasing, and well-executed vehicle, but one that is largely devoid of any real drama. Perhaps this is intended to be a reflection of the flatness of Justine’s emotional state, so we are immersed in her numbness for 135 minutes; or perhaps not.

A few years ago, I visited the Tate Modern and sat for twenty minutes in front of a Rothko mural. I had no great spiritual awakening, and experienced nothing profound or especially moving. Yet for those twenty minutes I had the sense of being in the presence of something beautiful, and that was a feeling worth having. For me, Melancholia felt too contrived to accomplish this, but the best I can say for it is that it might do it for you.

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Filed under: Film + TV

One Response

  1. Jim St Ruth says:

    Good review. I think you gave the film more credit that I am inclined to. For me, though beautiful and well acted, the metaphors and allusions seem too under-developed, and the film felt more than a little empty. It just didn’t seem to do any of its ideas justice.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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