Every good movie tells two stories: The one you are watching onscreen; and another more universal story for which the onscreen events are a metaphor. I think what makes a movie great is when the onscreen story is so believable in its own right and so authentically personal to the characters within it that the hand of the author in crafting the metaphor is invisible. In the same way that any experience I have in my life might be a metaphor for some larger aspect of life experienced by everyone. It’s that beautiful symmetry of microcosm and macrocosm. Or as my yoga teacher likes to say, the deeply personal is also universal.
Melancholia succeeds in this way.
The movie begins with some super slow motion shots that at first seem almost static, all set to classical music. I was worried I’d stumbled into a self-important and pretentious art film, but the first scene with newlyweds Justine and Michael stuck in their stretch limo as the driver tries unsuccessfully to navigate a tight turn on a winding gravel drive established a very down-to-earth (no pun intended—if you know the plot) feel to the movie.
From the onset, these characters seem like real people, as if they actually exist outside of the brief encounters we have with them. Credit the director and the actors for bringing such nuance to the performances that we can know so much about them without being told very much at all. It was nice to see Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland deliver subtle performances for a change. I liked Charlotte Gainsbourg here just as much as I did in The Science of Sleep. And I always enjoy watching John Hurt.
Besides the opening, the only other false note the movie hits is with Melancholia, the titular planet that’s feared to be rushing towards earth on a collision course. I think “Melancholia” works as the name of the movie, but as the name of the planet, it’s too contrived. It calls too much attention to the metaphor that we all have a planet-sized elephant in the room that we ignore most of our lives until it one day suddenly slams into us: the fact of our mortality. And depression (melancholia) can almost be viewed as logical response to that fact. The same self-awareness that allows us to relish in the beauty and wonder of life also teases us with the knowledge that one day we will die. Who wouldn’t get depressed by such a cruel cosmic joke?
If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise…
Not that death is the source of Justine’s depression (we’re never told the cause explicitly, although she mentions being very afraid of something several times), but she does tell us that she “knows things.” She’s like Adam and Eve after they ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, cast out of the garden of blissful ignorance. The other characters all seem to represent their own version of ignorance. Her sister, Claire, is told by her husband, John, to stay off of the Internet, and he even lies to her about just how dangerous the situation is because there’s “no sense in alarming everybody.” He ultimately chooses suicide to avoid facing the fate of his wife and son, Leo. None of Justine’s family or friends at her wedding seem to want to know about her depression: her parents are both too consumed by their own problems to hear her literal cries for help, her husband is so invested in his own need to save her that his clumsy efforts only aggravate her pain, and the wedding planner even goes so far as to exclaim that she’s ruined his wedding.
Justine tries so hard to be what these people want her to be, and I could relate to this desire to be strong for others at the price of your own authenticity and emotional health. It’s not a real strength, of course; it’s a put on motivated by fear. But for Justine it seems like it shifts at the end. It seems like it becomes a real strength as she realizes she’s the only one who can support Claire and Leo in their final moments.
We may not have a planet racing at us, but we must all eventually meet our own death. Do we fear it, do we ignore it, or maybe do we thank it for being the thing that ultimately gives the events of our life any meaning at all?