Last night we watched the film Melancholia, directed by Lars von Triers. It has wonderful photography, beautiful effects, an intriguing plot, compelling characterisations and a star studded cast with Kirsten Dunst as Justine, Charlotte Gainsbourg as her sister Claire, Alexander Skarsgard as her husband Michael, Kiefer Sutherland as Claire's husband John, Stellan Skarsgard as Jack, Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt as Justine's dysfunctional parents. There is also Jack (Stellan Skarsgard), Justine's boss, and the wedding planner is played by Udo Kier,
The film deals with two interlocking themes, madness and the end of the world. At first sight it might seem rash to take on two such major themes in one film, but the cunning here is that fear of the end of the world is a kind of madness that we can all participate in.
The acting is superb and I found that I could readily identify with many of the charters, both supposedly sane and insane, though the insane ones are more sympathetic than the sane ones, which is a story in itself. Not only does the film give one sympathy for the insane, it is also sculpted in such a manner that one experiences some elements of insanity just by watching. The theme of the imminent end of the world is not apparent in the early part of the film, rather we are treated to the spectacle of a rich wedding in which, although everybody behaves in a completely believable manner, it all seems rather absurd. At the same time, the continual interweaving of love and hate, pretence and sincerity, embarrassment and duty is entirely credible and sometimes touching. The sense that we are all a bit mad is unavoidable.
The heroine bit by bit reveals her oddness, but is she really much odder than all the supposedly sane people around her? The doom of the world theme only starts to unfold little by little for us the audience, just as it might in the mind of a schizophrenic person, even though we have had a hint of it in the film's preamble which itself conveys a sense that "all the world is out of joint". The film is a work of art and as such it is what it is and different viewers will be affected in different ways. A variety of interpretations are possible. One can see it as an invitation to us, the audience, to experience madness or we can see it as a plot in which the insane members turn out to have a better grasp of the real situation than the sane ones do.
There are many wonderful details, subtle dynamics and symbolic twists. The attempt to get a luxury long limo up a winding country road reflects the absurdity that is to follow and the heroine's enjoyment of that absurdity is both her tragedy and her saving grace. The whole plot unfolds in a country house on the edge of the sea, symbol of the unconscious. The isolation is significant. Various attempts to "go to the village" and get a reality check fail. Neither the horses nor the vehicle will cross the bridge to do so. This adds to the sense of living in an encapsulated world that is characteristic of the experience of madness. We also see how when people are locked into a relationship with a mad person they become enmeshed in the dance. As one party becomes more mad the other has to play the part of the sane person and when they fail to do so the mad person may have to become more sane in order to help them so that the roles become reversed. There is a palpable sense here of "all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players", though here many of the players are alienated from or within their parts and to pull this off in a way that leaves the on-looker feeling "There but for the grace of God go I" or "I can be like that myself sometimes" or even "This is how it is," requires great skill on the part of the actors.
The images and themes from the film have been with me all day and I'm sure that they will go on reverberating for many days more. This is certainly a very fine film.