Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bob Reviews: Melancholia

Editor: So, Bob had a pleasant surprise last week...apparently

When Al gave me Melancholia, I knew--I knew I was screwed. He's been talking up the film he was going to give me--Inland Empire--for months. Up until last week he was still talking about it. Then, suddenly, he notifies me that he wants me to do Melancholia instead.

When a person who wants you to review a movie (and hopes beyond hope that it tortures you mentally) suddenly hands you a different movie than the one he's been planning to give you, it's time to worry.

But, well...
The film starts off terribly. Opening with almost a full minute of a woman’s expressionless face with falling dead birds behind it is not a good way to get your film off to a great start. Following that with nearly 8 additional minutes of equally “meaningful” imagery is even more unwise.

It is precisely 9 minutes and 22 seconds into the film before we get our first spoken word. Before that word, we see dead birds, a woman carrying a kid and running across a golf course while apparently sinking into the course with each step, a woman in a wedding dress running (but not sinking) while tree limbs and roots and vines drag at her, a painting of people with spears creeping up on a village in the snow (the painting is slowly burning), the earth and another planet drifting toward each other, three people in formal garb walking towards the camera, a boy standing and shaving a stick with a knife while a woman walks towards him from behind, a horse falling down, a woman standing surrounded by butterflies, a woman with strands of light coming off her hands, and finally the Earth colliding with a large planetoid and being annihilated (note that the order of all of that, save annihilation, is not necessarily the order in the film and I’m sure I missed a few, as I just wrote it from memory). Then we get the title card, followed immediately by that hallmark of pretentious filmmaking, the chapter card. In any case...it’s all actually extremely pretty and accompanied by a very nice orchestral piece, but it’s all displayed in slow motion and there’s no context to any of it.
Most people would quit watching before it's over. All signs pointed to this being a Southland Tales-style irritating piece of pretentious bullshit. I actually had to stop the film and leave it for another night, but this was for Al's birthday, dangit, so I was going to come back and press onward.

I'm glad I did (Editor: Seriously, he is!).

The first word of the film is “Sir.” It is spoken by a groom riding in a limo, to his limo driver, who is doing a catastrophically bad job of navigating a winding road and is repeatedly trying to get around a turn. The second word is an abbreviated “I,” spoken a couple seconds later but cut off in an expression of futility. We get our first line at 9 minutes and 28 seconds. It is the groom continuing to instruct the limo driver in getting around the corner. This futile situation lasts until 11 minutes and 40 seconds into the movie.

The thing is...that sounds bad (Editor: I've actually seen this part and it is), but in slightly over 2 minutes, that scene won me over and convinced me this film might be interesting after all. It's a charming, funny, cute moment. It pulled me back from the confusion and irritation of the opening--partway, anyway--and got me involved and wondering about things. And then, lo and behold, the movie started to actually reward my interest with actualevents. Things happened, and they happened in a way that was actually intelligible and entertaining.

The first half of the film is dedicated to a wedding party. Justine was just married to Michael. She seems like a nice girl, and he seems like a nice guy, but we quickly realize that something is off about the evening. Everyone seems kind of worried about Justine, checking on her too much, and her sister Clara (who organized everything) drags her off at one point to lecture her about not making a scene. We meet some interesting and odd characters, who alternately amuse us and complicate events, such as Justine's irresponsible and womanizing (but hilarious) father and her domineering mother, divorced, who nearly ruin the dinner by insulting each other publicly (and in the mother's case, degrading marriage in general). This section of the film is mostly dedicated to showing Justine's rapid descent into severe depression, and we see her emotionally withdraw from events as the evening goes on. It's a stellar performance by Kirsten Dunst...we get a strong sense that Justine is trying to fight, trying to stay interested and happy, but it just isn't working. She keeps pulling away, going to be alone, and then coming back (or being talked into coming back) and forcing herself to go through another part of the planned evening. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that it goes about as well as you'd think.
This also sets up the overall concept that will apply to the second half of the film: something is happening out in space (of course, if we assume the opening of the film wasn't an outright lie--and it isn't--we know what's happening out in space, and what will be coming). Justine pays attention to it as the night goes on, leading to her noticing that a star is missing.

The second half of the film skips forward in time an unspecified amount, and focuses primarily on Clara. The general concept here is that Clara, her husband, John, and their little son, Leo, are awaiting with varying amounts of excitement and terror for the drifting planet "Melancholia" (yes, that's the name, and I'll get to that below) to pass by the earth in what promises to be the astronomical event of a lifetime. Of course, Clara is more worried about the fact that several people predict that Melancholia isn't going to pass by so much as it is going to smash directly into the Earth and end the world. As I mentioned above, this really isn't a "will it or won't it" film. The film is about how the family deals with the progression of events...their hopes, fears, strengths, and failures. And the wrench in the works is Justine, who has slipped even further into depression and is now so withdrawn as to often be catatonic...when she isn't sniping cruelly at Clara and insulting her for, well, existing. We get an interesting set of emotions and opinions. John is the hopeful academic, scientifically interested in the passing of the world and secretly a bit scared but trying not to show it for his family's sake. Clara is the worried mother, scared of the possibilities and protective of her son. Leo is the excited innocent, trusting in the word of his father that nothing bad will happen and hyper-focused on getting to see a once-in-a-lifetime event. And Justine is the doomsayer, laughing at the hopes and dreams of the others and proclaiming that the end is near...and the end is proper.

This isn't about the end of the world...this is about how people deal with it. The film focuses on the varying relationship between Clara and Justine, which varies drastically as the film goes on. At times Clara is the caretaker, trying to pull Justine back into life. At times Justine is the adviser, giving Clara insight and guiding her in understanding. At times Clara is frustrated, and at times Justine is hateful. At times Clara is loving, and at times Justine is confused and lost. I don't want to discuss this part in too much detail as I'd hate to spoil the main drama of the film, but there are many changes that happen over the course of events, in all the relationships, and it all feels like a good, natural (if dramatic) progression for each character. The relationships are complex, deep, and ever-changing, and I found them extremely interesting. I have to give a major compliment to every single actor in the film, especially in this second half...they've managed to portray some extremely complicated sets of emotions.
As for the ending...I'm not going to discuss it in detail (though one part is pretty obvious), but I do have to say that I felt it was sad, but...it had a touch of something heartwarming in it. It's a good ending...the proper ending for a film like this.

Melancholia is a good film. It has the same "artsy" feel as films like Southland Tales, but there's an important difference: I really, truly wanted to keep watching. It is extremely well-acted, well-written, well-directed, and well-filmed (mostly). It was a very pleasant surprise, and I enjoyed it. That said...there are problems that I should note. 

The most notable is the opening, which is far too awkward of a beginning and quite boring to sit through. Yes, it does reference themes that will show up later...sometimes...and at times show events that will happen...if not in that exact way (Clara carries her kid on the golf course but they don't sink into the ground, so I'm guessing that was meant to show her sinking, fearful state at that point)...but it is just...too...long. The film would be much stronger if that were at the very least trimmed down to maybe, maybe a third the length. 3 minutes instead of 9. Tops. Or, alternately, keep it all but space it out along the wedding segment instead of sticking it all in the beginning (although there are some scenes which don't mean anything other than "Hey, guess what, Justine is depressed!" We can cut the sledgehammer of emotion, really). I normally have something of an issue with showing the end at the beginning of the film, but I do feel like this aids Melancholia...it shows quite clearly that what we’re to be interested in is not “Will they survive?” but “How do they live as the end approaches?” It sets an important thematic note...I just wish it didn't take so long to do it.

The film itself is also paced too slowly...not by much, but there’s this feeling of everything just taking too long. There’s meaning to the pacing, yes, and this isn’t the sort of story you rush through...but at the same time, this is just too much. There are lots and lots and lots of moments of people just kind of sitting there and staring, and it goes beyond building emotion and into excessive territory. Being slow doesn’t necessarily add impact or emotion to a film in and of itself, and as much as I was honestly interested to see where things went, this was still a chore to sit through at times. It was interesting enough to keep me watching, but long enough that I did frequently check to see how long I had left to go. (I would just like to remind everyone at this point that I adore the game series Xenosaga, so if I’m saying something takes too darn long to do things, that should really ring some alarm bells!) Artsy filmmakers seem to think that making things take a long time makes them "deep" or "moving." It doesn't. It makes them slow. Emotion and meaning come from something other than sheer length. So if you're making an artsy film, don't be afraid to pick up the pace a little! Move along! Chop chop!

I'm not sure if I can really term it a problem, as it's where the story naturally goes, but it does seem a little awkward that we meet somany characters in the introduction and then only a few feature in the latter half of the film. It's sad to not get any more from Justine's parents, or from Michael, or from most of the other either charming or slightly odd characters we meet during the first half of the film. It would have been nice to see a little more from them...but at the same time, I understand that working them in could have been troublesome and might have broken the flow of the story. It's an understandable decision, but a disappointing one.
Thinking of the first segment again...though it is mostly an excellent portrayal of a slide into depression and withdrawal from the world, there are some parts that feel "off." The one that really stands out is the bit where Justine walks out on the party, is pursued by a coworker, and ends up shoving him down and having sex with him. Look, I'm sure that people who are in the throes of extreme depression can act extremely irrationally, but you'd think the guy, even if he's a scumbucket, would have said something like, "Hey! Wait! Isn't it your wedding night?" or in any way reacted to the fact that this woman is doing something extremely strange. Instead he's kind of silent through the whole thing. The later moment where he comes up to her and proposes that they continue their working and loving relationship is also extremely awkward (moreso than I think was intended), a rare moment of poor writing in an otherwise good film. It just doesn't feel real the way it is written, while the rest of the film pretty much does, so it sticks out. I could really have done without the bit where Justine goes out and--I think, judging from position and noises--urinates on the lawn while wearing her wedding dress, too. Not particularly necessary.
A more minor problem is (as Al pointed out when I was astonishing him by telling him I enjoyed this) the planet's name, "Melancholia." That’s a little too obviously on the nose. At least look in some ancient language and find a god or goddess of death, or funerals, or just plain sadness or something. Choosing such an obvious “Depression” word is both too clear a reference and too unbelievable from an in-story perspective. I can’t think of any reason why scientists discovering a rogue planet would choose to call it Melancholia. It’s the same problem I had with the name of the drug in the movie Absalom--no one would name a drug after the traitorous son of King David! It certainly was a fitting reference to deception and lies and betrayal and such, but no one would actually use that name! The main point: If you’re going to make a cute reference with something’s name, that name needs to make sense in context too. That said, this is a very minor complaint in the grand scheme.

And then, there’s the minor but repeated problem of the music. The opening piece, while nice, is definitely overused throughout the film. I understand the wish to have musical callbacks, but hearing that same theme time after time after time gets very tiring. It’d be different, I think, if there were more songs on the soundtrack, but really the only time we hear music it’s the same song and that just gets rather boring. Honestly, it’s kind of lazy. It’s like in an action film where they overuse the hero’s theme, thinking that in order for anyone to feel energized by a scene they have to hear that cue. If the scene is good enough--and most of the scenes in this film are--you don’t need that same cue all the time. Music, yes, but not that same cue over and over and over...and especially not the same overall piece (thankfully we don’t continually get the 9 minute version). That same piece just comes up far too many times! If it’s my vote...use it at the beginning, once for a brief cue at the close of the Justine section, and finally at the very end of the film. Using it so often over the course of the film lessens its impact and makes us very, very tired of hearing it. (Although at least it wasn't as bad as Ninja's Creed and it's hilarious "5 times in 13 minutes and in some inappropriate moments" use of the heroic theme.) It’s a wonderful piece of music, but I’ve heard it so often while watching this that I could pretty well do without ever hearing it again! That’s not good!
Finally, there are some odd problems with the camerawork in the early going. The film makes frequent use of sudden cuts and "shaky cam" for the early parts of the wedding in what I suspect was a misguided attempt to portray the confusion and activity of a wedding party. It just ends up irritating and unnecessary. Fortunately, the film all but entirely drops those techniques before the wedding section is even over.

I swear I thought I was screwed when Al gave me this, not least because he’d been talking up Inland Empire as his choice for months and then suddenly switched on me last week. But...I got lucky. This was not a bad film at all. It is lengthy, difficult, and too slow, and the opening is murder to get through, but once you’re past that awful beginning, the film works very well. It is extremely well-acted, well-directed, and aside from a few early camera problems and other very minor issues, I found it entertaining and interesting. Take note: This is a pretty nice way to make an art film. Have something that actually engages people and makes them want to watch, something that actually does have meaning, and you'll get some people to like it. Not everyone, I'm sure...this is the very definition of a film that isn't for everyone...but some. For my part...I have to call it a good film.
Sorry, Al! (Editor: Don't worry- he is now).


  1. Great, detailed review. I thought Melancholia was a beautiful film. Yes, however, this is a film that's not for everyone.

  2. I would like to add a warning, if I may. If you have any kind of problem with depression of any, ANY, sort, you probably do NOT want to watch this movie.

    This movie messed me up pretty badly, and is still continuing to do so. I saw it a week ago, and I keep going back to rewatch the beginning and the end... sometimes the whole thing. It's addictive, and it's emotionally enthralling even as it pushes it's own title onto your soul.

    Oh, and the music you are talking about is by Wagner, a piece called "Tristan und Isolde" or something like that. And it's become drilled into my brain. I am absolutely NOT going to purchase this movie. [And eventually I will hopefully be able to quit re-watching it via Netflix streaming video!!!] But I will probably give in and get the soundtrack / Wagner piece, lol. It has taken a hold of my soul.

    And now... to talk to my shrink about upping my anti-depressant, lol!