Melancholia, Women and The Light of the Stars.
As appeared on RADAR Productions blog.
This morning, I saw this article on the New York Times and instantly read it:
“Don’t get too close. Astronomers are reporting that they have taken the measure of the biggest, baddest black holes yet found in the universe, abyssal yawns 10 times the size of our solar system into which billions of Suns have vanished like a guilty thought. Such holes, they say, might be the gravitational cornerstones of galaxies and clues to the fates of violent quasars, the almost supernaturally powerful explosions in the hearts of young galaxies that dominated the early years of the universe. One of these newly surveyed monsters, which weighs as much as 21 billion Suns, is in an egg-shaped swirl of stars known as NGC 4889, the brightest galaxy in a sprawling cloud of thousands of galaxies about 336 million light-years away in the Coma constellation.”
Conceiving of such abstract and massive forces has always left me both confused and intrigued. With social media, with globalization, the world feels smaller and more incestuously connected than ever. Thoughts of quantum theory and black holes feel for me an odd but genuine mental relief–they’re free from the current woes of this planet anyway.
It was true–I could not do anything for the next day except think about it. Many of von Trier’s films have this effect; he lingers until you feel this massive heaviness, even in the simplest of scenes and moments. (Melancholia is also, like many of his other movies, visually stunning and beautifully shot).
But this movie was different: there is, especially in the first part, more action and movement, and the heaviness builds over the course of the film, rather than being located in any one specific scene. The story follows two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), opening with the evening of Justine’s wedding party, held at the expansive manor of Claire and her wealthy scientist husband. Justine is young and pretty in a very all-American way, her new husband the same. But it quickly becomes clear Justine is not so sure about her marriage, and finds it increasingly difficult to remain at the party, ducking out for longer and longer periods of time. Her ambivalence seems to strengthen after the sisters’ mother (played by a perfectly cold Charlotte Rampling) an evident person of challenge in the family, openly denounces marriage during her “toast.”
Claire, the older and more nervous of the two, pleads with Justine to get it together, begs of her to just be happy and to not embarrass the family. Justine is given constant reminders of how much money was spent on the wedding, of how so much is going into “making her” happy. Yet despite some effort on Justine’s part, the possibility of the marriage dissolves with the night. By dawn, Justine’s husband leaves with the rest of the wedding guests.
The film then transitions some time ahead, taking Claire’s perspective. Still located in the dark and unwelcoming manor in which the failed wedding was held, Claire, her husband John (Keifer Sutherland), and their son Leo, welcome an incredibly forlorn and depressed Justine to stay with them indefinitely. Sliding alongside the interpersonal plot of the two sisters, is the question of a planet, named Melancholia, which is to be imminently passing by the Earth.
Claire’s husband is deeply involved in its study, monitoring its movement, watching it from his high-powered telescope. Claire has been doing research of her own about the planet (much to her husband’s chagrin) and is petrified that it will not simply slide past, but rather make contact with the Earth, obliterating them. John eschews Claire’s fear, accuses of her being a very nervous and unreasonable person, begs her to “trust him” and science: they’ll be safe. Yet as the planet gets closer and more visible in the sky, Claire’s anxiety increasing to the point she purchases what seems to be cyanide or something of the like, Justine’s depression alleviates. In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Claire finds Justine lying alongside a riverbank bathing naked under its light.
To leave the synopsis there, yes, Melancholia is a very heavy film, although for reasons unexpected. There are many (and many excellent) films on the problem of depression, and Melancholia is certainly making a case for the fact that such depression is due to a kind of inherent faultiness in the world. But that’s what makes this movie different: the faultiness goes beyond structure or society–it’s embedded in our very galaxy. What the film proposes, the necessity of a new planet, new light, I thought stunning, à la my passive interest in quantum physics.
It reminded me very much of one of my favorite scenes in part 5 of Roberto Bolaño’s apocalyptic tome, 2666, when two of the characters reach the top of a hill:
“Look at the stars,” said Ingeborg.
He lifted his gaze: it was true, there were many stars, then he turned to look at Ingeborg and shrugged.
“All this light is dead,” said Ingeborg. “All this light was emitted thousands and millions of years ago. It’s the past, do you see? When these stars cast their light, we didn’t exist, life on Earth didn’t exist, even Earth didn’t exist. This light was cast a long time ago. It’s the past, we’re surrounded by the past, everything that no longer exists or exists only in memory or guesswork is there now, above us, shining on the mountains and the snow and we can’t do anything to stop it.”
Reading that passage in 2666 for the first time, I felt a similar message to the one I got from watching Melancholia: we are surrounded by, and locked into a past we are literally unable to see our way out of. Even the light of the stars project a history which dooms us.
Returning to Earth, the fact that women are the way in to this idea, more connected to a level of intensity, is undeniable (this is even true in the above scene from 2666). In every sense, Justine and Claire are completely ungrounded in comparison to their male counterparts: Claire’s husband John is focused entirely on science, Justine’s betrothed is unaware of her misery, easily loving her because it makes sense socially, the sisters’ father is portrayed as a sweet but immature skirt chaser.
This prompted me to open back up a book of essays by Slavoj Zizek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality, that I’ve been making my through on and off for the last few months. In it, Zizek writes a lot about female depression and the way it’s perceived socially, but I found some interesting connections to my thoughts on Melancholia in the essay titled “Otto Weninger or Woman Doesn’t Exist.” It takes from the philosopher, Weninger, who Sizek describes as the “author who brought anti-feminism to its unsurpassed acme.” Weninger’s one and only book, Sex and Character, posits that women are entirely sexual beings who exist only via their relation to men. In his essay, Sizek takes Weninger’s pithy thesis and Hegelian-izes it: a void is still a space, and so women exist precisely in that they are the void:
“Weninger fails to accomplish…recognizing in this ‘nothing’ the very negativity that defines the notion of the subject…He [also] fails to recognize the very striving of the subject for substantial support…Wenginger’s aversion to woman bears witness to the fear of the most radical dimension of subjectivity itself: of the Void which is the ‘subject.’..as Hegel puts it, this inwardness of the pure self must enter into existence itself, also become an object, oppose itself to this innerness to be external, return to being.”
Part of being woman is being part of a perpetual search, Sizek suggests, for a structure within which to adequately gain definition. The fact that men fall more easily into structure, are more defined, perhaps at times stifles them from seeing or noticing what is outside of it. This idea of seeking form connected to Melancholia: the planet being both more defined but also unknown, an encounter, for the women, with a total force so much like themselves. Perhaps this is why Claire’s scientist husband John has such difficulty with the planet once it escapes the bounds of his control and cannot bear to come in contact with it, outside of it being a distant orb he can gaze at from afar.
“Feminine is this structure of the limit as such, Sizek writes, a limit that precedes what may or may not lie in its Beyond: all that we perceive in this Beyond are our own fantasy projections.”
Ultimately, what I thought was so striking in Melancholia was the suggestion that perhaps the only “solution” to all of this is a new planet, a new star, new light that must come from a “galaxy” outside of ours. Something that might need to come from farther than we can even conceive. Whereas many movies that poke at depression and the inability (of specifically women) to be satisfied with what’s given provide few alternatives outside of falling directly back into the structure they’ve been struggling against (Lost in Translation, The Good Girl), or depict death as a direct result of a failure or difficulty to join the given structure (Varda‘s La Bonheur and Vagabond come to mind), there was something so big and beautiful about a movie that stretched itself quite far outside, that leaves given structure altogether.
In another strange, synchronistic turn, just the other evening I was with an older woman, a friend’s mother, and we were discussing fears. My friend shared that his greatest fear was a home invasion–specifically him coming home and finding someone already there, rifling through his things, ready to attack him when he opened the door. My friend’s mother interjected quickly–before he was done describing–and said that her greatest fear was a meteor, or a star, or some planet crashing into the Earth and obliterating us all (she had not seen or heard of Melancholia).
My friend scoffed a bit and remarked, “But that’s so unlikely! The chances of that happening are so small.”
But she shook her head: “I wake up at night sometimes and think about it. I can’t imagine anything scarier.”