Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Dance of Death: Art & Melancholia

There's something missing from Lars von Trier's drama  Melancholia: with the carefully chosen art and music, this should not be an incomplete film (and I'm not referring to the ending); the "still life" images of the beginning, prophesying for the viewer what is going to happen by the end, all reflect that wonderful theory known as chaos; the careful gestures of the actors deeply imbued with meaning and insight into their characters and their emotional states contributes to what should be a complete statement, and if we the viewer can't make it a complete statement, Trier seems happy to help us along with it with momentary breaks in the traditional narrative to offer beautiful and abstract sub-current commentary.
But the writer/director has opened a door, then failed to take his viewer through it. The question is, does Trier fail in the film or, like Justine and Michael having to walk to the  wedding reception, do we the viewers have to ditch the luxury of the stretch limo and walk the course to get to where we need to be with the film? Is Trier helping us to enter into the film, like Claire helping Justine into the bath she doesn't want to take, or feeding us our favorite meal that instead tastes like ashes to us? Trier's careful structuring and risk-taking in the film paid off for me, and I am quite impressed with it (although this is definitely not a film for everyone).
Ophelia by painter John Everett Millais, the inspiration for the film's poster art pictured above, from Shakespeare's play Hamlet. Not only did it inspire the poster art, but Justine, when she's in the study/library, and takes books and starts changing the showing pictures in the viewing shelves, specifically puts up this picture. Why does she do this? The paintings on the viewing shelves were abstracts previously (no, I apologize, I cannot identify them and there were no citations for them in the closing credits; my initial thoughts were that they were Wassily Kandinsky's later works [given his emphasis on the idea of an artist as a prophet, that theoretically fits the setting] but I am not fluent enough in abstract art to identify them [if I do, I will post it herein]) and Justine changes the abstract works to scenes that are pictorial, containing recognizable human elements in them, such as Ophelia herself (the other paintings are identified below). Why dos Trier do this? Like Justine changing the images, Trier is changing us from abstractions to a more concrete storyline, the irony is, it's still abstract to us, but if we know how to read the art Justine places up for our viewing, then it fills in the gaps. If Justine is meant to inhabit the sphere of Ophelia, over what lover has she committed suicide? Not Michael, her new husband, and she rejects Ben's offer of going into business together, it possible that there is a bridegroom in the film that doesn't make a showing (yes, I am being ambiguous). In Hamlet, Ophelia is said to have climbed out on a willow branch which broke and she drowned; we do see Justine, by the water, naked and sprawled out, but she didn't crawl upon a tree (the Cross of Christ) and that lacking in Justine of her love for Michael or for God (she took Michael as her husband but then didn't love him, but she also didn't "get herself to a nunnery" as Hamlet advised Ophelia to worship God as her Husband). There is an image opposite Ophelia in the book Justine opens, a man and woman in a forest sitting, one of them wearing red; I am confident that is another John Millais, however, I can't identify which one at this point.
Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) should be taken as to "clarify"; Justine (Kirsten Dunst) invokes "justice" but also the cruelty suffered by the girl in the Marquis de Sade's sadistic novel of the same name; between the two sisters and their strained relationship, that something missing from the film is also missing from their relationship: love. Melancholia presents us with a world wherein love is not an option, love doesn't exist.
On the left is Justine in her wedding gown, with Melancholia above her in the sky; the little boy in the middle is Leo, her nephew and his mother, Claire, stands in her wedding reception dress on the right with the moon above her. In this image, Justine is on one side of the balance and Claire on the other, with Leo in the middle as the standard of measurement. Leo is important in the film because he is the only one who receives anything like love throughout the story; his being a child makes it possible for the adults to go back and be children and (more) easily express love that adulthood seemingly has taught them to repress. Why can Leo (who invented the gauge to determine how far or close Melancholia is) not poetically save the family? Each is too far away from love, and as each of them get further away from each other and the requirements and sacrifices of love, the colliding planet gets closer.
There is the failed relationship of Justine's and Claire's parents; there is the failed relationship of Justine and Michael, the failure of Justine and her boss, Jack, then the brief encounter with Ben and the failure of the "tag line"; there is the failed relationship of John and Gaby (he's always throwing her out), of Justine and her father (John Hurt) and John's failure to provide the wedding for Justine out of love instead of a social blackmail to make her have a good time; John committing suicide instead of helping Claire, Leo and Justine is a failure of love and, of course, the failure in the relationship between Justine and Claire. These are all "worlds" colliding violently which should be dances of life instead of dances of death, like the two doomed worlds of Melancholia and earth, but each of these relationships could have been life-affirming instead of life-denying.
The Hunters In the Snow, or The Return of the Hunters (1568) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, one of the paintings Justine places upon the viewing shelf. The painting was done at a time of religious upheaval in the Netherlands; because the painting is obviously a winter scene but "contains no religious element," it is popular for holiday Christmas cards. The questions is, does it, or is the very lack of religious imagery the painting's condemnation? (Please click on the image to view an enlarged version for closer viewing). The hunters are returning, but where is the game from their successful hunt? The hunters are coming back empty handed. Although the people ice-skate below on the frozen lakes, the lakes are frozen (Grace is frozen and not flowing through to the people) the lakes are being used for recreation and celebration, not for sources of life; Bruegel depicts winter, not the spring time of new life, rather, the season when life has died. Above everything in the painting, literally, are the black birds, hanging about, symbols of death and Death, and so our understanding should be, above all else in the painting, an understanding of Death (not to mention what happens in the film). Given this, we could consider the furnace in the far-left center of the painting to possibly be a furnace for "making a false god," as Aaron did in the Wilderness with the golden calf; there are other Dutch paintings of hidden meaning like Paulus Potter's The Young Bull which can be taken as an indictment against religious reforms of the time (the bull in the painting is a composite of several bulls at different ages, so this bull could not exist, just as the golden calf was a composite image of different pieces of gold, so the painting symbolizes the taking of what you like in religion, putting it altogether, then having something that doesn't really exist).
Michael obviously loves Justine, why doesn't it work out between them? The "bean counting" at the reception entrance is far more important than we imagine, because Michael's answer, that there is over 2 million beans in the jar, is just like his outlook on Justine, that there is far more love within her than what there is. As Michael leaves her, Justine asks him, "What did you expect?" and Michael expected bliss and total happiness, 2 million beans worth. Conversely, Justine knowing exactly how many beans are in the jar doesn't mean she "knows things" because at the end, she doesn't get the prize either, the prize isn't important to her so it's even worse for Justine who claims to know but doesn't act on it.
David With the Head of Goliath, also a self-portrait of the artist, Caravaggio as Goliath. Why would this painting be attractive, or at least expressive, to Justine? Is someone battling her? We could clearly see this as expressive her of relationship with her terrible boss, Jack, who sends Ben to hunt down the tag line, and Justine's hard words to Jack "cutting him down to size" just as David did to Goliath (Simon Schama has a wonderful series called The Power Of Art available through Netflix which deals extensively with this image).
Justine and Michael trying to get to the reception in the stretch limo illustrates for us "the path of life" and the worldly riches which are keeping them from being able to make the hard turns in life. The same thing happens when Michael tries to carry Justine into the wedding chamber and they can't get through (the same can be said of Justine riding her horse, Abraham, the Father of Faith of millions of people throughout time, and not getting over the bridge is the bridge of faith). Justine's unconscious realization that her marriage to Michael isn't going to work after her mother's acidic speech to the wedding guests propels her to go "in search of something" that will work out, the way Ophelia might have done; her peeing on the lawn can be her ridding herself of inner waste and dirt; the bath she takes can symbolize the cleansing she needs, even a baptism; her desire to talk to her father can be her need to pray to the Father; but Justine bragging that she "knows things," only brings justice against her, because her unwillingness to act upon what she knows is the mud soiling her real wedding in her spiritual life.
What is the meaning of the "magic cave" Leo and Justine construct? They strip down branches, that isn't a necessary step for what they are going to do, but the stripped branches symbolizes "stripped down Christianity" and even refers to the branches Ophelia fell from and drowned in the water. The tepee is, of course, a Native American home/shelter, and is non-Christian in reference, suggesting that the religion of nature is all that's left to Justine since Love is nowhere present in the film; just as no one thinks of praying as the worlds collide into total destruction, so the tepee can't offer them any protection and they have nothing but the most elementary levels of love to try and wait until their deaths. THIS IS NOT AT ALL A CRITIQUE of Native American religion, rather, there are numerous Christian symbols in the film that are neglected by the characters intentionally, and the very last retreating into a tepee and a religion of "nature" instead of a religion of Love that would have saved everyone in the film, because the planets are, in the final analysis, symbolic of the destruction each one of us causes and brings to our relationships when we fail in love, just like the characters in the film.
In conclusion, as always, this is a rich film offering a variety of interpretations, but also a lesson, that I am willing to take: either I can love and make sacrifices I need to in order not to become like the characters in the film, or I can become like the characters in the film and bring my sadness to destroy everyone I encounter. Why do I need Christianity for survival? Because there are times, as the film shows us, that love means sacrifice, and not doing or doing something we don't want to will provide "shelter" for someone we love, and a wooden tepee makes a poor shelter. Christianity is the religion of love and teaches us how to avoid becoming like those who wreck the wedding, no matter the "arm and a leg" the wedding costs.