This experimental film column began its life at The Rumpus, and we are very excited to see it continue here. The column freezes the frames of a film at the 10, 40, and 70 minute marks, using these points as the foundations for an essay.
The remarkable thing about Melancholia’s early, just married, journey-to-the-castle scenes featuring newlyweds Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) is that, in retrospect, you come to understand that Justine was just play acting. In probably the freshest use and subversion of the Dogme 95 style since The Celebration, these early scenes convey a spontaneity and naturalness (as opposed to the elaborately staged, slow motion prelude) that is highly expressionistic and self-consciously artful. Although the prelude has received the lion’s share of critical attention, it is the scene in and around the limousine, as it maneuvers a sharp turn in the dirt road that leads (presumably from “the Village,” which remains off screen and implied) to the place where Justine’s depression will first express itself. Manuel Alberto Claro, Melancholia’s cinematographer (the film was shot digitally on an Arri Alexa), has said that his “aim is to make images that are in love with the story and not with themselves.”
And so this moment, at the 10 minute mark, we have the tenderness of Justine’s hand on Michael’s cheek, a gesture which seems so genuine but which, in a fine example of delayed decoding, suggests a different meaning, one in which Justine (who will end up having sex, in just a few hours, not with her new husband, but with a young man she is introduced to by her boss at the wedding party). The great English literary historian Ian Watt,, in a study of the works of Joseph Conrad (whose romantic determinism has something in common with von Trier’s), defined delayed decoding as “the forward temporal progression of the mind, as it receives messages from the outside world, with the much slower reflexive process of making out their meaning.” It is, perhaps, only at the end of Melancholia that we remember the early lightness of spirit around the 10-minute mark and wonder: was this all a heroic feat of acting by Justine?
Having disappeared from her own wedding reception, Justine is tracked down by her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). At the 40-minute mark (which comes during his line “On whether or not we have a deal” from the exchange below), we see him in near silhouette profile, his face filling nearly half the screen:
JOHN: Do you have any idea how much this party cost me? A ballpark figure?
JUSTINE: No, I don’t. Should I?
JOHN: Yes, I think you should. A great deal of money. A huge amount of money. In fact, for most people, an arm and a leg.
JUSTINE: I hope you feel it’s well spent.
JOHN: Well that depends. On whether or not we have a deal.
JUSTINE: A deal?
JOHN: Yes, a deal. That you be happy.
JUSTINE: Yes, of course. Of course we have a deal.
John seems to be speaking not only to Justine here, but to us as well, as the film’s (or any film’s) audience, demanding that we acknowledge “the deal” (the relationship between the film and ourselves) and that we uphold our end of the deal by being “happy.” In other words, did we get a good “product” for our ticket? (John, as a totalitarian in the realm of feeling, does not instruct Justine merely to act happy, but to be happy.) On one level, John’s instruction is a weird reversal of Jonathan Franzen’s distinction between, in fiction, the Status model and the Contract model. In the Status model, Franzen’s argument goes, the feelings of the average reader simply don’t matter: if readers don’t “get” the book, they are philistines unable to appreciate the complex work of genius. The Contract model, on the other hand, presupposes that “every writer is first a member of a community of readers, and the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader's attention only as long as the author sustains the reader's trust. This is the Contract model. The discourse here is one of pleasure and connection.”
John, from this angle, is von Trier’s sly stand-in for a tyrannical director (“do you have any idea how much this [movie] cost me? A huge amount of money”) who orders his actress [audience?] to “be happy.” And Justine has pretended so well up until now. She flees the set in costume, the ridiculous costume that is her wedding dress, and is cornered in the dark by her dark director.
Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) near the beginning of Part 2, on the phone with Claire, who has re-entered the orbit of full-blown depression, a depression which brings her fatally close to Claire. “Hello, darling, how are you?” Claire asks Justine, John hovering and speaking in exasperated whispers (perhaps giving voice to our own “common sense” as viewers, the part of us that resists seeing Justine as the noble, tormented sister who dares to face the truth of extinction, unlike Claire), “Just do as I’ve told you. There’s a taxi down the street, waiting for you. Just open the door and get in. Just get in the cab, darling.” Claire is caught in motion. She passes through frames more swiftly than her sister, as if movement can help her elude the inevitability of the internal catastrophe that is her sister’s fate and her own.
The in-between moment of this frame is un-reckonable, the looming of a vast Disorder.
The Village cannot be reached.
The horses will not cross over.