Friday, January 06, 2012

The Opening Sequence of "Melancholia"

by Salman Hameed

The opening sequence of Lars von Trier's Melancholia is spectacularly beautiful and it lays the foundations for the whole film, including the apocalyptic ending (see an earlier post here). The opening shots are like paintings - and have references to other works of art, including earlier films. It is this layering in von Trier's work that makes his movies so enjoyable despite the often depressing stories. So first, here is the opening sequence:

Manhola Dargis in the NYT has done a fantastic job of dissecting the opening shots to reveal some of these layers (though some of Manhola's later points are a bit of a stretch). Here are some snippets of his analysis:
There are 16 shots in Lars von Trier’s hauntingly beautiful overture to “Melancholia,” a movie about love, family and the apocalypse. The movie, among Mr. von Trier’s greatest, stars Kirsten Dunst as Justine, a young advertising copywriter who, shortly after she gets married endures two separate yet related catastrophes: A wedding party at an oceanside golf resort owned by her brother-in-law ends with her new husband leaving. This in turn brings on the depression that overtakes her and seems to inaugurate the end of the world or her dream of the same. Many of the movie’s themes are introduced in the first eight minutes, a masterpiece in miniature that is a palimpsest of literary, artistic and cinematic allusions. 
1A. The movie opens with a fade from black to a close-up of Justine’s head, with a bit of her neck. Her eyes are closed, and her head is slightly to the left of the center of the frame, with the rest of the image taken up by a gray-white sky streaked with pink. She slowly opens her eyes, her gaze directed at the camera (and us), her face impassive. As soon as her eyes are opened, dead birds begin falling from the sky like stones, an intimation of the disaster(s) to come. 
1B. On the soundtrack the exquisite prelude to Wagner’s opera, “Tristan and Isolde” (completed 1859), begins to play. Wagner described the opera as “one of endless yearning, longing, the bliss and wretchedness of love; world, power, fame, honor, chivalry, loyalty and friendship all blown away like an insubstantial dream,” for which there is “one sole redemption — death, finality, a sleep without awakening.” 
1C. Ms. Dunst’s character shares her name with the title figure in the Marquis de Sade’s 1787 novel “Justine,” about a virtuous woman who endures a crucible of suffering and, after being reunited with her sister, Juliette, is fatally struck by lightning. Mr. von Trier has expressed interest in adapting the novel, and it was one of the inspirations for his 1996 feature, “Breaking the Waves,” in which Emily Watson plays a doomed, sexually exploited, saintlike figure. “In the end,” Mr. von Trier said in a 1996 interview, “Justine thanks God for his goodness in letting her survive all the calamities — after which she is struck by lightning and burns to death.” 
2. A long, overhead shot of a green lawn flanked by two parallel rows of teardrop-shaped bushes, a stretch of water at the top of the shot and a large sundial centered at the bottom. The shot evokes the famous garden in Alain Resnais’s “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961) with its topiary, statues and human figures, which alone cast shadows. Of Mr. Resnais’s work the novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote “Marienbad,” said: “In it I recognized my own efforts toward a somewhat ritual deliberation, a certain slowness, a sense of the theatrical, even that occasional rigidity of attitude,” which, he added, “suggests both a statue and an opera.” This fits “Melancholia” too. 
3. A shot of the painting “Hunters in the Snow” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which here burns and shows up again when Justine replaces a book of modern paintings on a shelf with a book that has a reproduction of the Bruegel. The painting also appears in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film “Solaris,” including in a scene in which the dead wife of the lead character — or rather his hallucination of her — looks at the painting before the two of them levitate in each other’s arms, as a Bach choral prelude plays. Later the husband will walk through a wintery landscape that resembles that in the painting. “There’s no doubt that Tarkovsky,” Mr. von Trier has said, “is the master of them all.” 
4. This shot shows a blue planet, perhaps Earth, seen from outer space, with a red pinprick to its right. This red point turns out to be planet Melancholia, which gives the movie its title and is hurtling toward Earth on an apparent collision course. Within the frame the blue planet is situated in the same location as Justine’s head is in the first shot and both her head and the planet are roughly the same size, which suggests an affinity between the two. One possibility: the world of the movie is nothing other than a manifestation of Justine’s imagination (head). This planetary vision — along with three others in the prelude — encapsulates the movie’s in broad outline. 
5. A woman we later learn is Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg ), holds her son, Leo, in her arms. She’s walking or perhaps trying to run on a hilly golf course, a line of deep, black footsteps trailing behind her. The artificial quality of the light illuminating this night scene along with the enveloping sense of threat recalls the elaborately staged and spectral landscapes in the work of the contemporary photographer Gregory Crewdson, whose influences include the filmmakers David Lynch and Steven Spielberg. Mr. Crewdson has described his photographs as “about the moment of transition between before and after.” The images in Mr. von Trier’s prelude have a similar liminal quality in that each refers to an extracted narrative moment, and in-between feelings, sensations, gestures.
By the way, Gregory Crewdson's work is breathtaking and surreal. I had a chance to see some of his photographs at Mass-Moca and was blown away by them. Here is an example of his work from that exhibition (tip from Kevin Anderson):

Read the full article about the opening sequence of Melancholia here.

And of course, see our Film Autopsy of Melancholia below:


Saif said...

It's not my type of movie. 2 hours long and too depressing, I think I'll get melancholia just watching it.

Salman Hameed said...

Sorry Saif. Yes, his movies are usually quite depressing, and plays with the audience in making them a bit uncomofrtable. But we did warn about that in the autopsy :)

At the same time, I think it is the layerings that make it fascinating. I had given up on von Trier after watching the uber depressing/sad Dancer in the Dark. But his "Antichrist" got me back - even though it is also a tough film to watch.

Okay - so to make up for it, check out Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" (if you haven't seen it already). It is good fun. And also the fantastic silent film, The Artist. Our autopsy is coming up in the next couple of days.

Saif said...

There's no need to apologize Salman. :)

Never heard of Lars von Trier before but then again I'm not a movie buff and I haven't even watched most of the poplar movies LOL.

I just checked Midnight in Paris and it sounds interesting. I'll definitely be watching it once I get the chance. Thanks for the film autopsies!

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