A deliberately paced study in sublime defeatism that shuttles easily between deadpan humor and witty pathos, Rodrigo Moreno’s A Mysterious World might be the most auteur-y object to emerge from the Toronto International Film Festival’s “City to City” Buenos Aires-themed program. Expanding on—and more expediently dramatizing—the philosophy of monotony that characterizes his earlier film El Custodio, Moreno wanders the streets, apartments, and rural suburban roads around the Argentine metropolis by way of a scrawny flaneur protagonist, Boris (Esteban Bigliardi), who’s ejected from his terminally bored girlfriend’s loft in the daintily circuitous dialogue of the opening sequence. Just barely responding to his newfound adrift-ness, Boris checks into a hotel, allows himself to be conned into buying a broken-down French car, interpolates cigarette drags into his daily abs work-out, feasts on white bread topped with ketchup and mustard, and follows women compulsively, for miles, without any recognizably lecherous intentions. The camera lopingly observes Boris through these exploits, frequently forcing us to identify with his stultifying nervousness by mimicking his immobility and aimless turns of the head via stable eye line shots and unhurried pans.
There’s a sense of volatile, cavalier openness to this milieu that can be as comforting as it is victimizing, sometimes within the same gesture: Guests at a party revel in the use of their host’s toothbrush, and when Boris ferries to Uruguay to meet some fairly new acquaintances for a holiday, he’s either callously or inadvertently left stranded at the docks and turns back home. But the protagonist’s passive, gangly masculinity occasionally takes advantage of people as well, despite its lack of explicitly parasitic intentions. When Boris’s car breaks down on the road, he dazedly follows the percussive clucking of a nearby bird while a helpful, passing motorist, frustrated with his lassitude, siphons gas for him. It’s remarkable that by the slightly forced symmetry of the film’s close we feel a touching equilibrium has been established between giving and taking, particularly by way of an extended sequence with a mechanic that lazily and warmly essays a depiction of genuine reciprocity. Buenos Aires is a city that pats you on the back while it’s picking your pocket.
I had a discussion with critic Adam Nayman mere hours after being emotionally disintegrated by Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and became enticed by a reservation he voiced. “I get that Kirsten Dunst is Melancholia is Lars von Trier,” he pointed out, collapsing the film’s plodding transition from human representation to symbolic and its progenitor’s presumed relationship to both. “But what’s the stake? I already know Lars is depressed. What else is there?” A deceptively pragmatic retort, Nayman is less critiquing the redundancy of von Trier’s auteurism here than he is attempting a monstrously tidy, if implicit, definition of the utility of art. It’s fitting that a critic would make sense of this perennial controversy in terms of illumination; what good is a film, what good is a film review, that can teach us nothing? (“About what?” one might immediately ask. Answering “cinema” seems ignorantly conservative, while “anything” seems exasperatedly glib.)
We recognize films as personal objects. We use the word “personal” to issue a specific kind of praise that denotes a vague resonance. Movies are endowed with personality—the good ones, anyway—and exist at least in part as artifacts of the experience of their conception and production, just as they become empathic filters to which our subconscious fodder—desires, fears, memories, and pathologies—clings when we watch them. They represent the ineffable and provoke the ineffable. And when the nature of that elusive, unmentionable dyad aligns meaningfully, we are moved. But the connection we feel, with either the content on the screen or the author allegorically behind it, is always in a sense illusory due to this ineffability. The art object is a medium. It creates a partition between us and the archetypal artist’s intentionality, the soupily primordial reality of which can never be fully gleaned. The only thing we’re really able to see in the inky, seductively onyx-like surface of the art object is our own reflection, or even more typically, a self-distortion thereof that is usefully mistaken for an artist’s statement.
Melancholia does constitute a revelation of sorts, albeit one that does not means to teach nor disseminate any pearls of practical information, even ones that might foster its own accessibility. Just as Antichrist before it was an attempt to render and flail against—not, in my view, understand—the state of anxiety, its foolhardiness, and the pitiful ineffectualness of its treatments, Melancholia is first a portrait, then an allegory, of the depressive experience. Neatly preparing us for this aesthetic progression, a dramatically kinetic slow-motion overture spoils the entire film’s trajectory with striking images. Splayed hawks plummet about Kirsten Dunst’s torpid smile; Dunst again, in a wedding gown, pumps her legs through a verdant wilderness where thick, grey webs tangle and threaten her; a Myst-like sundial sits in the center of an ominously vacant and well-gardened courtyard.
As the narrative begins, we learn that this courtyard, and its palatial estate, belong to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the sister of Justine (Dunst), and her self-satisfied and very wealthy husband John (Keifer Sutherland). In the bifurcated story’s first half, the estate hosts Justine’s wedding, a tan-hued, jump-cutty clashing of humor and snarling pathos. It becomes clear despite the function’s opulence, and moments of cute hilarity (Justine and her groom can’t get their stretch limo up the winding road that leads to the manor) that the bride is arbitrarily damaged and cannot be helped. Not by her drunk, cluelessly goofy father (John Hurt in a tragic smile of a cameo). Not by her average, lusty husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). Not by her obsessive, domineering boss (Stellan Skarsgård). Not by her icy, prune-y, attention-snatching mother (Charlotte Rampling). Not by the unspeakably dedicated wedding planner (Udo Kier) who averts his eyes from Justine after she wrecks with disappearances and arguments the masterpiece he’s curated. And not by her well-meaning sister Claire, whose intentions can only offer convalescence in the end.
I need not detail how my own abortive marriage, which similarly began with a ceremony of raw nerves at a wealthy relative’s home, seemed to signal the end of not just “my,” but “the” world. The destructive agent that continually threatened my well being, despite the clarity with which all could perceive its lumbering form, came inexplicably from within. The identical force that Justine more or less conjures, while deteriorating in the movie’s second half, is the planet Melancholia, the orbit of which is locked in a “dance of death” with Earth. Bookending the faux-academia of Antichrist’s “gynocide,” von Trier reveals this plot turn via entertainingly pseudo-astronomical data, some of which Claire locates via Google searches. Her husband John, a stargazing hobbyist, seems unworried. But the sterile, calmly blue orb floats closer and closer, robbing some of the earth’s atmosphere and causing meteorological disturbances. No one can alter its path. All they can do is observe, and hope.
Throughout, von Trier’s visual realization of the disorder is uncannily fluid—oscillating between hot, sickly yellows and saturnine blues, as well as handheld and steady camera angles, the film somehow simultaneously inhabits both the depressive’s perspective and that of the worried, shaking heads observing the depressive. And as with the more morbidly and raucously self-destructive Antichrist, the unassailability of these color schemes and movements—and of the final, astronomic peril—is likely to be taken by some as a resignation. But both films, particularly when taken as a diptych, are too convoluted to be boiled down to a single neurotic surrender. Full of distancing mechanisms and spookily cathartic dramaturgy, the movies read like the eloquent, fantasy-filled diary entries of a man determined to live despite relentless hounding by mental illness.
Psychotherapy discourages against conceptualizing anxiety and depression as sentient entities—and yet to conceive of them as immutably external and in control is as honest as it is terrifying. With Melancholia, von Trier argues just how swiftly and unchallenged utter fictions can move along a path of seemingly self-sufficient obliteration, and the universality of the annihilation is key: The Armageddon annuls the need to ponder suicide, even as it paradoxically represents that escape mechanism. In von Trier’s fantasy, Melancholia is destroyed too, and—also as in the denouement of Antichrist—the collision leaves nothing behind but stillness. Blissful, otherwise unattainable stillness that doesn’t wash over us but is drawn from us after we’re showered with planetary debris. Drawn from a strange, quiet place within that usually, cruelly, refuses to yield.
The Toronto International Film Festival ran from September 8—18.