• Mon, Nov 14 2011

Sad Women Are The Prettiest: On Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia

Inspired because Lars Von Trier was “tired of making comedies” Melancholia is a terribly good looking movie about the end of the world. And wow, Kirsten Dunst looks spectacular in it. She works that wedding dress like it was some sort of ethereal, poltergeist beauty meringue (it’s a little puffy, is what I’m saying, but that does not diminish her looking magnificent for even an instant). In between looking beautiful she finds time to utterly self destruct at her own wedding and then sit around tables murmuring things like “the Earth is evil; life on Earth is evil; no one will miss us because we are alone”. She also manages to cheat on her fiance on her wedding day, and ditch her seemingly very carefully planned reception to go have a bath.

Have I mentioned how poignant and lovely she looks doing it? She is absolutely spectacular to watch, like some sort of rapidly approaching death star.

Which is surprising, because Charlotte Gainsbourg‘s character is certainly the easier one to relate to. Which is to say, she has a child, and husband, and is not really keen on the impending apocalypse. You know, like most people. Most people would prefer the world not end today.[tagbox tag="Kirsten Dunst"]

And frankly, there is something fundamentally unlikable about Kirsten Dunst’s character, insofar as she seems to be miserable from a fairly privileged position. She’s getting married. In a castle. To Alexander Skarsgard. And being congratulated upon being very good at her job. There really appears to be very little in her life that should be causing her to flee to the bathtub because the world has become too difficult. I found myself, at various intervals, wanting to grip her by the shoulders and shake her and tell her to pull herself together.

But then, almost every scene Kirstin Dunst is in is remarkably memorable, and the ones Charlotte Gainsbourg are in, well, they aren’t. That’s not to say she isn’t good in them, it’s just that she will not, I don’t think, stick in most viewers minds in quite the same way Dunst does. I don’t think the reason for that is that Kirstin Dunst is fundamentally lovelier than Charlotte Gainsbourg, or a better actress, but her character does have the glamour that is imbued upon characters – particularly women – who are unhappy.

Culturally, we romanticize sad women in a way we don’t happy women. Zelda Fitzgerald. Eddie Sedgwick. Marilyn Monroe (especially Marilyn Monroe). There are probably other women just as pretty, but people are less inclined to think about the sublime beauty of Mary Tyler Moore or Doris Day or any of the other women who seem okay. Perhaps that goes along with the way men seem less invested in a woman’s sense of humor because when we see people with a positive outlook on the world, people who seem functional, we assume they need us less. And they probably legitimately do need us less, even if what we think they need us for is to shake them until they see that their life is fine. They certainly do not need anyone to give them a bath as Kirstin Dunst’s character does.

Now it’s possible to say that Kirsten Dunst is more memorable because in the context of the movie, Kirsten Dunst is right to be sad. The world is ending. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character doesn’t want to acknowledge that because she has things to lose. Since Kirsten Dunst’s character’s only emotion seems to be a sense of doom, she’s able to see actual doom clearly. And, I suppose at some point, the world is always ending, for all of us. In that way, perhaps Kirsten Dunst’s character stands out more because we like to think of ourselves as being savvy enough to understand such things.

Or maybe it’s just that Kirsten Dunst spends a good portion of the movie sunbathing naked against a painterly palatte. Either/Or!

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  • Lynna

    I think we got very different things out of Kirsten Dunst’s character. It’s not that she’s just sad and all doom and gloom despite her castle wedding to a beautiful man and a successful career. It’s that she has major chronic depression, and no amount of painting her up pretty or having all of the success and love in the world can really change that. The only thing that seems to help her is knowing that the world will end, and that her pain will end with it.

    As someone who is at constant odds with depression, it was tough to watch because those feelings really boiled up to the surface while watching her suffer.

    Perhaps we don’t pay as much attention to “happy” women, but perhaps it’s because we’re not trying to dress them up in an effort to make depression look as bad as it feels.

    • Lynna

      Self correction to the last line: we don’t dress up “happy” ladies in an effort to hide how bad it feels. Depression sucks, no matter how nicely you try to cover it up.

  • Lauren

    What Lynna said. Dunst is playing a girl who has serious chronic depression—-a mental illness, that can’t easily be fixed or cured. Depression can strike anyone-no matter how rich, beautiful, successful…it was a very realistic portrayl of what it is like to experience something like that. And, Von Trier said that he came up with a lot of the character by reflecting on his own episodes of depression.

  • Naomi

    I agree with Lynna’s sentiments and feelings. Also, I think that there’s a tendency in our culture to assign feelings of sadness a greater significance and depth of character, as if it’s more valid and “real” than feelings of happiness or gratitude. The sad girl is automatically beautiful because she must be “so deep” and “insightful”. It’s the same reason that the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” character in films usually has some sort of tragedy in her past, issues with depression, or some sort of sad health malady.

    • MM

      I always thought that the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” was a happy, bubbly type that brings joy to the life of a sad, brooding young man? The term is starting to confuse me, to be honest.

    • Naomi

      Some well-known examples of film “manic pixie dream girls” –

      Natalie Portman in “Garden State” – Had epilepsy, a lost childhood pasttime of figure skating, pathological liar, and had to wear thoroughly embarrassing angst-making safety helmet.

      Holly Golightly (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) – Call girl with abandonment issues and resistance to actual emotional intimacy

      Drew Barrymore in “Mad Love” (Whatever that character’s name was) – Bugf*ck crazy

      Penny Lane in “Almost Famous” – Insecure, lost, drug abuser, suicidal

      It’s not to say that the MPDG trope doesn’t include the happy, bubbly “savior” qualities that assist the male protagonist, but they seemingly can’t be considered “interesting” or “endearing” without that kind of damage.

  • Jamie Peck

    I have not seen this movie yet! However, it’s true that clinical depression isn’t something you can simply snap out of. It’s an actual, physical, medically respected illness. (To everyone but the Scientologists.) Not having yet seen the movie, though, I’m not sure if Dunst’s character has it.