In our new list series, ‘Gang of Five’, we make a list of five things related to … whatever we like. First up? KYD Online Editor Estelle Tang lists five songs she hasn’t stopped thinking about since she saw Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.
One sign that you’ve seen a great film is that you can’t stop thinking about it, even weeks later. As far as I know, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia isn’t even showing in cinemas anymore (except for the odd special screening now and then) – but I haven’t been so emotionally kidnapped by a film for a long time. Melancholia, inspired by von Trier’s experience of depression, is extremely beautiful (the Huffington Post‘s review carried the subtitle, ‘Depression has never looked so gorgeous’), in no small part due to its soundtrack, which heavily features the Prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. I’ll never be able to hear that music without thinking of Melancholia‘s crisp luxury and blue-green global destruction ever again; and it keeps revisiting me, unbidden, a reminder of the massive scale that personal misery can take on.
Here are five songs I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I saw Melancholia.
1. Tristan und Isolde: ‘Prelude’ – Richard Wagner
This is a no-brainer, but I can’t go past it because the soundtrack to Melancholia only contains music from the Prelude of Wagner’s retelling of Tristan and Isolde. In the second part of the film, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) finds herself catatonic with depression, unable to get out of bed. It’s only when she hears that the planet Melancholia may cross paths with Earth that her malaise approaches a kind of equanimity. ‘Earth is evil,’ she says, ‘we don’t need to grieve for it.’
Wagner commented in his notes about Tristan und Isolde that there was only one way to escape the torture of life and love: ‘death, surcease of being, the sleep that knows no waking!’ The famously dissonant, rising opening phrase of the Prelude recurs throughout Melancholia, an eternal question: Will Melancholia hit Earth? Won’t it? that can only be resolved by death on the largest scale known to mankind.
Weddings are a good time to start again – or so sings the sage Billy Idol in his eighties classic ‘White Wedding’. Melancholia opens with newlyweds Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) in their wedding car, a limo that gets stuck on the way to the luxurious mansion where their friends and family are waiting to celebrate with them. They’re gorgeous and smiling, sneaking kisses while the driver inexpertly manuoeuvres the car into a rut – a couple out of a Ralph Lauren catalogue. When they arrive at the house, which belongs to Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), everything is all clinking silver and happily chatting guests.
Perfection itself; that is, until the women’s mother (Charlotte Rampling) decides to publicly sound out her disdain for the institution of marriage. It all goes downhill from there, with Justine wandering off from her own wedding reception to take a bath, to rearrange the library and to have sex on the golf course with a co-worker. Slowly, it becomes clear that the wedding is an attempt to ‘start again’ that has failed miserably. All the while, Melancholia is approaching. A nice day for a white wedding, indeed.
Hatfield’s sugar-sweet voice is the perfect vehicle for this nineties paean to troublesome sisterhood. The song begins with complaints that most sisters can probably relate to: she’s a bitch, she doesn’t realise that I exist. But in the second verse, there’s been a huge about-face: my sister is the coolest, she’s the best.
Fussing around Justine’s wedding is Claire, who has quite a task in keeping the festivities running smoothly while the bride disappears and reappears like invisible ink. ‘I thought you really wanted this,’ Claire says to Justine, after finding her ensconced in an anteroom away from the wedding’s hubbub. After it becomes apparent that the dream wedding is just that – a dream – Claire irritably tidies up loose ends, dismissing the staff and putting things away. Yet when Justine, deep in the clutches of depression, comes to convalesce at Claire’s house, Claire bathes her sister and devises special meals for her, trying to wrest her from her illness.
With this emotional see-sawing being at the centre of the sisters’ relationship, it’s no surprise that not once, but twice in the film, Claire says to her sister, ‘Sometimes, I really hate you, Justine.’ But, at other times, Claire explains to her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), why she can’t help but look after Justine, even when she resists all loving overtures: ‘She’s my sister.’
In the second half of the film, it’s Claire’s turn to renege on life, completely overcome by an anxiety about Melancholia’s approach that nags and worries at her. Despite John’s amateur-astronomer reassurances that the planet will pass them by at a safe distance, Claire looks up disaster theories on the internet and looks for ways to ensure that she won’t have to endure whatever fear and horror a collision may bring. Most of all, she’s worried for her son, Leo, who won’t be able to grow up if the earth is shattered and destroyed.
But when it becomes clear that Melancholia’s passage won’t leave their planet unscathed, Claire dithers erratically, pale as fog, trying to suggest in what way the family might best see out their deaths. Something pleasant, like all of them sitting together on the terrace, she says. But Justine is withering about this plan: ‘You want me to have a glass of wine on your terrace? … How about a song? Beethoven’s Ninth, something like that?’ It’s clear from Justine’s sarky suggestion – Beethoven’s paradigmatically triumphal Ninth Symphony, also known as the ‘Ode to Joy’ – that in her jitters, Claire has hugely failed to comprehend the import of the impending annihilation.
It seems appropriate to end this list with a tune from the king of pretty melancholy himself, Nick Drake. It’s hard not to think about this song when contemplating the creeping planet Melancholia, which has been ‘hiding behind the sun’, only to emerge from its hidey-hole to destory our beloved home planet. But the bittersweet song, by an artist who himself struggled with depression and died from an overdose at age 26, contains some reminders that while life can be complicated by others and their expectations, acceptance and honesty are the best way forward.