The other side of suicide
May 09, 2012
Another Earth (M). Director: Mike Cahill. Starring: Brit Marling, William Mapother. 92 minutes
Melancholia (M). Director: Lars von Trier. Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland. 136 minutes
When I was 14 I decided not to kill myself. It's a decision I've stayed true to for reasons that are both profound and mundane: my love for the beauty to be found in moments; my love for people gererally, and in particular for my family and friends. Yes, I am still sometimes prone to bottomless and baseless bouts of depression, but I've never let that ragged dark hole engulf me completely.
Two recent films, veteran auteur Lars von Trier's Melancholia (released this month on Blu-ray and DVD) and debutante director Mike Cahill's Another Earth (also available), tap into this hidden, unbidden part of me. Each film merges science fiction with elegant arthouse sensibilities and deeply humane themes. Each focuses on damaged human beings whose existence is magnified by the proximity to earth of new planetary bodies.
In Another Earth the planet in question is, as the title suggests, a replica of our own, as visible to the naked eye as a harvest moon. This is a most robust metaphor for self-examination: as scientists and sky-watchers gaze with wonder and awe at this eerily familiar entity, they are literally gazing upon themselves. That this other earth remains distant and mysterious merely suggests that human nature itself is inscrutable.
For much of the film, sci-fi remains in the background — its characters have other, more immediate concerns. On the night Earth 2 was discovered, ambitious student Rhoda (Marling) killed the wife and son of composer John (Mapother) in a car wreck. After her release from prison years later, she visits his house where he is living as a recluse, to apologise. At the last moment, she backs down and instead offers her services as a cleaner.
John has never seen her face, so has no cause to question her cover story. He has allowed the house to lapse into squalor; as Rhoda cleans, it becomes obvious that her service is an act of penance. As time passes though, friendship and even tenderness begin to bloom between these two lost souls. Surely it is doomed: John will inevitably learn the true identity and motivation behind this beautiful but enigmatic cleaning woman.
Sweetly portrayed (John and Rhoda playing Wii is adorable; John wooing her by playing a saw is unforgettable), their relationship alone would have made the basis for a powerful film. But science fiction returns to impinge upon ordinary humanity, with the revelation that at the moment the mirror earths found each other, their realities may have diverged. 'Another earth', then, is synonymous with 'another chance'. It is a profound symbol.
Melancholia shares Another Earth's sombre contemplativeness, but with an operatic flourish; it features music from the prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and is rich with artistic and literary allusions. It focuses on sisters Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg), who are confronting personal anxiety and anguish even as a mysterious new planet, 'Melancholia', is grinding along its orbit on a collision course with earth.
Justine suffers from a depression that, in the first half of the film, sees her sabotage both her career in advertising and the promise of marital happiness. She speaks of her life as of walking though a dark malaise that drags at her legs; later in the film, she opines that 'life on earth is evil'. Dunst won an award at Cannes last year for her performance; few have so viscerally portrayed the mortal heaviness of depression as she does here.
'Melancholia' may symbolise for her the sense of bearing the 'weight of (a) world'; in the second half of the film this idea finds a more direct expression, as Claire grapples with her anxiety that the planet will not pass earth, as scientists have predicted, but will collide with it. Her anxiety is fuelled by doomsday theories she reads online, but laughed off by her husband (Sutherland) who simply looks forward to the spectacle of the planetary fly-by.
Justine, by now ravished by depression, joins them at their country resort to await the fatal moment. But as Melancholia approaches, her own melancholia recedes, even as the ostensibly stronger Claire's terror swells. The intensity of the film's portrayal of depression, and of its deeply moving consideration of this sisterly relationship, is matched in the final moments of the film by a visually and metaphysically stunning climax.
Amid oppressive bleakness, Another Earth and Melancholia locate hope and warmth in the form of human relationships. Their characters are notable for deciding to live, rather than lie down and be overrun by dark emotions and events. These are heroic ideals that resonate even within the ragged pit of depression. I know.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.
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10 May 2012
This is a starkly honest and rewarding piece of writing. Thank you for sharing so openly, Tim. As well as the deep understandings you give concerning the films, your self-disclosure is brave and helpful for us all: individuals, parents, children; anyone and everyone struggling with what it means to be human. In mid-2011 the need to discuss depression, suicide ideation and mental health in general was mooted by guideline changes in how the national media includes accounts in reportage, and general inclusiveness of the topics in our discourse was encouraged.
Your article is a positive contribution in this field. In the constellations of your readers' lives, your light is burning brightly. God bless and keep ya.
10 May 2012
Yes, hope and warmth can be found in human relationships. And a belief in the unfailing love of God can sustain us in all the trials we face. I'm not sure though that I'd enjoy either of these movies - maybe too close for comfort!
11 May 2012
You should be commended for multiple reasons, Tim. Every time a young person in this country decides not to commit suicide represents a tremendous victory of light over darkness. I have seen many of the best and brightest I knew go that way. The fact that the subject is now something which can be discussed in the open these days, rather than swept under the carpet, is a tremendous improvement. Ditto mental illness and the resources now available to help everyone, including young people. Depression, besides contributing directly to suicide, can also lead to a sort of barren "death in life", which goes on and on for years and saps the sufferer's life of any real vitality. Too much of modern life is, I find, totally cerebral. This does not help depressives! Proper treatment is essential. But connection with the arts, religion in its deepest, truest sense and other loved human beings bring us more in contact with our deepest feelings which can help take us out of, not so much the Waste Land, but that Toxic Dump of our depression and help transform our lives. For many of us the battle with depression may last a lifetime, but, with help, we can be victorious and live deep, meaningful and ultimately fulfilled lives. God bless and keep you always.
12 May 2012
How rare and memorable to read a film that begins with a confession of thoughts of self-destruction and the resolution to live for all the good reasons. All the more remarkable that the themes of the films deal with depression and anxiety, powerfully, do that the reviewer recognizes the familiar shape of the black dog trotting across the screen narrative. For some of us watching these emotions is taboo, as if like a glass of water it might overflow and bring back the sense of helplessness of feelings of dread best kept in the glass. But this reviewer suggests that with art there is catharsis: that the vicarious experience can be felt and we can go on as before, stronger perhaps for knowing depression and guilt, like joy and the appreciation of beauty, are part of the human condition. I will look this films up, feeling I gave been forewarned by a friend.