Why two stand-out films will be snubbed at this year’s Oscar ceremony.
Photograph via Flickr by 55Laney69.
By **Katie Ryder**
No one expects the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to be brave in its award nominations. And it is unsurprising for the movie industry and the Oscars (both an arm and vein of the industry) to lean harder on injection-ready “movie magic”—nostalgia, schmaltz, pomp, and simplicity à la fin—four years into a recession. A lot of people are having an awful lot of days like bad dreams. Now is the time to invest in rose-colored, 3D glasses. But abandoning our awareness and anxious desires at the theater door is not the same thing as reaching into imagined worlds for relief and inspiration. At times, the two are opposites. Feeling better is not the equivalent of shutting down; sometimes it takes waking up. Here is a look at two movies released late last year that ask us at least to remain conscious. They deal in anxiety, destruction, and ambiguity, as well as beauty. In other words, they are not Oscars material.
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In the second half of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, the character Claire asks her sister Justine to join her on the patio to watch the world end. They could have some wine, perhaps listen to Beethoven’s Ninth. It could be nice.
“You want to know what I think of your plan?” asks Justine. “I think it’s a piece of shit.”
In Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Ted, the husband of Martha’s sister, explains at the dinner table that it’s time for Martha to begin thinking about a proper career. It’s what people do.
Martha responds: “It’s a way to live. But it isn’t the right way to live.”
“Tell me, Martha, what is the right way to live?”
She has an answer: something about not needing material things, living off the land.
These two moments are quite different, but both movies hinge here. Melancholia and Martha Marcy May Marlene ask us to define an honest life. The question is approached in each film through the character of an exceptional woman; Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) are beautiful, piercingly intelligent, and perceptive to the point of burden. They are brutally aware of the world’s failings and hypocrisies. Knowing so much, they reach for honesty in others and bluntly grab at simple, direct experiences of what beauty they think remains. Their eyes—precise and cutting as scalpels—and their seeking impulses—alternatively flailing and steady—create enormous difficulties for both women in the world of day-to-day practicalities, the accepted world of people who know less than they do. Yet these traits bring strength in extraordinary circumstances. Martha and Justine trace cracks in the fortresses built by others, and, in doing so, briefly take in the light that shines through. They find moments of beauty other people can’t reach, though it means they spend their lives scratching at walls, and though it all changes when the walls give way.
In Melancholia, Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her “filthy rich” husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), stand for the accepted, successful life. They reside in an enormous stone mansion in the Swedish countryside with their adorable young son, and meet on the patio every morning for a prepared breakfast. Claire and John’s love is calm, non-sexual and comforting. Daily life is Claire’s sustenance, while Justine is driven by something below the surface.
We know from her nephew’s nickname—“Aunt Steelbreaker”—that Justine lives outside the bounds. As her boss observes at her wedding, she has a gift for advertising—the art of knowing and playing upon people’s desires—and she has an electric, fluent connection with the natural world. Arriving at the wedding, she sees a tiny bright spot among the stars—the planet Melancholia. She pauses and looks on, reading the sky as if it were a hand-written note.
During her long and dream-like wedding celebration, Justine is unable to ignore the feeling that something is pulling at her, like “heavy yarn” about her legs. The feeling is like gravity: it represents the physical reality of the newly seen planet and the force of her connection to all that is below the surface—truth that resides in more figurative cores. As the movie goes on, she becomes unbearably affected by this strain. Life on earth is doomed. The square life of her sister—based on propriety, money, marriage—always a joke in the past, is now an absurd denial of reality. Claire tells Justine twice that sometimes she hates her. Each time, Justine has shattered the appearance of order Claire tries so hard to create. Justine will not allow her sister the comfort of blindness.
Both films show attempts to face the world in its inelastic form and, somehow, still pass through it unbending.
The planet Melancholia is said to have been “hiding behind the sun”—it has always been present, but never seen. And as the massive rock flies toward earth, Claire is forced to face the terror of reality as Justine has always done. John and Claire’s sheltered, structured dealings with the world—underlined by the rigidly sculpted landscaping of their estate—utterly disintegrate as the deniability of their fate becomes impossible. Earlier in the film, it is as if Justine herself is on the edge of such disintegration: she is unable to carry herself from room to room, to sit up, to eat, to fully open her eyes. As she lies in bed silently, Claire asks her son not to speak of Melancholia to his fragile aunt. Justine responds, “If you think I’m scared of a planet, you’re even more stupid.” Death is nothing compared to a life of pretending.
In Martha Marcy May Marlene, the standard, straight life is also shown through that of the sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Both Lucy and Ted work in Manhattan in vaguely discussed “busy” jobs, they rent an enormous vacation home on a lake in Connecticut, and, of course, they are planning to have a baby. Martha has just come to them after two years of living with a cult in upstate New York, and like Justine’s in Melancholia, Martha’s time with her sister is intended as a recovery from a self-destructive way of life. At the same time, her presence, like Justine’s, resembles an unexpected floodlight: what is flimsy and false in Lucy’s life is exposed. Martha skewers the couple’s excess with straightforward, only partially self-aware questions—asking twice if there isn’t anyone else who shares their huge rental. Out in the motorboat, Ted says that he’s happy when Lucy is happy. Martha cracks a beer, bemused and half-listening. “So you’re unhappy then,” she says. As for the idea of Lucy as a mother, she finds this most absurd of all. Her blunt, disinterested rebuttals knock Ted’s confidence in his own words. At the same time her physical presence—her strong, curving body, striking eyes and round face—present a challenge to Lucy’s feminine identity, and, as the movie goes on, an increasing challenge to her marriage.
Where Martha is calm and observant, Lucy is twitchy and demanding. The straighter sister is quietly disturbed by the ways in which Martha tests their life, and more openly aggravated by strange behaviors her sister has picked up in the cult. When Martha goes swimming naked, Lucy is horrified. Again, Martha’s body, her inherently sexual presence, and her comfort with both, are great threats, and yet, Lucy is distressed that Martha dresses so plainly. There is a right and a wrong way to be beautiful.
Later in the film a scared and lonely Martha enters Ted and Lucy’s room knowingly while they’re having sex, and the words “normal”, “private” and “okay” ricochet off the bedroom walls, while the audience recalls a communal sex scene at the cult—a depiction of the limited freedoms and particular innocence of the cult’s young members. Martha’s entrance into the bedroom is in some ways a microcosm of the film: opposing outlooks collide without solution. In the end, for Lucy, Martha is too much a reminder that the world outside is untidy—that the bounds she lives by are fictions. This isn’t a challenge Lucy cares to meet.
When Martha says to Ted at the dinner table that his way “is not the right way”, she is in part parroting what the cult has taught her. But in her most self-possessed moments—as in the first scenes observing life on the farm—we can see that she isn’t merely a cipher taking on the cult’s delusions. While she may or may not be a “teacher and leader” as Patrick (the cult’s leader, played by John Hawkes) calls her, she is certainly a seer and seeker. What she may seek for most, and what Justine also seeks, is someone above her—someone that knows more. In Patrick’s dark-eyed charisma and the purposeful life he has built, Martha believes he may have the answers. He fails in his hold on her, finally, not by condoning terrible crimes, but by failing to be able to explain them. Martha sees more clearly, and thus her allegiance to the cult breaks.
Neither Martha nor Justine need what their sisters need—material things, romantic love, or social acceptance. But Justine reaches for her father (John Hurt), as Martha reaches for Patrick. Though he drinks and cavorts with marked determination, Justine’s father is not frivolous or foolish—his eyes are far too sad. It’s as if he’s found an approach to a meaningless life on a doomed planet: he’ll party until the clock runs out. When Justine begs to meet with him, he disappears, leaving a note in which he calls his daughter “Betty”—a named he used for three other women at her wedding. He renames Justine for the opposite reason that Patrick renames Martha. Patrick dissembles to know the heroine and the truth; the father refuses to let on that he does.
Both films show attempts to face the world in its inelastic form and, somehow, still pass through it unbending. It’s an impossible task. The “right way to live” and the best “plan” are the implied questions, but there are no real answers. Lucy and Ted’s life is false, while the cult is sinister. The Earth of Melancholia is “evil” and Claire’s life is cowardly, but the impending destruction will lead only to nothingness. There is no victory in the violent life of the cult, or the cruel words Justine pours upon her sister. But through their inborn willingness (or compulsion) to stand apart, Martha and Justine may, in two movies about collision and dissolution, offer a type of centripetal force—a binding gravity. As Melancholia plummets toward Earth, Justine creates a narrative of protection and transformation for her young nephew, and acts as a guide to her sister. And Martha Marcy May Marlene’s most beautiful moments—young legs dancing underwater in a swimming hole, sunlight through dappled green leaves—show us a life based in nature and community often pined for and rarely truly sought. Such moments are fleeting, but mighty. In these films, awareness and bravery are moral, rather than merely descriptive traits. There are external forces and there are internal. There is collision and destruction, and still there is choice. Regardless, there will be no Academy Award.
Katie Ryder is a graduate student at NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.