|Andreas Gursky's Rhein II
Doom and gloom are high on the agenda nowadays. Lars van Trier’s poetic Melancholia is one of the more beautiful jigsaw pieces that deal with the sombre mood in an arresting way, creatively speaking. A big blue planet named Melancholia approaches earth on a trajectory, which will eventually lead to a fatal crash, terminally extinguishing humanity. Given that background, we follow the wedding party of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) at a remote, neo Gothic estate, owned by the rich husband (Kiefer Sutherland) of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The newly wed couple (with Alexander Skarsgård as Michael) arrives in a pristine mood, trying to wiggle their oversized limousine up a narrow mountain road, delaying their arrival, but keeping their state of general excitement and mutual enjoyment. Only when faced with the party guests, her parents (a confused John Hurt and a cold Charlotte Rampling), and her unscrupulous boss (Stellan Skarsgård), Justine’s fragile emotional composure comes to light and we witness the mental pains of a pretty girl, which seems to have, by all conventional standards, a pretty good life.
If we remember the Justine of de Sade’s eponymous novel as a victim of society in pre-revolutionary France, whose virtuous intentions get callously exploited by powerful figures (representations of church/law/aristocracy), Lars van Trier’s character is a bit more subtle, her suffering largely self-inflicted, or so it seems. There is no apparent traumatizing event that links to her mental condition. The Melancholia from which she suffers comes out of the blue, like the menacing planet that is spiralling towards earth on its fatal course. On a superficial level it could be afflicted by it, but speaking in more symbolic terms, the planetary crash could act as metaphor for the threat that Melancholia, the illness, is to contemporary society. In this context, Slavoj Zizek’s book ‘Living in the End Times’, which was originally published in 2010, gains new relevance. In a chapter on depression he asks the crucial question: ‘If the twentieth century was the Freudian century, so that even its worst nightmares were read as (sado-masochistic) vicissitudes of the libido, will the twenty-first be the century of the post-traumatic disengaged subject (…)?’ The libido recedes in that transformation, leaving Thanatos to overpower Eros.
Or the libido takes its funny turns, to say the least. Instead of procreating with her understanding husband, Justine opts for the quicky with the dumb office boy on the nightly golf course to momentarily please her wavering sexual desire. It has to be said that the men in this film don’t live up to their roles. The boss is an asshole, the father doesn’t listen, and the only thing the brother in law can think of is his money. The male characters are bystanders on the sideline, one-dimensional lightweights that merely accessorize the plot, which is driven by the emotionally complex interactions of the two sisters, Justine and Claire. As the end of the world approaches, they have to face the tragedy without any masculine comforting. Claire is ridden with terror, but Justine doesn’t fear the approaching apocalypse. Mankind is evil, she concludes, and the universe better off without it. She is longing to die, can’t wait to swap the bland reality she experienced for something that might turn out to be spiritually more fulfilling.
This abstract desire to annihilate the human race and trade it in for something more sublime, is equally apparent in Andreas Gursky’s photograph Rhine II, which just sold for $4,3m at Christies in New York and broke the prize record in a photography sale. The large print shows the grey Rhine River framed by its green bed under a foggy sky. Ultra-minimalist composure, strangely attractive, but with every human trace carefully removed in the retouching process of the digital file. Why are the aesthetes longing for a post-human equilibrium so much these days? Both Gursky and van Trier suggest a pretty radical solution to the struggles of society in the 21st century: Complete wipe out. Let’s hope that this message can be seen in a metaphorical way, too, and be understood as a mere hint that it is time to change, soon.
MELANCHOLIA played Cannes 2011 where Kirsten Dunst won Best Actress, and Toronto. It opened earlier this year in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Brazil, France, Estonia, the Netherlands, Greece, Ireland, Romania, the UK, Germany, Italy and Hungary. It opened earlier in November in Spain, Canada and the US. It goes on release in December in Portugal, Slovenia and Australia. It opens in January in Hong Kong and Turkey and in February in Japan.