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Melancholia, Lars von Trier’s least controversial film, has been rightfully praised for its powerful portrayal of how depression feels on the inside: a distorted sense of time that sometimes slows scenes down to infinity, and sometimes cuts them to confuse our sense of cause and effect. With an award-winning performance from Kirsten Dunst as Justine, the woman who sabotages her own wedding and spends most of the film in a near-catatonic state, the film is imbued with a Romantic expansiveness, and every aspect, from scenery to plot, becomes an illustration of the protagonist’s moods.
Now, director Matt Lutton and playwright Declan Greene have adapted the script for the stage. Making its world premiere at the Malthouse on Wednesday, Greene’s script closely follows the film’s two-part structure. The first is a largely realistic account of Justine’s disastrous wedding night. The protagonist gradually slides into depression during a relentlessly miserable, emotionally complicated and expensive wedding in her sister Claire’s castle-turned-hotel. The groom walks away, the party is ruined, Justine has been sacked from her job, and her family turns against one another.
The second half, however, takes a turn towards the fantastical. While a catatonic Justine has become an indefinite guest at Claire’s, a new planet has appeared and is heading for collision with Earth.
The shift from chamber family drama to sci-fi catastrophe belies von Trier’s inspiration in the Romantic tradition, but where the 19th century protagonists’ moods were reflected in thunderstorms, desolate landscapes and the occasional revolutionary war, Justine’s clinical depression becomes a crashing planet. Stylistically, too, von Trier drew on Romanticism, with visual references to Millais’ drowning Ophelia and frequent use of Wagner, and an operatic intensity of emotion. It is an incongruous combination of elements but, just like in the oeuvre of von Trier’s great role-model, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, it works.
So does Greene and Lutton’s adaptation. It reduces the number of characters and adds local colour to the upper-middle-class mannerisms, but otherwise largely leaves the mechanics of von Trier’s script untampered with. Stolid Scandinavian groom Alexander Skarsgård becomes stolid Asian-Australian groom Gareth Yuen; Steve Mouzakis replaces Kiefer Sutherland’s oppressive brother-in-law; and Maude Davey shines as the drunk mother of the bride, an expansion of an insignificant character in the movie.
Making detailed comparisons with von Trier’s star-studded cast would be unfair – Kirsten Dunst was awarded in Cannes for her portrayal of Justine, while Charlotte Gainsbourg’s psychologically nuanced performance as upper-class anxious Claire certainly benefited from von Trier’s camera close-ups, unavailable to Leeanna Walsman. Eryn Jean Norvill, however, makes for a particularly fine Justine, with an effective transformation from manic bride in part one to human shell in part two. Greene’s script, heavy on narrative monologue, brings to the fore both Norvill’s comic range and emotional precision.
Von Trier is a very theatrical film director (as is Tarkovsky), from the use of Brechtian alienation techniques (in Dancer in the Dark and Dogville), to his exploration of visual metaphor, to preference for set pieces. Much of Melancholia’s beauty relies on extremely decelerated tableaux teeming with detailed visual symbolism, as well as uncanny, otherworldly landscapes. The challenge for Greene and Lutton was to visually translate that theatricality for the stage in a way that would surprise again. I am not sure that they succeeded.
Lutton’s set is effective but sparse. Various kinds of confetti rain on the protagonists through a central round hole in the canopy, and a giant crystal chandelier is affixed to the ground. Paul Jackson’s lighting and J David Franzke’s sound design are excellent towards the end of the play, brutally conveying the horror of the end of the world, but the visual imagery is merely a faint echo of the film: a teepee, a huddled family.
Matching von Trier’s feverish imagery was always going to be a tall order, but here it appears that Lutton’s design team opted not to try at all, instead settling for a Chekhovian aesthetic of so many people wandering in and out of a country home. The second half of the film, in which two sisters and one child are left alone in an empty manor, waiting for a planet to crash into them, is simultaneously desolate and claustrophobic (and indebted to Tarkovsky). Lutton creates no stage equivalent to that experience: the set in the second half is just another garden party. Where the film creates an intense sense of confinement, frequent scene changes here create far too much breathing room. The result is neither here nor there: neither quite Chekhov, nor William Blake.
Overall, the translation from stage to screen is competent, but does not stand on its own the way Ivo van Hove’s film adaptations do – or, closer to home, Adena Jacobs’. I enjoyed revisiting Melancholia in a stage form, but this adaptation does not shine a new light on a familiar story.
Melancholia was inspired by von Trier’s therapist’s suggestion that depressed people often remain calm in highly stressful situations. As Claire and her husband descend into panic, it is Justine who takes charge. In his book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, psychotherapist Mark Epstein notes that one of his depressed patients became absolutely fearless in the aftermath of 9/11, feeling vindicated. “Now everyone’s feeling what I’ve been feeling,” he reportedly said.
A traumatic experience – the single biggest cause of depression – reveals life to be unpredictable, uncertain, and causes a chasm between the victim and their social world. When a parent tells their child, “See you in the morning,” or one friend to another, “See you later,” these are absolutisms that betray a naïve belief in the stability and predictability of the world. Trauma robs its victim of that illusion. Facing a catastrophe, on the other hand, makes apparent what a depressed person already knows: that the universe is harsh, that being alive is a lot of work, and that there is no point in pretending otherwise.
Theatre and film both struggle against constraints of time, space, and character in attempting to portray the lifelong processes that undercut a person’s emotional resilience and feed despair. I am not sure that Melancholia overcomes that challenge, either in its cinematic or theatrical form. But in facing up to existential despair, it asks us to consider how we would live if we were fully aware of how tenuous life was. And that is a good question.
Source: The Guardian
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