“I have too many fantasies to be a housewife.... I guess I am a fantasy.” --Marilyn Monroe
Lists. Numbers. Number ones. My number one movie this year was Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master and my number one woman was Marilyn Monroe, a woman who, no matter how much I research, how much I study in photographs and moving pictures, how much I think about as a living woman and as a departed icon, remains powerful and powerfully vulnerable, real and unreal, obvious and inscrutable and in the end, an artist. A master at her art. She's one of my number one women of all time.
And yet, she often felt unloved. And frequently disliked. "I'm the only one that likes you!" The Master's Philip Seymour Hoffman hollers and repeats to the broken, ugly/beautiful, self medicating Freddie Quell, a line that manages to be simultaneously manipulative and completely honest. I thought of how I have heard that in real life, and how much that schoolyard taunt works when you're feeling especially vulnerable. It resonated so much that I thought of Marilyn, who surely heard the same, and probably from a few attempted Masters (good, bad or likely a mixture of the two) who could never contain her (Hyde, Lytess, Miller, the Strasbergs, Dr. Greenson). But in front of the camera, she was her own master, even if she wasn't entirely sure of it, and even if she, like Quell, popped the pain away with booze and pills and feared genetic insanity (real life Marilyn and movie-made Freddie both had mothers stuck in loony bins.)
Which led me to last year's number one movie, Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, a movie that never left my thoughts in 2012 and reached out to Monroe in dreamy reveries. I felt many personal things as I was writing about Marilyn (and Bob Dylan played a vital role) but Von Trier and Melancholia were right there, holding her up, not down in its beguiling, joyous expression of depression. I thought, My God would Lars Von Trier have understood the artistry of Marilyn! And he would have worked with her beautifully.
As I wrote of Cherie, her Bus Stop "angel" to Don Murray in this December's Playboy, "she’s an earthly woman. A woman who sleeps in all day and a woman who probably bleeds on the sheets and spills liquor on her clothes and continually embarrasses herself, and a woman so lost or sacrificial that she just gives up her dreams and leaves with that insane Cowboy. But that makes her even more interesting, and almost guiltily desirable... I can imagine Marilyn, like Kirsten Dunst’s Justine, basking under that doomsday planet, naked and pale and accepting -- absorbing and eroticizing that pain -- and, as Marilyn did in film, giving us the pleasure of looking at her beautiful body."
When I absorb my thoughts about Melancholia, I feel I could be describing Marilyn. She got it. When calling up photographer André de Dienes late at night, Marilyn insisted he snap photos of her as she was: tired, sad and disheveled. She directed the powerfully poignant and darkly beautiful shoot and she even titled it: "The End of Everything."
So before I discuss my new lists and those damn numbers (one and two and three) I'm returning to Melancholia. And Marilyn and Von Trier who are universal and personal, blatant and mysterious, sorrowful and funny, nihilistic and yet, sublimely, romantically celebratory.
Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia takes the black bile of its namesake -- the depression of its heroine -- and transforms the “humor” into exaltation. A planet -- a terrifying, dazzling planet that, true to Dane Von Trier’s inspired swan dive (black swan dive) into German romanticism, is set to destroy life on earth: Götterdämmerung via "Tristan and Isolde" (which he uses in the picture’s rapturously beautiful overture), via Ophelia via Cassandra via Marilyn via Von Trier’s own personal mythology. Marilyn and Milton (Greene) and Von Trier's sexy, gorgeous enigmatic "Black Sessions."
Clinically depressed Justine (a stunningly raw Kirsten Dunst -- Von Trier’s surrogate) does what’s often expected of those afflicted -- wear a brave face and don that damn wedding dress (a creamy dream of a dress that Justine seems strangled by, until she lifts it up and fornicates with another man on a golf green…). Further, she must embrace love, work, family (no matter how dysfunctional) and rules.
Well, Von Trier cannot accept that fate, and in the picture’s first half, in which Justine destroys her nuptials, her actions serve as depressive, rebellious self awareness: “What did you expect?” She asks. Indeed (Marilyn may have asked the same). And then comes planet Melancholia, inching closer and closer, leaving stable sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) panic stricken while Justine, calmly, grimly and at times, cheekily, accepts annihilation, not as easy suicide but as a kind of cosmic extension of despair. Yes. Finally. Justine isn’t wallowing in depression, she’s embracing, seducing it, and in one of the picture’s most exquisite moments, lying beneath it naked -- luxuriating in the glow of doom.
Von Trier, a notorious and real sufferer himself, sincerely understands depression (just as he understood the horrors of anxiety in his brilliant and deeply misunderstood Antichrist), which may be why he maddens so many. How can he do this to these women? Well, because women do suffer, women get depressed, and not merely in simplistic, eye-rolling, I-cry-at-weddings ways (and Justine is not your usual runaway bride, god bless her), but in complicated, sometimes terrifying ways. And sometimes they die.
Von Trier gets women. I've been stating this for years and have fallen into heated arguments over my stance. But here's something else -- he’s also in awe, baffled and scared of them, which makes him one of the most honest male (and female) filmmakers working. I often don’t understand myself, frequently, and many women engage in curious, sometimes destructive acts that leave their lovers, family and themselves baffled. Not solely because they’re weak (which is actually a forgivable trait in a person) or simply irrational or evil, but because they’re multi-faceted human beings. He certainly understands much about human nature -- male and female -- but to me, he is the consummate woman's director. Like Dryer, Cukor, Sirk, and Fassbinder before him (but clearly, his own beast), the experimental, profound, bizarre, sickening, poignant and often genius Dane creates female characters of, sometimes, Joan of Arc proportions -- Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville are the most prominent examples -- and lets them both fight and fold under the weight of their existence.
His women, or martyrs, as many would, often rightfully assert, live in a hard, oppressive world, peopled with individuals who harbor little concern for their goodness or, at least attempt to understand their ugliness. They are human, and so, how they respond to such pressures or the conflicts within themselves often create knee-jerk reactions toward Von Trier. Chiefly, he must hate women. No. He does not. He appears to love women. And then, perhaps like most men, at times, he does not love them. They are maddening and victimized and glorious and, in the end, good (or not?). And master von Trier adds to it all a sardonic touch, spicing up his experimental melodrama with heavy doses of dark humor and personal reflection -- he surely both loves and hates himself as well.
Weaving himself into his characters, he’s sadistic, masochistic, empathetic, self-obsessed, morbid and morbidly funny and then honest and honestly confused. Which again, makes me think of Marilyn, on film and in photographs -- she weaves a similar spell. As I wrote in Playboy, "through it all, no matter what was happening in her life, Marilyn gave us that gift: pleasure. Pleasure in happiness and pleasure in pain and the pleasure of looking at her. And like the great artist she was, looking at her provoked whatever you desired to interpret from her."
Much like Melancholia, in which Von Trier grants depressives a gift. Taking Justine’s depleted darkness and imbuing her with celestial life through doomsday, he, to recall another German Romantic and again, Marilyn, creates an Ode to Joy through heartbreaking and gloriously inspirational…woe. "The End of Everything." Marilyn. Her beginning, middle and end is neverending.