Melancholia (von Trier)

Previously:  The novel Solaris by Lem and the film adaptations by Tarkovsky and Soderbergh

The only gloss I can put on Netflix's association of Lars von Trier's Melancholia with Soderbegh's Solaris is that they are both interior dramas tangentially provoked by otherwise indifferent astrophysical phenomena.

Once again, von Trier makes a woman (Justine) suffer while he condemns us for our petty, blind selfishness.  Once again, mental illness in a dysfunctional society becomes a beatifying double-negative, but no one is redeemed.  For me, von Trier's films succeed or fail depending on whether he can pull off the catharsis.  I was cheering at the end of Europa (Zentropa) and Dogville, but I walked out of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark wanting to punch someone.

Melancholia succeeds primarily on the strength of the performance of Kirsten Dunst, who I hope escaped from von Trier mostly unscathed.  Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Justine's sister Claire, the only other human in the film, and Claire's relationship with Justine is all that survives the dénouement.  The pre-title sequence, set to the Prelude from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde (get used to it now), is visually stunning, clearly violates Dogme, and is probably the only part of the film I'll ever need to watch again.

Dunst is marvelous as Justine, mincing through her wedding reception, genuinely disappointed that she cannot pretend to be as happy as she knows everyone wants her to be.  For once, a von Trier heroine is more adult than anyone around her.  Aside from portraying von Trier's cartoon notion of an ad executive, Stellan Skarsgård is excused from his usual duty of brutalizing the protagonist.  That role falls to John (Kiefer Sutherland), and even he lets the abuse accumulate in his tight eyes and tighter jaw rather than pouring it out on his wife, Claire.

So Justine cannot find happiness in her marriage or her career, and in the second half of the film she returns to John & Claire's absurdly grandiose estate to convalesce while her serotonin levels align with the eschaton.  Von Trier's prior films have depicted worlds more deserving of destruction than Justine's awkwardly banal wedding party, and it's difficult to work up much outrage over John's withholding of certain information.  That John and Claire fail to prepare either themselves or their young son for the climax of Melancholia is no indictment, nor does von Trier intend it to be.  But Dunst's Justine is so affectingly doleful that she seems serene by comparison.

While Justine is marking the stations of the cross via the endless rituals of the wedding reception, Dunst's legendary smile buoys us through all indignities, and it's impossible to imagine anything dimming it for long.  When we realize during the film's second act that it isn't coming back, that's when we're ready for the world to end.


Solaris (Soderbergh)

Previously:  The novel by Lem and the film adaptation by Tarkovsky

I like Soderbergh, but I might not have checked out his Solaris had Netflix not grouped it with the Tarkovsky and von Trier's Melancholia, which was already on the Queue.

So the set looks like Blade Runner and the plot sounds like Aliens, but there the pretensions to science fiction end.  Soderbergh decided the most interesting aspect of the novel was Kelvin processing (or not) his grief over his wife's suicide.  To make this work, I should like to have had more exploration of the conflict that drove Kelvin to walk out on his wife, provoking her to kill herself.  As presented, it is far too trite for the third act to pay off.

It's possible that Soderbergh intended to demonstrate that humans are irremediable pattern-seekers, and that Kelvin's unresolved grief created the visitations by his dead wife and then his final vision.  But we hardly need a self-organizing, environment-manipulating planet for that.

This interpretation was defeated for me when Kelvin was visited by a Gibarian so out of character from Kelvin's memory of him that Soderbergh lets us believe that this Gibarian was speaking for Solaris.  This reinforces Kelvin's narcissistic response to the phenomena and sets up Solaris as a gnomic godhead that redeems human transience.  As fetching as Clooney and McElhone are to watch, to me this was substantially less interesting than Lem's novel or Tarkovsky's adaptation.

I was surprised how quickly I tired of Jeremy Davies; I didn't even care about his "twist."  When Kelvin spies Rheya conferring with Gibarian's child, I had an awful moment where I thought that she might find renewed purpose by adopting him.

The one idea of Soderbergh's that I enjoyed was Kelvin's worry that he was "remembering [Rheya] wrong."  Does love mean remembering everything about someone with complete accuracy?  Is it less loving to forget something about someone that they would like to change?  To forgive without forgetting is said to require grace, possibly of divine origin.  For those of us who can't travel to Soderbergh's Solaris, forgetting will have to do.

Followed by:  Lars von Trier's Melancholia.


Solaris (Tarkovsky)

Previously:  The novel by Lem

I wasn't sure how well the novel would translate to the screen, but I hadn't seen anything by Tarkovsky, so I got it from Netflix, more curious about the early 70s Soviet cinema than the science fiction effort.

Tarkovsky adds almost an hour of preamble establishing our protagonist Kelvin and his relationship to his parents (who will almost certainly predecease his return from space), as well as delivering exposition of the fantastic properties of Solaris via oral testimony by a retired explorer (whose recording devices have mysteriously malfuctioned).  This latter point economically evades the limitations of Soviet cinema visual effects, but unhelpfully introduces the possibility that everyone who travels to Solaris suffers from hallucinations.

Because I had just read the novel, I was much less impatient with the first act than the average viewer would likely be.  I knew that Kelvin's suicidal ex-wife would figure largely in Kelvin's encounter with Solaris, and I expected more foreshadowing than Tarkovsky delivers.  Instead, we are left with the feeling that Kelvin is more attached to his childhood; he seems to have made his peace with his ex-wife's suicide.  I think this is more effective than having Kelvin haunted by his ex-wife, fleeing Earth only to find her at Solaris.  That jibes with my experience of memories; they can be quite impertinent when they choose to surface.

I don't know how intentional this was by Tarkovsky, but one motif that struck me was how often he shows us the back of a person's head.  I found myself trying to read a character through the movement of his shoulders, with mixed success.

When facing the camera, I found the performances to be strong.  It's a talky piece, and I thought they hit the right balance of weariness and curiosity without falling too hard on the obsessed scientist cliche.  One element that Tarkovsky captures well is the dilemma faced by scientists charged with what was once the most important mission imaginable—establishing contact with another intelligence—now almost abandoned by the attention of greater humanity.  When the project turns disturbingly personal, from whence do they derive their duty?  40 years ago, one might have been tempted to say that only a Soviet filmmaker could do this absurdity justice, but I hope we know differently now.

Taking the film as one of my few exposures to Soviet science fiction, I wasn't terribly concerned that it didn't look as "futuristic" as 2001 or even Barbarella.  I found nothing kitschy or camp among the Zaporozhets, flaring shirt collars, or ubiquitous cigarettes.  I instead empathized with a group of people who had little enthusiasm for moving into the future if we were just going to bring the past along with us.

Followed by:   Soderbergh's adapation, and Lars von Trier's Melancholia.


Solaris (Lem)

I'd been vaguely aware of Stanislaw Lem for years, but I'd never read any of his stuff.  When a correspondent gave Solaris a favorable rating, I picked it up from the library (I failed to notice that a new English translation just came out, so I read the Kilmartin/Cox translation from the French).

Solaris is an apparently self-organizing body covering the entire surface of a planet orbiting a binary star system.  It came to the attention of space-faring humanity because the orbit of the planet is anomalously stable, a fact that is ultimately attributed to the purpose and capability of Solaris.  Humanity has established a local research station with the mission of studying and making contact with Solaris.  The "ocean" (as they have dubbed the vast, colloidal mass) is hardly placid but rather practiced in creating objects and structures of varying permanency and in occasional defiance of laws of human-observed physics.

Decades of futility and occasional, accidental deaths have reduced the staff of the research station to three, including the former mentor of our protagonist.  Shortly before we arrive at the station, the scientists have decided to conduct an unprecedentedly provocative experiment involving the exposure of the ocean to powerfully directed x-rays.  Correlation is never here established to be causation, but soon afterward the scientists are visited by "Guests," people of their acquaintance who (for a panoply of reasons) cannot possibly be on the station and who have no memory of how they arrived.  This is now a common trope, but Lem gets some clever tension out of it, primarily because the surviving scientists don't see fit to warn the protagonist when he arrives at the station (a less focused writer would have spent more time with the scientists mistaking the protagonist for another "Guest").

What distinguishes Solaris from other aliens-in-grandma's-clothing is that there seems to be no purpose to the "contact" or even any true awareness of the humans.  The analogy I find most apt (and which I haven't seen in other discussions of Solaris) is that of an allergic reaction by Solaris to the humans in its noosphere.  The Guests are formed from human memories much as antibodies learn the shapes of foreign bodies.

There is a wealth of implications here.  I'm fond of the existential paradox (?) of humans seeking extra-terrestrial intelligence and confronting only themselves.  Also gratifying are the conjectural and wry responses by the scientists; very little Lovecraftian Sturm und Drang in the face of galactic absurdity.  The responses by one of the Guests when she grasps the nature of her origin are refreshingly inconclusive.  How much of another person can we preserve in our memories?  How much do we need?

A more mischievous writer might have created a cult of Solaris, galactic pilgrims who believe the ineffable ocean to have been responsible for our millennia of religious phenomena.  Lem raises this idea and disposes of it as almost a mathematical digression.

It's difficult to compare physical and temporal scales between humanity and Solaris, so the conclusion of the novel is ambiguous as to whether Solaris has resisted or succumbed to the infection by humanity.  Our infection by humanity, of course, remains terminal.

Followed by: the film adaptations by Tarkovsky and Soderbergh, and Melancholia by Lars von Trier.