I have seen Lav Diaz’s Melancholia three times so far. As it’s time for a new chapter now, it’s also time for a brief post on the film. I saw Melancholia in Newcastle in March 2012 for the first time. It was running at the Slow Cinema weekend, which itself was part of the bi-annual AV Festival. It was my first Lav Diaz film, and I still remember that it knocked me out. To be fair and honest, I booked tickets for his eight-hour film only because it sounded mad. I never expected to survive the screening. Nor did I expect that it would be a good film. It was more like “What?? Eight hours!?” Well, prejudgement is never a good idea.
Melancholia is, contrary to his other films, more or less neatly divided into three parts. The first part follows three characters who engage in a rather strange coping exercise after the loss of their loved ones. This is all the viewer knows at the time. Only slowly do we learn that the three characters know each other, and that they struggle to come to terms with the disappearance – and supposed death – of their partners, who were involved in a clash with the military. Their bodies have never been found. While the first part of the film focuses on this “trauma therapy”, the second part follows two of those characters – Alberta and Julian – in their day to day life. She’s working at a school, he is a book editor. There is also Hannah, a teenage girl, who Alberta adopted after her parents (good friends of Alberta’s) disappeared. And then there is the third part, which follows armed men in a jungle, losing their sanity, fearing their death – they’re the disappeared, the people who have died in the standoff with the military.
I remember the last section to be the single most tense section of a film I have ever seen. And why? Paradoxically, because this section is entirely based on absence, on imagined off-screen space, on paranoia. There’s nothing much to see in those endless minutes of armed men walking through the jungle. A local acts as a spy for them and from him they know that the island has been surrounded by the military and that there’s little hope of survival. We don’t see the military, though. What we do see is one man losing his sanity. The waiting game drives him mad. At some point he shouts “Here I am!”, kind of “Please shoot me and end this.” What happens is only revealed in the letters Renato, Alberta’s husband, writes, letters which will never find their addressee. It’s psychological warfare, transmitted perfectly onto the screen.
Encantos was about extrajudicial killings and artists’ activism. Florentina Hubaldo CTE was an exploration of the effects of colonialism. Melancholia is quite explicit about the disappeared. The torture of not knowing drives Julian, Alberta and Rina into a coping exercise, in which they immerse into different personae. Aim is the resurrection of feelings. Rina described them as the living dead, as wrecked. She’s the most skeptical about this exercise and loses her faith in it, saying that “There is no cure for this!” Even though Hannah is not exactly a lead role in the film, her character is a great study of the effects of (forced?) disappearances in the Philippines. She’s struggling to cling onto a “normal” life. She steals and prostitutes herself. She’s in and out of psychological treatment. The psychological warfare that drove the men in the jungle mad draws much larger circles and effects those left behind.
I studied the use of sound in Florentina, and the framing of the landscape in Encantos. Melancholia is a reminder of just how individual films and filmmakers are in their approaches. There are specific “rules” in film studies; x means y. This doesn’t work in Melancholia. The x you find has no y attached to it. You have to do more than flicking through the film studies bible. I remember the film for its rawness, and now, re-watching it, I’m reminded of just how raw the film is. And it is this rawness that makes interpretations of the film with the help of cinematic techniques difficult. While high pitched sound in Florentina was unmistakably linked to her mental state, the acoustic stress in Melancholia evokes nothing of that sort. It is simply not recorded properly. There’s no indication that the severe noise of cars, wind and rain has a meaning. It’s just a matter of sound equipment. The same is true for the framing. I have very little success in seeing, say, tilted frames as an indication for the disruption of the equilibrium. This film is entirely open and cannot be approached in the usual way.
I don’t complain. I love it. It actually makes you think. This is what I like about Diaz’s films. They’re unconventional in many respects. If you merely play your film studies cards, you will lose the game.