Margot, a 28-year-old married copy writer in Toronto stunningly portrayed by Michelle Williams (Marilyn, Blue Valentine, Shutter Island), describes when babysitting for her niece and the infant cried that "nine of ten times" she was hungry or tired or had a rash, or something -- but there were those times when nothing could be found. Margot imagined this to be a passing 'melancholia.' The infant was inconsolable. Yet the distress was transient, it would pass; though when it manifest there was nothing Margot or anyone could do. Suffering comes from within, even at such a tender age, and it is as inescapable as it is hard to bear.
Margot is married to Lou (a non-comedic though warm and funny Seth Rogan) and they live a twenty something striving life in a cool home on the perimeter of this city that is more than Canadian in its aspirations, as are the protagonists in Sarah Polley's painfully incisive look at the human condition. Margot's encapsulated pain is punctured when she meets Daniel (played by Luke Kirby -- and what an acting feat he achieves in holding up to Michelle Williams) while covering an assignment in Nova Scotia. The magnetism between them begins to build slowly like a waltz that cannot but conclude with a crescendo. His allure is inescapable since it turns out he lives right across the street -- in other words, in the same geographic (and psychological) neighborhood she inhabits. In the disarming way that everyday lives unfold, Polley's film presents our collective dilemma: Are we all alone? Is this what generates the melancholia? Is there anything we can do about it?
Scene after scene inspects each character, especially Margot who appears as a fresh and lovely youth whose ingénue is strikingly contrasted by her angst. The film's pace, over nearly two hours, is slow, which only adds to the ache it elicits. The languor is one way the director hypnotically brings us into the film's story (which she also wrote), lingering on an abundance of nuance, confusion and minute variations of facial expressions that reveal the characters' core, and mirror our own. Sarah Silverman plays Lou's alcoholic sister Geraldine, sober when we first meet her but then given the fine acting opportunity later on -- in vino veritas -- when she declares in a moment of brutal honesty that Margot's behavior has exceeded her own ignominy as a drunken mother.
The filmmaker's images that assert that time is not our friend appear throughout the film. One that hits like a hammer takes place in a women's locker room shower where Margot and Geraldine are seen naked as the summer day is long as are the bodies of half a dozen older women. This scene, too, is stretched with time, like the aging flesh of the older women. Their chorus of voices, rich with experience and misfortune, delivers cautionary advice that no youth can follow since their siren comes from the restlessness within. There may be wisdom that comes with time but it is not accessible to youth until (or maybe not ever) they have already strewn destruction and gouged their souls with losses. There is no counsel that can protect the young from that inconsolable feeling -- that one time in ten that comes from within and demands response -- even if it may usher in ruin.
We witness the deeply troubling repetition of Margot's dilemma: she can change her circumstances, her men, but she cannot change herself. She pursues union with another man, and another would be life, but surcease from her pain is not hers to have. Remarkably, the film does not deliver this truth in despair. Instead, like the infant who cannot be consoled, we understand that we all need to bear our pain, find ways to endure, wait until it passes, and enjoy the dance while we can.
Lloyd I. Sederer, MD
The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.
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