“Melancholia” Review

Melancholia (2011)


‘Melancholia‘ – you will either love it or hate it. The film is surely to awaken something in a viewer, be it some inexplicable feelings of unease or awe. However, given that the film is directed by no other than Lars Von Trier (a Danish director known for its controversially unusual films, e.g. ‘Antichrist (2009)), who once said that “a film should be like a rock in the shoe”, nothing less is expected.

The beginning of the film sets the tone for the rest of it. It opens with the surreal images of the main characters. Here, it much resembles the surreal images showing the beginning of the Earth in the film ‘The Tree of Life’ (2011), its competitor in the Cannes Film Festival 2011. Though much criticised by some, this opening by Lars Von Trier is very effective. The film immediately stands out from the rest by being unique (except from ‘The Tree of Life’), and the beauty of the opening scenes immediately captures attention, letting the audience know that what they are about to experience is something both artistically beautiful and strange.

The movie is divided into two parts.

Part I, which is titled Justine, opens up with a wedding limousine, trying to swirl his way through the narrow road. The bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the groom Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and the driver, are all amused by the whole situation, trying their hands at navigating the limousine through the narrow road. The use of humour here is very effective, relaxing and easing the audience after seeing the inexplicable images of the collapse of the Earth. The newlyweds are late for their extravagant wedding, organised by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). It soon becomes apparent, however, that the bride is experiencing the so-called “wedding bells blues”, and feels very distant from her wedding’s events. She seems apathetic and unconcerned. In the course of the evening, Justine takes lengthy bathing and sleeping sessions, as well as breaks to ride in a golf cart. In the course of the same evening, she also resigns from her job and has sex with a newly introduced employee. Her new husband, realising her unmistaken indifference towards him, leaves her at some point during the night. Her controlling and dominating mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) and her eccentric father, Dexter (John Hurt) are not much of a help, with the former seemingly indifferent to her daughter’s worries, and the latter being too light-hearted and distracted to notice them. Part II ends with Justine taking a horse ride with Claire in the morning.

In Part II, titled Claire, Justine’s condition seems to worsen, with her becoming very grumpy and sleepy. The frustration with Justine by her sister is clearly felt, and the sense of desperation slowly builds up. Strange occurrences also take place such as bickering of the birds and the inexplicable madness of the horses. Through the Internet Claire finds out more about the mysterious Planet that, according to some, will soon hit the Earth. She also reads about, but apparently without registering it fully, the Planet’s “Dance of Death”, the loop that Melancholia would do prior to hitting the Earth. Her husband, John, the scientist, however, convinces Claire that the Planet will pass them by, and, indeed, later, it seems that the Planet is further from them, as measured by the clever measuring device designed by Claire and John’s son Leo (Cameron Spurr). The following morning, upon measuring the Planet’s distance from the Earth, Claire finds out that the Planet is nearer to them than it was the night before. She also finds her husband dead on the sleeping pills in the stables. Later on, Justine and Leo construct “magic caves” (wooden houses), which supposedly can protect them from the Planet. This attempt to protect them from the Planet is saddening to watch, as it is absolutely futile, designed solely for Leo’s peace of mind. The last shot of the Planet approaching and then colliding with the Earth, as Justine, Claire and Leo sit in their “magic cave” holding hands, is absolutely beautiful, and probably the most memorable part of the movie. 

Melancholia’ is a movie about just that: melancholy, feelings of sadness, hopelessness, apathy, and its profound impact on a person’s well-being, the so-called “melancholy dance with the soul of a man”. It is also a film about various reactions: fight or flight responses, of different people to the inevitable end.  In terms of this, the film can be described as very “personal” in nature.

There are a number of paradoxes or apparent contradiction throughout the film, which are interesting to note, and they surely add to the movie being so strangely magnetic and emotionally charged. First of all, it is a limousine on a thin countryside road. The sense that this object does not fit in its surroundings is apparent and adds to the sense of amusement and frustration. Then, there is the concept of being late to one’s own wedding. The absurdity of the situation hardly needs elaboration, and only being late to one’s own funeral is worse. The portrayal of youth and innocence i.e. the presence of a very young boy, in the midst of the imminent disaster, is also a good move towards fuelling the trauma. Another apparent contradiction comes with the idea of the most discernibly brave person in the film, Claire’s husband, choosing “the coward’s way out”, killing himself before the collision, leaving his family to deal with the events as they unfold, rather than bravely facing the Planet with them.

The character of Claire seems to be the complete opposite of her sister – Justine. Claire is sensible and rational, while Justine is irrational and almost childlike in her desires.  This is notable because in the end, when the danger is near, it seems that it is Justine who is more composed and passive of the two, whereas Claire’s actions become frantic and hysterical. There is, of course, the explanation for this state of affairs, as melancholics are often deemed more level-headed in dangerous situations, presumably because they think they have nothing to lose anyway. In Part II, Justine is also portrayed as someone who “just knows things”, who “sees it all”, while others are “blind” to what is going on. Knowing how inexplicable Justine’s actions were in Part I, it is striking to see the reversal: with irrational Justine acquiring wisdom, and sensible Claire becoming helpless. Thus, the battle ensues between gut instincts (Justine), and rationality and common sense (Claire). There is also an accent on the beauty of the disastrous event unfolding. Claire’s husband, John, often stresses how beautiful it will be when the Planet passes the Earth. We see beautiful images of the Earth’s distraction both – at the beginning and at the end of the film. As the disastrous event itself, the main heroine Justine is also both breathtakingly beautiful and destructively depressive.

One reviewer stated that ‘Melancholia’ was “about the nature of depression and how two sisters go through it”. This is not exactly accurate. While it is clear that Dunst’s character is suffering from some severe mental disorder, Gainsbourg and Skarsgard’s characters are not, and it should be pointed out that “depression” is not the same as “melancholy”. Melancholy is a feeling or sensation of sadness, which in small doses can even be beneficial, whereas depression is a categorised illness, ‘The History of Melancholy’, K. Johannisson. As the Planet is approaching the Earth, nearly all characters in the movie feel melancholy and have their own fears and anxieties, but the extent and depth of their sensations and their copying mechanisms vary. It is also no coincidence that Justine is in an art business. From the time immemorial melancholy has been connected with artistic abilities and creativity.

Having a loving family, being rich and leading a successful professional life seem to be insufficient for the main character to be happy. Justine is supposed to be at the height of her happiness both in her private and professional lives. However, she is not, and that is made perfectly clear throughout the film. The film echoes ‘Fight Club’ (1999) in its portrayal of spiritual emptiness, nihilism, existentialism and rebellion in the perceived times of success and economic well-being. In times of the world financial crisis, the audience can connect with the film’s concepts fuller than if otherwise was the case.

The very choice of the wedding theme is clever. The idea of a wedding taking place, immediately followed by the end of the world, adds to the dramatisation of the picture. A wedding is often regarded as a beginning of something beautiful, the beginning of a happy life. The inevitability of the Planet hitting the Earth, ending that happiness before it had a chance to flourish, is depressing in itself.

With regard to casting, it is good, despite the fact that the sisters speak with different accents throughout the film. Dunst is perfect in her role of Justine, and indeed gives a magnificent performance. In the past, most notably in ‘The Virgin Suicides’ (1999), Dunst has done a very good job portraying a depressed and suicidal fourteen year old Lux Lisbon. It is very surprising that Penelope Cruz was originally cast in the lead role, and the shooting would have gone ahead if she had not left for ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’ (2011). Although both Cruz and Dunst have a history of playing depressed individuals successfully, e.g., Cruz in ‘Vicky, Christina Barcelona’ (2008), Dunst is a better cast choice for ‘Melancholia‘. Dunst has this aura of inexplicability about her, which, more expressive Cruz lacks. Besides, given the rest of the cast’s German, American and English origins, it is unclear how Spanish-accented Cruz, could have fitted in. Charlotte Gainsbourg is also excellent in her role of Claire, and, in fact, should have been given more credit for her performance.

The music used in ‘Melancholia’ is that of Richard Wagner and, indeed can be described as “melancholic in every way”. Particularly notable are outstanding camera and photography works throughout the film. The hand-held shooting of this film, as usual with Lars, adds to the sense of chaos and instability permeating this film. The use of colour in the film is also effective. There is a frequent use of “swampy” green colour, which has historically been associated with melancholy, i.e. while depicting trees and, most vividly, the large field in front of the house.The ingenuity of the trailer is hardly disputed, but the poster photo of Dunst lying in a swamp holding her flowers needs some explanation. The idea for this poster came from the painting by John Everett Millais’s of 1852 titled ‘Ophelia’. We actually see this painting as Justine goes through her art collection during one of the film’s scenes.

With the pressing economic crisis and rumours of 2012 end of the world, it is no wonder the apocalyptic theme dominated the Cannes Film Festival 2011. Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ puts emphasis on the beginning of the universe, and our place in it, while ‘Melancholia’ is concerned with the world’s end. In comparison to ‘Melancholia’, ‘The Tree of Life’ lacks any discernible plot, thus making the movie practically unwatchable. Also, arguably, ‘The Tree of Life’ audience fails to connect with any of the characters in the film, and while surreal imagery used in the beginning of ‘Melancholia’ adds to the film’s artistic merit, the sporadic over-use of the same technique in the ‘The Tree of Life’ undermines the film’s sequence.

To conclude, “Melancholia” is a hauntingly beautiful/murkily brilliant masterpiece. It is easily one of the best films I have seen for a long time. Although the film is as depressing as the title suggests, it is also thought-provoking and visually stunning. The acting in the film is superb, the cast is great and the camera work, photography and the use of music are outstanding. 10/10


8 Responses to “Melancholia” Review

  1. Steve says:

    Excellent summation! What a gorgeous film, and what a sensation to be enthralled by something so beautiful and sad.

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  6. jwforeva says:

    Straight up masterpiece. I love how Von trier is so attuned to feelings of melancholia and depression. Mixing that with bigger ideas of the end of the world might seem overreaching but he makes it work. I like how you mentioned the hand-held style conveyed a sense of pervading chaos. Nice review :))
    Have you seen Von Trier’s Dogville?

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Though I think that Melancholia is a masterpiece, generally I tend to either absolutely love Lars Von Trier movies or be completely indifferent to them. I felt nothing when I watched Dogville and Nymphomaniac, but I really loved, say, Antichrist – also did a review on it. What about you?

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