Clearly influenced by the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Melancholia is a great film, which is certain to awaken something in the viewer, be it some inexplicable feelings of unease or awe. However, given that this film is directed by no other than Lars Von Trier (a Danish director known for his controversial films, see Antichrist (2009)) and 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 surreal, slow-moving images of the main characters. Here, it much resembles the surreal images showing the beginning of the planet Earth in the film The Tree of Life (2011), its competitor in the Cannes Film Festival 2011.
The movie is divided into two parts.
Part I, which is titled “Justine”, opens up with a wedding limousine, trying to swirl its 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, easing the audience into the story after their viewing of the inexplicable images of Earth collapsing. 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 the wedding events. Justine seems apathetic and unconcerned. In the course of the evening, she takes lengthy bathing and sleeping sessions, as well as long 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-hired employee of her company. Her new husband, Michael, 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 properly notice them. Part II ends with Justine taking a horse ride with Claire in the morning.
In Part II, titled “Claire”, Justine’s condition worsens, and she becomes grumpy and sleepy. Her sister, Claire, is clearly frustrated by Justine, and the sense of desperation slowly builds up. Strange occurrences also take place, such as the bickering of birds and the inexplicable madness of the horses. Through the Internet, Claire finds out more about the mysterious planet, called Melancholia, that, according to some, will soon hit Earth. She also reads about, but apparently without registering it fully, the planet’s “Dance of Death”, i.e., the loop that Melancholia would do prior to hitting Earth. Claire’s husband, John, the scientist, convinces Claire that Melancholia 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 Melancholia’s distance from Earth, Claire finds out that the Planet is nearer to them than it was the night before. She also finds her husband dead, because of the overdose of sleeping pills, in the stables. Later on, Justine and Leo construct “magic caves” (wooden houses), which supposedly can protect them from the approaching planet. This attempt to protect them from the planet is saddening to watch, because it is absolutely futile, designed solely for Leo’s peace of mind. The last shot of the planet approaching and then colliding with Earth, as Justine, Claire and Leo sit in their “magic cave” holding hands, is absolutely beautiful, and probably the most memorable part of the film.
Melancholia is a film about just that: melancholy, feelings of sadness, hopelessness, apathy, and its profound impact on a person’s well-being; about the so-called “melancholy’s dance with the soul of a man“. It is also a film about various reactions to a depressive/inevitable event manifested by different people: “fight or flight” responses. In terms of this, the film can be described as “personal” in nature.
There are a number of interesting paradoxes or apparent contradictions throughout the film, which add to it being so strangely magnetic, philosophical in its outlook, intelligent and emotionally-charged. Firstly, 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 inner amusement, perplexity 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 planetary collision, leaving his family to deal with the events as they unfolded, rather than bravely facing the planet’s deadly approach 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 in Part II: 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 here on the beauty of the disastrous event unfolding. Claire’s husband, John, often stresses how beautiful it will be when the planet passes Earth. We see beautiful images of 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 beautiful and destructively depressive/indifferent as to her final fate.
One reviewer said 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 “depression” is not the same as “melancholia”. Melancholy is a feeling or sensation of sadness, which, in small doses, can be even beneficial, whereas depression is a categorised illness, The History of Melancholy, K. Johannisson. As the planet approaches Earth, nearly all characters in the movie experience “melancholy”, having their own peculiar fears and anxieties associated with the event, even though the extent and depth of their sensations, and the nature of their copying mechanisms vary. It is also no coincidence that Justine is in a business associated with arts and art-making. Long before depression was medically recognised as an illness, “melancholy” has been connected with artistic abilities and creativity.
Having a loving family 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)’s mentality in its portrayal of spiritual emptiness, nihilism, existentialism and rebellion in the perceived times of success and economic well-being. 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 picture dramatisation. A wedding is often regarded as the beginning of something beautiful; the beginning of a happy life. The thought of the inevitability of the planet Melancholia hitting Earth, ending that happiness before it has had a chance to flourish, is depressing in itself.
With regard to the film’s casting, it is good, despite the fact that the sisters in the film appear to speak with different accents. Dunst is perfect in her role of Justine, and gives a magnificent performance. Previously, in The Virgin Suicides (1999), Dunst performed very well in portraying depressed and suicidal fourteen-years-old Lux Lisbon, and, here, her talent in portraying pure sadness, mixed with inner beauty and grief, is again on the display. It is rather surprising that Penelope Cruz was originally cast in the lead role in Melancholia, because, although both Cruz and Dunst have a history of portraying depressed individuals successfully, i.e., Cruz in Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) and Dunst in The Virgin Suicides, Dunst is clearly a far better casting choice because Dunst has this aura of inexplicability about her, which more expressive Cruz lacks. Besides, given the rest of the cast’s American, German and English origins, it is unclear how Spanish-accented Cruz would have fitted in.
The music used in Melancholia is that of Richard Wagner, and can be described as “melancholic in every way”. Notable in the film also are outstanding camera and photography work. The hand-held shooting of this film, a usual von Trier-style, adds to the sense of chaos and instability permeating the story. The use of colour here is also effective. There is a frequent use of the “swampy” green colour, which has historically been associated with melancholy, in the film e.g., while depicting trees and, more vividly, the large field in front of the house. The ingenuity of the film trailer is undisputed, but the poster photo of Dunst lying in a swamp holding her flowers may need some explanation. The idea for this poster came from the painting by John Everett Millais’s of 1852 titled Ophelia. The audience actually sees this painting as Justine goes through her art collection during one of the film’s scenes.
Melancholia is a film of staggering, haunting beauty, thought-provoking and visually-stunning.
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Excellent summation! What a gorgeous film, and what a sensation to be enthralled by something so beautiful and sad.
Thanks! Yes, absolutely – this film is one of a kind in this respect.
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?
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Generally, I tend to either love Lars Von Trier movies or not “get” them at all. I felt nothing when I watched Dogville and Nymphomaniac, but I really loved, say, Antichrist – also did a review on it.
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