Monday, June 18, 2012

Melancholia (2011)

Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Keifer Sutherland

In a film that begins with Earth being absorbed by a giant gaseous planet, I feel like this will be a rare review where I can reveal some spoilers.  While Melancholia is structured around the premise of a planet, previously hidden by the sun, entering our orbit and destroying all life, the bulk off the plot is about the tremendous weight of depression and the crippling anxiety felt by a pair of sisters.  Danish, and rebellious, filmmaker Lars von Trier has made a unique and dour little big film.  This is a powerfully painful human drama disguised in its catastrophic science fiction premise.  Melancholia is more about the emotion, melancholy, than its titular rogue planet, and that is quite alright because the two things converge in the climax to spectacular effect. 

Before splitting up into its two parts focusing on each sister’s emotional descent, Part One: Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Part Two: Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Melancholia opens with an epic 8-minute overture set to the prelude from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.”  This beautifully acts as Melancholia’s theme, becoming more and more powerful the closer the planet comes to impact with Earth.  During this overture, we see haunting and seemingly incongruous images in beautiful slow motion (images that make increasing sense throughout the narrative part of the film).  Strange occurances build upon one another until the music and images crescendo toward Melancholia’s engulfing of Earth.  We are aware of the dire fate awaiting these characters from the onset, which adds a tremendous black cloud (or beautiful blue planet) that will hang over the story that follows.

From the overture, we enter the awkward (and long) reception of a wedding doomed from the start.  Dunst’s Justine is a severely ill woman who struggles to put a happy face on what is meant to be her special day.  She is adored by her new husband (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgaard) and surrounded by caring friends and family, but the depression always overpowers every other emotion.  This wedding should have been an extravagant event, with Justine’s sister, Claire, and brother-in-law (Keifer Sutherland) paying for wedding and hosting it at their palatial estate.  As plans for the most brilliant wedding ever go disastrously wrong, von Trier even inserts many instances of dark humor that lightens the mood a bit.  As the wandering planet turns from a curious speck (during the wedding), to an imminent threat in the film’s second section, Melancholia’s moments of humor are fondly remembered.

The wedding sequence can feel overwrought at times (clocking in at almost an hour), but I enjoyed how it slowly built up the seriousness of Justine’s depression while planting seeds of how Melancholia will soon weigh heavily on everyone’s minds.  The sisters reunite some weeks, months, or years later (the film never makes it entirely clear) when Justine’s depression has worsened to a critical state.   It is in these scenes that depression’s ugly face is painfully clear as Justine can barely get out of bed, bathe, walk, or eat.  Her whole existence amounts to becoming lost in Melancholia’s blue glow.  Throughout part one of Melancholia and early in the second, Justine has hit rock bottom and become somewhat contented with it.   Von Trier then turns his attention to highlighting the psychological descent of the other sister in the family, Claire.

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance as Claire in the film’s second part is one Melancholia’s highlight.  Throughout the wedding, she tried desperately to be the rock in her dysfunctional family and when she is needed to remain that steady caregiver for her seriously ill sister, her anxiety over the world’s impending cosmic disaster strips all her strength away.  No matter how much her husband recites the calculations of reputable scientists, the fear that Melancholia produces is crushing.  Having not been completely turned off by the world like Justine, Claire is the character the audience can relate to.  It is an uncomfortable question, but one that we all must wrangle with during Melancholia:  how would you act during Earth’s inevitable last days?  It seems awful to say, but severe depression almost appears to be a welcome escape in such a catastrophic situation, as Justine ironically becomes Claire’s caretaker in the world’s final minutes.

Melancholia is an emotionally draining experience and never uplifting, but I loved it from beginning to end.  The nerve Lars von Trier displays by making such a wrenchingly bombastic picture is impressive.  From its virtuosic opening sequence and deliberately paced exposition to free-fall toward Earth’s last moments, every scene moved me deeply.   He forces us to consider our insignificance in the universe as two hours of character development (and billions of years of life on Earth) can be wiped away forever in one, amazing, blink of an eye.  Yet somehow, I left this heavy subject matter more moved by the beautiful artistry on display in its telling than shaken by what it says about our existence.

The first and final 8 minutes of Melancholia are hard to forget, especially when watched with the volume very loud.  With the Wagner blaring and worlds colliding (literally), this film will shake you to the core.  The beautiful visuals and excellent performances make everything in between almost as memorable.  You may not have the most fun when watching Melancholia but it is a weirdly enjoyable experience nonetheless.

Mark it 8.


  1. This one was so often mentioned in the same breath as Another Earth, which I really liked. Melancholia didn't really do much for me though. I thought it was kind of overwrought -- Lars von Trier's bloated ego was all over this thing. It's not that I hated it, I just thought it was "meh." And that beginning montage had me scared that I was in for another Tree of Life. At least that didn't happen!

  2. Well Josh, we've found some ground for disagreement (it's cool), in the same few lines you give a "meh" to Melancholia, you knock down The Tree of Life and praise Another Earth. Lars von Trier's pretensions worked this time for me, probably because it was so beautiful to look at (and listen to) and the two lead actresses were so strong, but I can see how it would rub some the wrong way... I appreciate the honest opinion (and that you are keen on putting in your two cents - it makes this blogging thing more interesting on my end).

    Also, The Tree of Life comes in the mail tomorrow so be prepared. I was a little bit underwhelmed when I saw it in the theaters and want to see if another viewing a year later adds to the experience. The web will soon find out.

  3. Zack, I'm surprised you let Josh off that easy! Don't need to be so nice, I know what you thought of Another Earth... I haven't seen it, so I can't say for sure, but c'mon!

    Anyway, as far as your takes on Melancholia, I'm definitely more on the side of Zack's opinion. I agree with Josh that von Trier's ego was evident from the beginning, but I'm glad it was. In this case his ego led to a jaw-droopingly gorgeous opening and ending, with a very good personal drama in the middle, that worked thematically with the bombastic apocalyptic vision it was presenting.

    Zack covered most of my thoughts in his review already, but altogether, it was one of those movies that stuck with me, that I kept thinking about after it was over and into the next day. And the further I got from it, the more I realized how brilliant it is. Then I re-watched several scenes, the opening, ending, and off course Dunst's night-time Meloncholia "sun-bath" and I liked it hit me even harder. Powerful, beautiful stuff.

    And Josh, it did, in many ways, remind me of the "Tree of Life," but that is a great compliment, not a criticism. Out.

  4. True, I can handle anything you can dish out! I mention all three of these movies together because I think there are common threads between them all, and I think it's worth looking at each with the others in mind to a degree. But I'll expand a bit upon my thoughts on Melancholia alone. Firstly, I certainly wouldn't argue with the cinematography. This is definitely a very pretty movie to look at, and I especially liked the slow motion shots at the beginning. I also think the acting is perfectly okay. But the plot didn't grip me like it did others, and I'm not sure I can articulate why (which makes me feel like I'm copping out). I don't think I ever quite connected with Dunst's character. I never really understood more than "Oh, here's a depressed spoiled rich girl who irks her sister. Who cares?" And maybe I wasn't supposed too -- I guess this means I empathized with Gainsbourg far more. If anything, I think it could have done more with the drama than it did.

    Is it simply a matter of differences in taste, then, that explains why I didn't find myself asking any questions or thinking about this movie at all after I'd seen it? That's a rhetorical question.

    And now back to Tree of Life for just a moment -- I'm quite excited to see your review and will obviously have much to say. I'll try to limit the vitriol, but I must say I'm prepared to rip that movie a new one.