Okay. Wow. Where to begin. Um. There is just such a dauntingly vast amount of things to talk about that I’m not sure where to start. Melancholia=good movie. Okay. That’s out of the way.
The movie’s been over for an hour and a half, and I still can’t quite get over it. It’s a deeply moving piece, but in a way that requires the full use of one’s brain to understand the momentous implications of the film. It is very complex, very slow, and very beautiful. It is, 100%, Lars von Trier‘s work. His bloody name appears above the title when it first flashes on screen. The auteur theory just put a point in the “win” column. Throughout the course of this review I will attempt, not only to convey the atmosphere and quality of the film to the reader, but also to make a stab at understanding this monumental picture. As a result, this review will contain at the very least mild SPOILERS. If you do not wish to have anything revealed, but would rather see it for yourself, I highly recommend it to those who think they can handle it. It is a very depressing film, and it is not an easy watch. But, if you can handle it, it is a true work of art.
The film is divided into three sections. The first is what I am deeming the Overture—not only is it the introduction of the themes of the film, but the music that is played over it is the Overture (and other sections, as well) from Tristan and Isolde by Wagner. Beautiful, haunting images move slowly through time on the screen, each one depicting some sort of apocalyptic image. Kirsten Dunst stands unblinking as hawks fall lifeless from the sky. An image of Brueghel’s “The Return of the Hunters,” the classic oil-on-wood painting, is displayed, before lighting on fire and disintegrating. A giant, milky-blue planet approaches Earth, eliciting a St. Elmo’s Fire effect between the atmospheres of the two planets as they near one another in space before colliding, slowly, momentously, and the Earth shudders, cracks, and is utterly destroyed by this cosmic monstrosity. As you can imagine, this series of images and sounds, beautifully fatalistic, tells us exactly what kind of movie to expect—we aren’t going to have a happy ending. At all. Like, in any sense of the word.
This is an important point. In an interview with Nils Thorsen, avid von Trier researcher and biographer, the director talked about how he needed the audience to know that the end of Earth was nigh in the film, lending a fatality, a lack of ultimate importance, if you will, to all of the proceedings. I will come back to this.
The second movement of the film, where the actual story begins, the official “Part 1,” is called simply “Justine,” which we learn to be the name of Kirsten Dunst‘s character. She has just been married. She and her recently-wedded husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are attempting to maneuver their rented stretch limo down a too-curved and too-narrow back-country drive. It’s a moment of rather interesting humor—the futility of the effort is utterly apparent, but they still continue on.
Sidenote: I have a quick question for the cinematic world: why do you portray all upper-class people as utterly without social graces, compassion, or courtesy, and that they treat one another as a child? It’s just…not true. I grew up amongst the elite of Rancho Palos Verdes as an outsider, and I can think of maybe two people total who have the same characteristics as every single person at the wedding reception in Melancholia. I understand that it’s a caricature, but unwittingly von Trier created both a caricature of real life and a slightly less cartoony parody of Hollywood’s treatment of the upper class. In short, no, having money does not make you tactless. Most of the time.
This first half of the movie is truly a character study into the mind of Justine, a severe melancholic, or one who suffers from depression of desperate intensity. According to the director (who is a self-proclaimed melancholic), people like this see very little meaning in anything, in any sort of ritual of the day-to-day, and have a very high standard that the deep, inner truths of this world must meet. Anything that does not exemplify those truths is worthless. What better way to represent this quest than the futile and utterly ritualistic ceremony of a wedding reception? There’s no true point to any of it other than to make oneself feel good—throughout this part, Dunst is repeatedly asked, “Are you happy?” and it feels as though she wants to scream, “Why does it matter?” at all of them.
Perhaps even more fascinating in this part is the reduction of the adult to a childlike state, which plays a major theme. Justine is constantly being pushed around, never able (or allowed) to do anything for herself, constantly being spoken for. Her inability to care causes her to retreat from the party repeatedly, only to be drawn out again by her more rational, well-meaning but ultimately condescending sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her eager-to-remind-everyone-he’s-rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). Each time she returns, she tries to feign interest, but her attempts get less and less convincing as time goes on. The most moving part is that she tries to give some sort of meaning to the proceedings before giving up altogether and seeing if the moral opposite of the events has any substance either (hint: it doesn’t). A strange astronomical note is introduced at the end—the main star in the Scorpio constellation, Antares, has gone dark. We understand the delightful foreshadowing as well as the stark contrast that the epic, cosmic happenstance of a star going dark is so much more important than these lavish parties.
The final piece, entitled “Part 2: Claire,” takes up the majority of the film. As one might expect, the focus now shifts off of Justine, who abandoned all hope of normalcy after the fiasco of the reception and is now shacked up in the enormous, beautiful mansion of her sister Claire, who begins to get a lot more interesting. With the approach of the planet seen in the Overture to effectively swallow Earth whole, appropriately named Melancholia, Claire begins to get more frantic, researching online possible theories of how the planet’s arrival could mean doomsday, rather than a peaceful fly-by. The more interesting part is that the closer the end comes and Claire gets more hysterical, the calmer Justine gets. Claire is rejecting the futility of her existence, trying to cover it up with rituals, whereas Justine is embracing her futility, the futility of Earth, the futility of life in general and in total. That’s the difference between Justine and her family: while the latter all scramble for various forms of escape, Justine calmly moves towards the inevitable with a smile on her face, because for the melancholic, the greatest truth in a world defined by death is death itself.
Now, this has been a very, very basic analysis of the major plot points and thematic elements that occur throughout the film, and many considerations have been ignored. Firstly, these analyses are after seeing the movie once and reading one article. If I had the time, I would watch the movie at least one more time, in order to elicit more of its hidden treasures of meaning, but I can’t. Secondly, my analysis does not mention the problems, here and there, that I had with the movie, nor the secondary, guessed-at meanings I came up with, although I will share those. Thirdly, and most importantly, the only reason I was able to arrive at these conclusions was from the brilliant and beautiful imagery with which von Trier fills the screen to the brim. Each shot, each scene has messages that lead me to these conclusions. It is a masterful display of filmmaking that I could come to these conclusions whatsoever.
That said, the technical elements are flawless. The almost entirely handheld camerawork lends a terrifying and unsettling immediacy to the events, giving the audience a shaky, panicky version of the events that unfold. The sound is superb throughout the work, and the editing is phenomenal, giving just enough space to be comfortable, but not lag too much or make it an action movie.
I haven’t even mentioned the sexual elements, which play a rather important role throughout the film, and especially the first part. The girls’ 100% embittered, disgusted with the world, melancholic mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), along with being the frontrunner for the Character I Want Most To Punch In the Face Award, always refers to Justine as “Justin,” providing a sexual identity issue as well as conveying an interesting, unfulfilled desire for a son. It is to sex that Dunst turns to try to explain her problems, its lingering after-effects felt throughout the film. In Part 2, when Claire is losing her mind in the azure, reflected light of the monstrous planet, Justine reclines on a rock at a creek’s edge, utterly nude, in complete ecstasy in the blue glow, fetishized beyond all belief, but completely at peace for the first time in the film. This shot is also incredibly striking because for once, the camera is completely still; in fact, the peace that it lends this shot is repeated whenever the planet Melancholia appears as a thing of beauty and wonder, rather than fear (i.e. from Justine’s perspective, rather than from Claire’s). It’s the little touches like this that turn this movie from an apocalyptic crazyfest into a true work of art.
That’s not to say it shouldn’t be taken with a grain of salt. It is important to keep in mind that Lars von Trier is an utter melancholic, and so the movie is very attractive to him and people like him, but it can be mildly dangerous if someone takes the message of the film the wrong way (man, what is it with Magnolia Pictures and morbidly enticing films as of late?—see my review of I Melt With You). Also, the large group scenes, because of the severity of the caricature that I mentioned earlier, are uncomfortably uncomfortable, if that makes sense, as opposed to delightfully uncomfortable, or comically uncomfortable (a good example is the pedantic fellow in Midnight in Paris), and I’m not sure I see how much that extra bit adds to the point, which could have still been effectively conveyed with less, well, pain. But these are tiny, minor issues.
There are still things I did not understand or address. I’d probably need to see it again. You probably should, too. It’s a film that, because of its clarity of purpose and excellence of execution, is easily one of the best films of the year.
In this beautiful movie about the end of the world, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are celebrating their marriage at a sumptuous party in the home of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Despite Claire’s best efforts, the wedding is a fiasco, with family tensions mounting and relationships fraying. Meanwhile, a planet called Melancholia is heading directly towards Earth… MELANCHOLIA is a psychological disaster film from director Lars von Trier.