Melancholia (2011)

Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, Cameron Spurr, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Jesper Christensen, Stellan Skarsgård, Brady Corbet, Udo Kier

Directed by Lars Von Trier

Expectations: High. I love most of the Von Trier films I’ve seen.

Ah geez, why can’t I watch the easy to review movies? While watching Melancholia I wasn’t sure if it was any good, or if I liked it, and now a few hours later I still feel the same way. A bit of my history with Lars Von Trier: I was taking my first college course (Film History) and the teacher was a big film snob dude who loved him some arthouse cinema. He offered extra credit to anyone that went down to Hollywood and watched Lar Von Trier’s latest film, Dancer in the Dark starring Bjork. I didn’t have anything better going, so off I went. At that particular time I was at the height of my own film snob phase, actively shunning nearly every modern film and focusing on watching all the classics (hence taking Film History). So when I sat down to Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, it was with a scowl and a “Let’s see what this pompous fucker can do” attitude. By the end of the film, I was blown away. It had single-handedly renewed my faith in what contemporary cinema could be and made me instantly curious to see more of his work. I ended up watching The Idiots next, which I absolutely hated, but later films have proven to me that when he was on it, he was fucking on it.

I’ve been slacking in keeping up with his latest releases (I haven’t seen anything after Manderlay), but all the good buzz for Melancholia reawakened those feelings of love and I felt compelled to check it out. I knew next to nothing going in, other than it seemed to follow the general Von Trier story where a tortured woman copes with some fucked up situations. That woman is Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, and cope with fucked up situations (on the grandest of scales) she does. There isn’t a lot of traditional plot so I won’t say too much, but the film opens with Kirsten Dunst’s wedding and kind of spirals off from there.

Well no, the film actually opens with a pseudo-overture with dreamlike slow-motion images and a deep, resonating classical score. This overture is quite long, going on long enough for me to wonder what my mental state would be like if the entire runtime of the film was like it. Thankfully, Von Trier cares more about narrative than some arthouse auteurs (coughTerrenceMalickcough), so after the overture we are introduced to our characters in proper scenes. Don’t get too excited about narrative though, as this one is actually pretty spare in that department. If you haven’t seen the film, I’d suggest doing so before reading the rest of the review as I’m about to break down a lot of shit in an attempt to figure out if I can find meaning amidst the slow-moving, boring nature of the film.

The film is split into two halves, with each half focusing on a sister. One is Justine played by Kirsten Dunst, the other is Claire played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Justine is introduced to us happy, as she rides in a limo with her newlywed husband and they share some laughs over the driver’s inability to turn the limo on the tight corner of the gravel road. We soon realize that all is not roses for Justine, as she is unable to keep up appearances without drifting into deep fits of depression. She closes herself off from the party in her room, and even takes a bath while everyone waits for the couple to cut the cake. Her mother is coincidentally doing exactly the same thing as she has no use for people’s bullshit rituals, and her father is more concerned with the young girls populating his table than actually caring about his daughter or her wedding. The task of rounding Justine up falls on her sister Claire and Claire’s husband John (Keifer Sutherland). We learn here and there that Justine is deeply troubled by some apocalyptic visions, but she remains surprisingly calm and content with the whole thing. Looming over the event is the planet Melancholia, hidden behind the Sun for years and now possibly on a collision course with Earth depending on the scientist you’re listening to.

Part Two skips forward a bit in time (a few days, I think) and Justine is in some serious shit. She sleeps almost constantly, but Claire does her best to care for her and give her a safe place to stay. This, and the impending threat of Melancholia, causes Claire’s world to be turned upside down. She becomes more and more unraveled as the event nears, while Justine greets it with mere indifference. In her depression and her visions, she has lived through this catastrophe many times, so it does not scare or frighten here. As an opposite force, Claire has done her best to wall up her feelings and depend on the loving, reassuring words of her husband that “Everything will be all right.”

In the first half, Justine is in chaos over her marriage. Claire is the one in charge and doing her best to bring order to the chaos by sticking to the plan and the comfort of ritual. This is ultimately futile (she obviously didn’t watch Jurassic Park) and chaos wins out. In the second half, the roles switch as it moves closer to the finale, with Claire becoming erratic and chaotic as her world crumbles and Justine’s depressed calmness providing the balance and strength she needs. They ultimately come together in the ending and we are led to believe they died somewhat content with themselves, or at least their final moments. While Claire still seeks to cling to ritual and die with a glass of wine on the terrace, Justine provides the family unit with something unique and special, for this unique and special moment in their lives.

I feel like I understand the film better now, and what Von Trier is trying for, but seriously, does it have to be this long, drawn out and pretentious? It is not a fun film to watch, nor is it fast-moving. It crawls along, filling an over two-hour runtime, about half of which is just the wedding reception. I would venture to guess that this film could be at least a half hour shorter and still be of a similar quality. In any case, the film is long and not all that entertaining. Where the other Von Trier films I’ve enjoyed had deep characters that followed a satisfying, if depressing, arc, Melancholia‘s characters were somewhat shallow in comparison. Without understanding the symbolism, the film is just plain boring.

The artistry of a Von Trier film is never the shot selection and framing (most of his films are very handheld and organic), but in the way he brings deep emotional resonance to characters you’ve come to feel for. Melancholia has some fantastic moments (and ones that I can’t imagine playing as well at home without the grandiosity of the theater sound system) and I grasp the underlying meanings as well as I care to, but I just didn’t connect with the characters enough for any of it to matter much. I’m glad I saw it, but I can’t imagine ever sitting through this one again. This is definitely Kirsten Dunst’s finest performance though, and Charlotte Gainsbourg & Keifer Sutherland were pretty damn good themselves.

6 comments to Melancholia (2011)

  • Two things I learned reading this review:

    1 – You were a film snob, something I’d never have guessed. Thank God you got over that! 😉

    2 – You hate Terrence Malick as much as I do, I think.

    Nice review, my friend. I hadn’t really intended on seeing this, but you’ve piqued my interest enough to go out and have a look at it.

    • Yes, I was definitely a film snob. In a lot of ways I still am, but now my love for cinema knows no bounds. I am able to love heady flicks like 2001 alongside my love of wonderful trash like Laserblast. I always loved horror, martial arts and genre films though, but I was much more selective back in the day about what I’d watch. Now I’ll pretty much watch anything and give it a fair shot.

      I definitely don’t like Malick’s films. I’ve only seen two and I’m bound and determined to watch the others, but from the ones I’ve seen I think he’s ridiculously overrated and pretentious. He does know how to compose a shot though, gotta give him that. I think I’d like his 70s movies more as I’m guessing he had more structure in his early films, but I’m not basing that on anything so it could be a total figment of my imagination.

      Glad you liked the write-up. Even if this one is painfully slow-moving at times, I think it offers enough for thoughtful viewers. If you’ve never seen a Von Trier film though, I’d definitely start on something else like Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark.

  • I’m quite sad that this is the first Von Trier film I’ve seen, because I was so disappointed by it. I just finished my own review and it left me as grumpy and annoyed as the film did. Far too long and pretentious, like you say, even if it did have some amazing moments (the climax was great, it just took too long to get there!). I’ll be sure to check out some other Von Trier works though. One of my friends recommended me Antichrist.
    Great review!

    • Yeah definitely see some of his other films, which are far more intriguing and emotionally resonant. I haven’t seen Antichrist so I can’t speak to its strengths, so I would suggest Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark, as I did for Rodney in the other comment. Those are both fantastic.

  • Dan

    Interesting piece Will…I’m guessing Von Trier’s films will always divide viewers. I’m not a huge fan of him or his films and I have yet to see Melancholia. Your review and the trailer probably doesn’t encourage me to see the film but I think it is one of those I’ll have to check out sooner or later just to say I’ve seen it.

    • Thanks, Dan. I’d say that if you aren’t already a fan, Melancholia will only make you wonder why Von Trier is so well regarded. If nothing else it will definitely show you that deep down, Kirsten Dunst can actually act. Let me know how you like it if you do check it out.

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