Film review: Melancholia

Melancholia (2011) directed by Lars von Trier

“And when I say we’re alone, we’re alone. Life is only on Earth. And not for long.”


Lars von Trier’s Melancholia can perhaps be best described as a “science-fiction-cum-mental-illness drama”. It’s a film where John Ruskin’s concept of the ‘Pathetic Fallacy’ is realised par excellence—a film where the psychological turns of characters are associated not only with mundane forces of nature, but with the very end of the world itself.

A quick and greasy synopsis: Melancholia is a film cleaved into two beguiling and equally timed parts. Part one of the film depicts our heroine, a cripplingly depressed newlywed named Justine (Kirsten Dunst), suffering through her own wedding reception. Everything crumbles into ruination as an ensemble cast of cruel and dysfunctional characters turn what is meant to be the happiest night of her life into an exhausting, heartbreaking trial.

Part two of the film, in contrast, deals with the personal aftermath of the disastrous wedding and intimately explores how Justine and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) deal with the imminent destruction of Planet Earth from its collision with a giant rogue planet.

Well, shit. This certainly is a film that knows how to mix things up at the midway mark. You may think I just spoiled the entire film for you. Not really. In classic von Trier fashion, the entire plot of the film (including the climactic destruction of the Earth) is summarised in a stunning and somnambulant eight-minute opening sequence.

It’s primarily a film about dealing with depression in the most buoyant (e.g. a wedding night) and adverse (e.g. the extinction of all life in the known universe) of circumstances. It’s about whether wounded individuals have the strength to stick it out to the very end. And it’s about whether it’s possible to find even a glimmer of solace in unspeakable end times.

As someone with a history of depression, I found Dunst’s performance genuinely quite haunting. I saw slivers of my own past experiences in her portrayal of nauseating fatigue and despondency. One scene in particular—the scene where she struggles to clamber into a bathtub while being desperately held by her sister—struck a deep, personal nerve and will stay with me for a long time.

Trailer screenshot from “Melancholia” (2011)

The rogue planet that’s about to collide with the Earth is, incidentally, named ‘Melancholia’. Gee golly, do you get the symbolism??

The first half of the film is, without a doubt, the strongest. Melancholia has perhaps the most awkward and painful wedding celebration ever depicted onscreen. The centre does not even attempt to hold. Everything collapses, with actors such as John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård, and cranky man Kiefer Sutherland portraying individuals that embody various shades of human assholery. The staging, the pacing, the smallest of character interactions are all painfully realised. A couple of the scenes were so cringe-inducing, I started laughing to myself in order to relieve the tension.

The second half, although conceptually fascinating (what with the imminent apocalypse and all that), wavers in its focus. Whereas the first half was told from the point-of-view of Justine, the second half of the film switches to that of her sister Claire and chooses to explore her greivous anxieties instead. Unfortunately, Gainsbourg’s character simply does not have as compelling a screen presence as Dunst’s character. Because the film ultimately concludes with Justine coming to terms with the end of the world, I would’ve much preferred the film to closely follow Dunst’s character arc all the way through.

Instead, towards the end of the film, Justine becomes a director self-insert character that delivers clomping, inorganic dialogue. “The Earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it,” she says to her sister at one point and begins claiming she has omniscient knowledge about things such as the number of beans in a jar or the uniqueness of life in the cosmos. Wait, what? So her depression… gave her oracular superpowers? Huh? The film briefly goes a bit loopy.

This is still a stellar film. It is not as good as von Trier’s Antichrist (see my review here) or as punishing as Dogville, but well directed and effectively acted. I give it both my happy and disconsolate recommendation. Enjoy Melancholia for its obtuse symbolism and intensely uncomfortable character moments.

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