Melancholia (2011)

Melancholia (2011)
  • Time: 130 min
  • Genre: Drama | Sci-Fi
  • Director: Lars von Trier
  • Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård


On the night of her wedding, Justine is struggling to be happy even though it should be the happiest day of her life. It was an extravagant wedding paid for by her sister and brother-in-law who are trying to keep the bride and all the guests in-line. Meanwhile, Melancholia, a blue planet, is hurtling towards the Earth. Claire, Justine’s sister, is struggling to maintain composure with fear of the impending disaster.


  • A rogue planet is on a collision course headed straight to Earth…you probably wouldn’t be too sane either.

    The apocalyptic vision of Melancholia writer and director Lars von Trier is a visually enthralling CGI wonderland equipped with a lavish Swedish landscape and a theater-shaking Wagner score. Whether you love it or hate it, Melancholia will leave a haunting imprint.

    At the Cannes Film Festival, von Trier unveiled his personal connection to the context behind Melancholia. “To me it’s not so much a film about the end of the world, it’s a film about a state of mind…I’ve been through some melancholic stages of my life, so it was kind of obvious to do this.”

    The film is broken into two acts focusing on the two sisters—Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The first act dives into the uncomfortable territory of wedding reception nightmares brought to life—think Rachel Getting Married on a grandiose wedding budget. The headache starts when Justine and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) arrive to their reception at her brother-in-law John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) lavish estate two hours late. The reception dinner showcases Justine and Claire’s separated parents who exhibit polar opposite personalities. The father-of-the-bride (John Hurt) acts as the lackadaisical comic relief in spite of the callous mother-in-law (Charlotte Rampling) who delivers a bitter, your-marriage-will-be-doomed toast after acknowledging her dissatisfaction with the idea of marriage. As the tension mounts, Justine’s behavior becomes more erratic—she decides to leave her reception to take a bath, followed by a nap in bed with her nephew Leo, a walk outside to admire the sky where she first discovers the twinkling planet Melancholia and eventually has sex with a guest on the golf course of the estate.

    After acknowledging the uncharacteristic behavior of his newly wed, Michael is answered with Justine’s detached “what did you expect?” explanation for her mental collapse. He decides to leave her that night when he realizes the marriage is unsalvageable.

    The second act is from the levelheaded perspective of Claire. The shifting size of the hidden planet Melancholia becomes increasingly larger, taking the shape of a second moon. It’s a comfort seeing Kiefer Sutherland back in film and out of 24. The character John is a noted astronomer, no-nonsense husband and father who has little patience for Justine and her antics. John assures the family, particularly an overwhelmed Claire, that the planet will be a “fly-by” and carefully pass by Earth making no contact. Claire takes in Justine to live with them in the mansion where her depression escalates rendering her from accomplishing normal day-to-day activities like bathing, eating or getting out of bed. As the planet grows larger and larger in the sky, Justine’s depression shifts to a form of sanity while Claire becomes a nervous wreck believing that the end of the world is evident.

    Unlike most apocalyptic thrillers, there is no crazed media blitz in the film or interference from characters outside of the title cast. The only link to the outside world is Claire’s usage of the Internet where she finds articles on the looming planet Melancholia. Von Trier appropriately maintains focus on emotion as dooms day approaches, and not on the hype of the outside world.

    “I was drawn to the project because to me Lars is the only director that specifically just writes films for women who can be ugly, and messy and emotional and not have this perfect idea of what women should be in film,” Dunst explains at Cannes.

    Although Melancholia received no accolades in the Golden Globe nominations, Dunst was honored with the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. Whether or not snub was intentional (lets hope the von Trier verbal faux pas at Cannes has nothing to do with this), we can hope the Academy has better judgment.

  • Like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Melancholia is a film that reminds us that although we are capable of big ideas, big emotions, and big dreams, our existence in the cosmos amounts to nothing more than nothingness, like a speck of dust on our planet.

    Of course Malick’s film is more hopeful, more philosophical, and more divisive, but Melancholia proves that the genre of science-fiction can mix well with arthouse drama. The result is one of the most unique of cinematic experiences, and one of the medium’s most thought-provoking entries in recent years.

    The director is but of course Lars von Trier, the Danish auteur whose trigger-happy nature has got himself in trouble many times, yet he continues to make some of European cinema’s most provocative and challenging works.

    Melancholia, which was in competition at Cannes (and going head-on with The Tree of Life in a clash of auteurship), tells a depressing tale of two sisters who are at odds with each other. They then discover that their strained relationship pales in comparison to a cosmic event that will unfold in due time as a mysterious new planet threatens to collide with Earth.

    Melancholia is the name of that planet, and it also aptly captures the emotions of lead actress Kirsten Dunst (who won Best Actress at Cannes). It is also a fitting title to von Trier’s film, which is as depressing as it gets. Dunst plays Justine, opposite Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays Claire, her sister. Their performances are superb, though in my opinion Gainsbourg gives a more emotionally affecting display.

    Broken into two major parts titled ‘Justine’ and ‘Claire’, Melancholia starts off with a prologue that is a melding of ultra slow-motion imagery and haunting music ‘Tristan und Isolde’ by Wagner, and concludes with a final sequence that will floor you to the core.

    von Trier’s shaky camera and quick-zoom technique to shooting the film can be nauseating at times, especially in the first part ‘Justine’. It gets better in ‘Claire’ though. Even then, the cinematography is beautiful; there are a couple of virtuoso overhead tracking shots of the two sisters riding their horses on a dirt track.

    The external shots of the huge lawn outside their home also reminds of the large, geometrically-shaped landscape garden in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961). In Resnais’ film, the shot is frozen in time. In von Trier’s film, the shot is waiting to freeze in time, as if it is a filmic foreshadowing a half-century in the making.

    Melancholia is not for the mainstream crowd, though it can be argued that its sci-fi elements could help pull some in. But if you are bold enough to try, you will be greatly rewarded. It is also an excellent introduction to von Trier for the uninitiated. With a runtime of more than two hours, it requires patience.

    Melancholia is a powerful Wagnerian opera. It is the mark of an auteur working at the height of his creative powers. For all of his big talk, von Trier understands the human condition. He understands our mortality.

    Verdict: A bold work by Lars von Trier that is as much a unique cinematic experience as it is thought-provoking.

    GRADE: A (9/10)

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