Review: Melancholia (2011)

Director: Lars von Trier


The title of Lars von Trier’s latest sensual and sensuous assault refers to the name of a planet which has been hiding behind the sun and is on a possible collision course with Earth (Physics? Bah! Von Trier laughs at your ‘science’!). This potential cataclysm is witnessed from the points of view of two sisters, who are suffering their own doubts and depressions. Wristcutters need not apply. From the title to the characters to the gloom of both interior and exterior sets, Melancholia is bathed in a pervasive sense of deep unending depression. An oppressive tone is one thing, but when that depression borders on (and lapses into) navel-gazing, it feels miserable for misery’s sake. Imagine a film made by a suicidal Luis Buñuel, and you’ll probably come up with Melancholia.

The film is split into two parts, and opens at a lavish wedding reception for Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Mike (Alexander Skarsgård), which is being hosted at the mansion owned by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Justine and Mike arrive late as their oversized limo could not negotiate the narrow roads to the mansion for the reception, and here’s where we arrive with Melancholia’s first problem. If the world is on the verge of destruction, surely there are more deserving people to focus on than these bourgeois bores. The reception itself is far from pleasant, as Justine and Claire’s divorced parents (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) exchange barbed witticisms and bitterness. Meanwhile, Justine disappears for long stretches of the reception to be alone, to tuck her young nephew into bed or to take a bath whilst still wearing her tiara. It seems like spoiled-brat behaviour, but Dunst thankfully gets into Justine’s troubled psyche right from the get-go with her most accomplished performance yet. Gainsbourg, Sutherland et al do good work also, but Dunst is the beating heart of Melancholia. This would be one reason why the first half of the film is (relatively) more engaging than the second, as the emphasis shifts from Justine to Claire. The second half takes place after the wedding, as Claire takes Justine in whilst she sinks into a deeper depression. Meanwhile, Melancholia is getting closer and closer to Earth, and no-one is sure whether or not they will collide. Frankly, as the tone of the film becomes more and more pessimistic, you’ll wish they do collide so that these bores will be put out of their misery and we can all go home.

Melancholia feels like the most expensive student film ever made. It’s technically impressive (early slo-mo shots of Melancholia’s approach engage the eye beautifully) but emotionally adolescent, as Dunst and co. mope about, philosophizing about their (potentially) impending doom and their purpose in life. Von Trier’s script drops potentially interesting characters (Hurt’s and Skarsgård’s, for example) at the halfway point, whilst the insertion of extracts from Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ invites unwelcome comparisons to similarly-themed and superior films (2001, etc.). Furthermore, the root of Justine’s depression is never explained concretely. Is it linked to the oncoming planet? Her anxiety over her marriage? Or something else entirely? Von Trier, in a failed attempt at profundity, never reveals the answer. For an visually and intellectually engaging treatise on human existence, see The Tree Of Life. For an emotionally invested and minimal take on Armageddon, see Perfect Sense. Melancholia is just too downbeat and convinced of its own brilliance to fit either bill. Von Trier courts controversy, but this is just too boring to raise any eyebrows.


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