Melancholia (2011) [9/10]

In recent years, though he has stuck to his well-known style of handheld camera and somewhat shaky cinematography, Lars von Trier has made movies that, despite their often incredibly disturbing subject matter, are almost operatic in scope and substance, and visually spectacular in their use of bold colours, slow motion, and orchestral score.

Melancholia is the second in a trilogy of films that began with Antichrist and is set to end this year or next year with The Nymphomaniac. Much of Lars von Trier’s career has consisted of trilogies; his first three major feature films The Element of Crime, Epidemic and Europa formed the “Europa trilogy”; Breaking the Waves, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark formed the “Golden Hearts trilogy,” and Dogville and Manderlay were the first two films in an as-yet-unfinished trilogy about life in small-town America during the Depression. It was with Antichrist that his cinema began to really cement itself in a style and look that has become unmistakably associated with him. Themes of sexual tension, misogynism, and cynical nihilism coloured Antichrist and are present here in Melancholia, a quintessentially von Trier drama. It is a condemnation of the formulaic end-of-the-world action movie; sure it contains sequences of stunning special effects, but the film largely focuses on the disconnection between two sisters as one of them is getting married and the other is coping with fears of an apocalypse.

Von Trier has said that this is his first film not to have a happy ending. Though in general it’s difficult to agree with this statement, it certainly has a more depressing ending than its predecessor. Whereas in Antichrist there was a glimmer of hope in the final moments, there is a loud, indescribable explosion and unforgettable fade to black at the end of this one. It’s not a spoiler to say that the world does end at the end of this film, because the film is not about an apocalypse. It simply uses that storyline to help fuel a despairing look into the emotional turmoil encompassing both sisters, whose reactions to the impending doom are startlingly different. Whereas Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is terrified and unnerved, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) slips into frequent bouts of melancholy, and an occasional non-responsive stupor; an almost catatonic state where the supposedly unimportant world around her is shut out. This occurs chiefly in the film’s more interesting second half. If the film had one weakness, it would be annoying shift in pace between the first and second halves, which if done more carefully, would be unnoticeable, but here is sharp, distracting and annoying. 

But it is a very small criticism, as on a whole, the film is terrific. The opening scene, which consists of a slow motion ballad of characters running in terror or standing in awe as the planet Earth reaches its crushing denouement, echoes the prologue of Antichrist, and equals it for its sheer beauty and surreal visual presentation. I am excited to see if he repeats this in The Nymphomaniac; his choice of music is perfect, and I can conceivably see these opening sequences appearing in many more subsequent films of his; they seem to be a rich, beautiful trademark of von Trier’s new cinema, and an almost perfect final touch on an almost perfect film.

The relationship between Claire and Justine is simultaneously fascinating and destructive. The first half of the film focuses on Justine’s wedding, and uses familiar von Trier trademarks, such as uncomfortably awkward sex scenes and supporting characters such as parents and friends, who are portrayed as villainous rather than helpful. Von Trier also manages to emphasize the loneliness of the two sisters by introducing various supporting characters in the first half and dropping them almost completely from the second half. The film, which starts off vibrant and bubbling with life, becomes hollow and lonely by the end.

I see a lot of Lars von Trier in the two sisters. His cynicism and emptiness is represented by Justine, who has several moments, particularly in the second half, where she delivers her lines with an almost terrifying coldness; and his horror for the changing world is represented by the frail and clingy Claire, whose idea of what to do as the world is ending is a static clichè, the embarrassing product of a despairing mind. In recent years, von Trier suffered from rather serious bouts of depression, where he was reduced into a lonely, empty, soulless state that made it almost impossible to work. Melancholia is one of his best films, a startling poem in which we can see von Trier battling his depression, the two sides of his personality arguing bitterly, in a futile attempt to reach an agreement, a satisfactory conclusion which for him, will never come.

Posted on January 7, 2012, in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Paragraph Film Reviews

    Good review, and although I thought this was one of the biggest stinkers of last year you’ve defended it well! I like Von Trier, and loved his first ten or so features, hard to believe that they’re not at the more accessible end of the scale (for me anyway!)

    • I really like his earlier work, more than I do his recent stuff. For example, I think The Idiots is tremendously underrated, and Breaking the Waves is his best film. Europa and Dogville follow behind.

  2. I’m so out of tune with Von Trier. I need to see MELANCHOLIA … just can’t bring myself to watching it.

    Though, I think your review may have pushed me over the ledge.

  3. I can understand everything you’re saying in this, but for me this film was just so tedious and dull. Some beautiful images, Dunst was brilliant but it just fell flat for me and felt far too long. When it’s on DVD I might give it a second watch. In the mean time one of my friends has insisted I check out Antichrist so I’m looking for a copy of that. Great review!

    • This movie, like Antichrist, is more about mood than plot. Those are the kinds of movies I like, though I can understand why you didn’t enjoy it. I can’t say you’ll enjoy Antichrist, but I personally think it’s a better film than Melancholia. I gave them both 9/10.

  4. Ah, you’re in your element here Tyler. Very nice writing concerning someone you’re passionate about.

  5. Quite happy that you finally saw this one. I loved it, but you loved it more than I did, which is a given since you are such a fan of Lars von Trier.

    I also had the same problem as you with the shift between the two parts was quite sharp and annoying. In fact, I thought the film’s tone was a bit incosistent at times, but otherwise it was good. Nice review!

  6. Great job Tyler, I do agree this is a fantastic film, and my appreciation of it seems to grow larger as time goes on.

  7. Before this one I only saw Dogville (which I loved). I really enjoyed this one too and it’s in my top 3 movies of the past year. Great review.

    • If you liked Dogville then you should definitely check out other von Trier stuff. I’d recommend Breaking the Waves, Europa and Antichrist.

  8. It moves on a little too long for me and the first hour really dragged on but Dunst’s performance was amazing and the last hour had me gripped the whole time. Good review Tyler.

  9. This never came to my local cinema so I still haven’t seen it. Great review, though, and I look forward to finally seeing it! I didn’t realise it was part of a trilogy either…

    • It is part of a trilogy, but the films aren’t related per se. The only connection between this and Antichrist is that they have similar themes and dark styles, but completely different characters and plots.

  10. Best review of Melancholia I’ve read so far. Spot-on, you managed to enhance the most important themes and aspects of the film and the greatest parts of it.
    Even though I’ve only seen Dogville and this one, I’m already an admirer of Lars von Trier. I also never knew this was part of a trilogy – I think it’s finally time for me to watch Antichrist, even though I’m a bit afraid.

    • Thanks for your kind comment, I did my best with this review and it’s nice to hear that you consider it one of the best on this film. Very much appreciated.

      Don’t be afraid of Antichrist. Sure, there is a lot of sex and violence (and sexual violence), but it is also a very beautiful movie. Not beautiful in the traditional meaning, but in the same way that Melancholia is beautiful. They both have very similar prologues.

  11. Glad you dug this. I don’t know if I’ve ever asked you: but what is your favorite von Trier?

  12. Great review, I’ve heard really polarizing things about it, people either love it or really hate it. I need to watch it so I can give my own personal opinion on it.

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