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Melancholia (2011)

November 9, 2011

7/10 Death Stars

Don’t forget the Prozac.

Melancholia is about a woman who goes and gets hitched, shows up hours late to her reception, and gradually begins to regret the marriage altogether as the evening’s events proceed to drown in a mess of family drama and disapproval. After things take their course, the woman shacks up with her estranged sister and succumbs to a mean bout of depression that only gets worse with each new day. But then, out of nowhere, a rogue planet appears in the sky that’s set on a collision course towards Earth. As the planet gets closer and everyone starts crapping their knickers over whether it’s going to smack right into us or pass on by, the woman starts exhibiting some awfully strange behavior as she comes to embrace the coming apocalypse.

If you’ve seen a Lars von Trier movie before, then you know exactly how this movie’s going to end. If you haven’t seen a Lars von Trier movie before, then don’t you worry, you’ll know how it ends within the first ten minutes. The funny thing about my history with von Trier is that I always remember the stuff I love about his movies and always forget the stuff that makes me want to go cry in a corner. You’d think one would remember something like that after watching Willem Dafoe get a millstone drilled into his leg, but for some reason I thought this would be different, that von Trier was upswing and feeling good about life again.

I was wrong.

In Melancholia, von Trier takes everything you love about life – all your hopes, dreams, and half-glass-full outlooks – and dashes them out with one big cosmic “Fuck you, dude.” Unless your favorite movie of all-time is Requiem for a Dream, I can understand how that’s not an easy sell for a lot of folks. I’m of the mindset that us common folk like our hopes and dreams, and we don’t really need some Debbie Downer with a fancy camera to tell us that everything’s not going to be alright, that everything we know and love is someday going to die. Although as much as you try to turn it on its head and reinterpret it otherwise, that is very much the message you will be taking away from this movie. It’s morosely refreshing in the sense that happy endings come wholesale these days, but rest assured, there is another saving grace.

The reason I keep forgetting about all the gut-wrenching misery I have to endure with each new von Trier effort is entirely due to the visuals. Right from the operatic opening montage that makes the end of the world look every bit as beautiful as it probably shouldn’t and every bit as surreal as it absolutely is, it’s pretty amazing how easily von Trier makes your forget about all the death and stuff that’s also unfolding from a distance. It’s hard to describe what a von Trier movie looks like without seeing it action, but it’s every bit as mesmerizing as it is haunting. Despite the happy-go-lucky morality tales he keeps putting on display, when von Trier has a vision, he captures it like no other.

In addition, few directors have ever managed to get such raw, vulnerable performances out of a cast the way von Trier does on such a consistent basis. But the thing that always blows my mind is why people agree to be in his movies in the first place? If you’re a woman and you’re starring in a Lars von Trier movie, expect to be very naked, expect your character to meet a terrible end, and expect your psychiatric bills to skyrocket. If you’re a man starring in a Lars von Trier movie, the same is true, only no one really cares about dudeity. Whatever the reason, his methods work like gangbusters and this here’s no exception.

In a move that would make Mary Jane Watson run for the hills, Kirsten Dunst is quite good as our buzzkill bride, Justine. When you compare Justine to everyone else Dunst has played, she’s arguably great, but the problem with Justine is the problem I have with this movie as a whole. Justine is an incredibly difficult character to put your finger on because you never really know what’s going through her head or what compels her to do the things that she does. From what I gathered, she’s a woman who’s gotten very good at keeping up appearances and fooling herself into believing she’s happy with the decisions she’s made in life. But now that the Kool-Aid doesn’t taste so sweet, she trades it all in to wallow in her despair.

Being that von Trier didn’t just write this script by accident, I’m sure there are people out there who will watch Justine and everything will just click. But the more I watched, the more perplexed I got, and while that’s not the worst thing to complain about in a film, she really does go overboard with the whole “woe is me, life sucks” thing. When the end credits rolled and the theater got very vocal about what they’d just seen, the one thing everyone seemed to come back to was why Justine didn’t do this or why Justine didn’t that? As you can tell, I wasn’t very helpful in terms of coming up with answers, but then again, maybe that’s the whole point. Answers or motives would have been nice, but none of that really matters when a planet’s about smash into Earth. I don’t know if there’s an Oscar in it for Dunst, but she is backed up by some solid turns from Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Stellan Skarsgard, and Charlotte Rampling. And bonus points for the best Keifer Sutherland performance in ages that doesn’t have him yelling “DAMMIT!” every five minutes.

Of all the movies that I’ve seen this year, Melancholia was far and away one of my most highly anticipated. I loved the supernatural aspect, the doomsday imagery left drool on my shirt, and there’s something bizarrely wonderful about a wedding movie with apocalyptic stakes. It’s not that I was ultimately disappointed either, but when you’re so used to watching movies that aren’t prepping you for your inevitable death, coming to terms with a movie that does is a tough pill to swallow. Whether it’s a metaphor for depression or evidence that some people just want to watch the world burn, Lars von Trier has given us one seriously Earth-shattering picture to mull over and remind us how insignificant we all are in the grand scheme of things.

I’m not sure if it was his intention, but it really is movies like Melancholia that put things into perspective when the world is crashing down around us. All depends on how you take it, I suppose.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2011 7:51 am

    Good review. I’m not really well versed in Von Trier, but taking into consideration what I’ve seen I’m not a big fan. I remember Antichrist most clearly because it was the most recent, and Melancholia was – for me – a positive departure from that. True, it still maintains to the trademark insularity, and few would assess the concept of the world ending with just a look at a two sisters, and nothing outside that sphere but there was a strident amount of emotion in the film. I can understand how Justine might be baffling, but the ultimate “fuck you” of the film felt more honest than just a gaudy one played for the hell of it.

    • November 11, 2011 9:53 am

      Yeah, von Trier isn’t exactly the most accessible director out there and he’s not too big on the happy-go-lucky stuff either. Still felt this was a walk in the park in comparison to Antichrist though. And I agree, there is a lot more to the ending than “just because,” and that aspect is probably the most lasting element of the movie for me. Depression’s a bummer, yo.

  2. Crystal permalink
    November 9, 2011 8:49 am

    I literally just finished watching this. And I was crying. Definitely a powerful ending. Life. Death. DEATH! lol oh this movie was certainly a mediation on that. I felt for Justine.. I identified so easily with all her character’s woes and sporadic behavior- a younger me (I’m only 24? Jesus, feels like 35) struggled with living life. Lived too much than lived too little than just ended up numb- until a catalyst went off in my soul/spirit. Rebirth. I think this movie so beautifully captured that- life and death on equal terms. Inhale. Exhale.
    Well I knew I was going to dig this movie and I’m happy not to be disappointed. Now I’ll try and sleep and be all the more thankful for my tiny life. Gotta love when movies can do that ❤

    • November 11, 2011 9:46 am

      Holy hell, girl. Sounds like you’ve got a book in you. Glad you dug it so much, and if I’d had the same connection with Justine, I bet I would have bumped the Verdict up. And “tiny ilfe” is right. Jesus H. Murphy, what a crushing movie.

  3. Murray Oates permalink
    January 6, 2012 8:58 pm

    beautiful, surreal, pretentious, slit-your-throat crap

  4. March 27, 2012 10:19 am

    You see the irony here kills me–(ha ha) really because I suffer from clinical depression. But I’m in great shape. Not sufferred a bout in a couple few months back to back. Relief at last. If, however, I spiraled into a heart stopper depression, and I believed in the Mayan’s calender that “predicted” the end of the world in 2012(?) my Melancholia may ascertain qualities that mimick a “nebulous, ridiculous manic gratitude”. (Cause I don’t have to turn self on self, though not religious, just in case, whew!). BTW I will watch this film, at times depression pushes the sufferer into a falsetto of sorts. When I feel this way, I’m f— around because the emotional pain crossed another line and I wondering: When will this sickness just swallow whole and have mercy on my soul?

    • March 27, 2012 10:25 am

      It’s really interesting to hear someone’s perspective on this movie who’s actually suffered from depression and can potentially relate to the themes of this movie on a far more personal scale than I can. Would love to hear what you think after you check this out. Warning you though, it’s a doozie.

  5. Ballyhoo permalink
    May 20, 2012 4:25 am

    I had difficulty suspending my disbelief for this film. No, not the planet slamming into the earth bit. The idea that Alexander Skarsgard would actually hang around long enough to marry such a wet mop just left me shaking my head. And for me, the movie needs a likeable character to hook me in. I tried. Really I tried.

    • May 21, 2012 10:12 am

      Hahaha. Yeah, he was a trooper and then some, what a surprise that things didn’t work out for those two. And Dunst’s character didn’t do much for me either. Then again, different strokes for different folks.

  6. Derp Derp permalink
    June 28, 2012 12:45 am

    You missed the point if you didn’t know they all had knowledge of world’s end from the beginning of the movie. They were all trying to live life normally before it ended; and our main protagonist was trying to enjoy her marriage even though in the back of her head she knew what was going to happen afterwards. That’s why the movie is called melancholia. Her boss hiring and firing a guy who wasn’t educated was a sign of it, the wedding preparations, the Mother’s behavior, everyone in the movie had some neurotic tendency. I’m not a big Lars Von Trier fan but I do know what I’m walking into when I go see one of his movies. What did you expect? Please go back to film school. Derp Derp.

    • June 28, 2012 8:03 am

      Interesting take, but unfortunately, that’s a bunch of bullshit. NO ONE knows about the end of the world in the first Act because Kirsten Dunst effing DISCOVERS the planet Melancholia itself DURING the reception. Would love to not be so harsh about this, as it is a very interesting theory, but there are better ways to make a point than patting yourself on the ass and telling someone to go back to film school, because apparently film school is the only place where you learn how to watch movies. I expected exactly what I got out of this Lars von Trier movie, was not expecting to get so worked up over it seven months after the fact. Serenity now…

  7. Rick permalink
    September 24, 2012 6:19 am

    Couldn’t take it seriously… A planet as large as Melancholia wouldn’t “slingshot” around a planet as small as Earth…. Sure, the mass of both objects would indefinitely affect the orbits of both celestial bodies, but come on…. It’s entire premise was ridiculous from the very beginning

    • September 24, 2012 12:33 pm

      Yeah, I had trouble taking it seriously as well, albeit for different reasons. Think it might help to look at the planet as more of a metaphor than anything else, but then again, not the kind of movie you need to see more than once, IMHO.


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