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Film Reviews

Impressions of Melancholia (2011)

As I’m sure you probably know, the indie darling movie of the month is the aptly titled Melancholia, from cinema’s bête noire, Lars von Trier. Editors Britta and Theo went to see the new movie tonight and were, on the whole, very impressed with von Trier’s latest offering.

The film is divided into two parts. The first, Justine, takes place at the reception for Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael’s (Alexander Skarsgård) wedding, which was financed by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Despite the happy occasion, Justine is suffering from severe clinical depression and cannot take part in her own life. The second act, Claire, focuses on the approach of a rogue planet, the eponymous Melancholia, and Claire’s fear that the planet will not miss earth, as John promises.

Kirsten Dunst as Justine and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire in Lars Von Trier's Melancholia

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is, above all, a visually stunning film. It is both beautiful and haunting, and oftentimes difficult to watch, though in a much different way than Antichrist. While the film’s metaphor is overly heavy handed (once again, especially when compared with Antichrist), it serves what I consider the point of the film well. Overall, Melancholia dispels the belief that depression is something that will pass by, leaving us unharmed. Gainsbourg and Dunst give stellar performances as sisters Claire and Justine, respectively. This is by far one of von Trier’s most easily accessible films, though it is as slow as any of his others.

It is obvious that comparisons between Melancholia and Antichrist will abound, both because of their thematic similarities and also, how can you not compare anything von Trier does from now on to Antichrist. One point of contention between Britta and I is that I feel Melancholia is part of a series with Antichrist; Melancholia is the yin to Antichrist’s yang. Both films tackle the issues of personal loss, and the end of the world on a intimate scale. Antichrist deals with these issues through anger and violence, while Melancholia refuses to participate with passive depression and indifference. In the end of both films, the world ends, signifying the futility of both states of mind.

While it’s tempting to compare Melancholia to von Trier’s previous powerhouse Antichrist, it’s not an entirely fair comparison (although we will), and the movie owes more, emotionally, to von Trier’s breakout film Breaking the Waves (1996). Thematically, the film also deals with depression and anxiety, but the intimate, familial setting recalls the soft sadness and desperation of the Emily Watson-led drama. Charlotte Gainsbourg returns sans-scissors to once again steal the show with her gripping black eyed stare. Her Claire, the epitome of anxiety, is the ideal visual and metaphoric mirror of Kirsten Dunst’s curvy, blonde-haired , depression-bound Justine.

The film does suffer from too much of this dichotomy (although, as already mentioned, the dichotomy in Antichrist is a false one, and it may prove likewise upon repeated viewings of Melancholia). Additionally, the old sci-fi trope of the “hidden planet” (popular today, with films such as Another Earth), is little more than a pseudo-science excuse to get at the issues of mental illness.

Melancholia is burdened with the memory of Antichrist, for me. It’s difficult to watch it and not miss the sight of what felt like a director at the height of his game. Still, Melancholia may not be a powerhouse, but it is a palate cleanser.

Kirsten Dunst as Justine

Britta Moline and Theo Estes  12/4/11

For more on Lars von Trier:
The Beggar of Pain Speaks to Him: The Lopsided Critique of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist



5 thoughts on “Impressions of Melancholia (2011)

  1. As I discussed with Britta earlier, I found the film’s big idea/”metaphor” is *so* heavy-handed and trite that I found it utterly impossible to suspend disbelief for the balance of the film – it’s so presented in a manner so impossibly clunky and dumb that it’s a real deficit to the film (as it was with ‘Another Earth’). The violations of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion are only the beginning of its lack of verisimilitude, and the intellectual laziness of the premise is in such contrast to the intricacy and languid beauty of the images it practically creates a left/right-brain split in terms of cognitive dissonance. And yet this problem could have been fixed with just a small amount of imagination and brain-sweat …

    There’s a real masterwork lurking somewhere inside von Trier, but at present he’s still a precocious adolescent in his development as a filmmaker.

    Posted by Phillip Lozano | December 5, 2011, 11:50 am
    • I still thoroughly believe Antichrist is a masterwork– and not an entirely accidental masterpiece, either, as it contains the best elements of his previous films (the minimalism of Dogville and Manderlay with the personal mythology and sexual dysfunction of Breaking the Waves) distilled into a pure punch of perfect cinema. He has the ability to be just that good, and while Melancholia didn’t quite do it for me, it’s not a stumble in my eyes.

      I look forward to what he has to bring to the table next– and hope it continues to include Charlotte Gainsbourg.
      — Britta

      Posted by VideoWordMadeFlesh | December 5, 2011, 12:22 pm
  2. Oh, I definitely agree “Antichrist” is a superior film, and not accidental in what it managed to achieve – but for me it still somehow falls short, and since it’s been a while, I’d have to sit and re-watch it to explain all the reasons why. For whatever reason, it’s a movie that doesn’t quite unravel under the weight of its ambitions, but nevertheless becomes somewhat less than the sum of its parts – but that’s better discussed after I re-watch the thing. Best von Trier movie, yes; masterwork, not quite. But that’s just an opinion – who knows, I might change my mind. 😉

    That said, it didn’t *offend* me like “Melancholia,” and I’m not being hyperbolic with that term. I found it astounding and insulting that the same movie that asks me to accept such a preposterous and ridiculous plot contrivance (the planet) feels it necessary to turn around and pedantically, patronizingly employ such a crushingly obvious metaphor for depression and mental illness. It was like “Oh, here’s a bunch of science fictiony stuff that doesn’t make sense but doesn’t matter because it’s all just a metaphor for *a basic human frailty, a subject upon which I will expound at length.* It reminded me – unfavorably – of the plots of several other SF-themed films this past year, only one of which you named, that dropped a bunch of esoteric, but largely *unexplained* SF tropes in the mix for barely functional purposes, only to drag ON and ON about relatively simplistic human motivations and emotions, like the audience is autistic or something. It’s almost the reverse of the classic SF films of the 1950s, where character development was often shortchanged, but yet they always took a moment to try and *explain* the freaky stuff, even if it was total bullshit.

    It also reminded me a lot of a recent argument I had with a Christian fundamentalist psychologist concerning the scientific basis for evolution. She rejected all learning and science as a priori posturing, ultimately inconsequential to personal experience – especially the religious belief/dogma she happened to attach herself to – *except* when it came to *her understanding of human psychology.* Lucky, I was too drunk to care.

    Posted by Phillip Lozano | December 6, 2011, 12:06 am


  1. Pingback: The Beggar of Pain Speaks to Him: The Lopsided Critique of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist « Video Word Made Flesh - December 7, 2011

  2. Pingback: Best Film Watched in 2011 « Video Word Made Flesh - December 29, 2011

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