The tenuous relationship between two sisters is further tested with the possible threat of the end of the world. A rogue planet named “Melancholia” is traveling through the solar system. Melancholia is not only the name of the sphere looming close to Earth, but also of our protagonist’s demeanor.  Director Lars von Trier’s rumination on the events during and after a wedding party is the subject of this vile little picture. I’m now convinced that audiences do not enjoy Lars von Trier movies so much as they suffer through them.

Lars von Trier’s approach is not to present the days leading up to the world’s finals days as a disaster movie, but rather as the dissection of the way people react under very stressful conditions. There are no spectacles of panicked citizens or newscasts detailing efforts to stave off the impeding doom. It’s an inventive and commendable method of personalizing such a major event. Unfortunately most of the action is too middling and subdued to have any impact. What could have been a brilliant setup for characters to have intellectual discussions about the imminent calamity and their own mortality is utterly wasted. The performers don’t behave rationally given the circumstances. Emotions run the limited gamut from apathy to despair.

Kirsten Dunst is Justine, a newly wedded bride celebrating her marriage. For reasons that probably aren’t supposed to matter, Kirsten Dunst speaks with an American accent despite the fact that everyone else in her family has a British one. We’re introduced to family, her divorced parents who openly fight in front of everyone. We meet her sister, Claire and her husband, John. They’re throwing her this glamorous shindig, but she acts indifferent toward them. Then there’s her advertising-executive boss whom she actually despises. She is depressed as she is depressing, arriving over 2 hours late to her own party and then leaving the festivities before the cake is even cut to take a bath. If there is a individual that appears to behave in a rational manner, it’s that of Claire’s wealthy husband, John, the reception organizer who is thoroughly disgusted by Justine’s behavior. While I don’t condone what John ultimately does, it seemed like an understandable response given this repulsive lot.

Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for her performance and I’ll admit it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen her attempt. However, I feel her portrayal is largely a failure. Director Lars von Trier is affected with severe bouts of depression himself and those experiences inform the negative worldview of the storyline. The director does not attempt to explain why Justine is unhappy in any meaningful way. I doubt he even cares, but the lack of detail makes her quite underdeveloped as a figure. Peter Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor opined that Kirsten Dunst doesn’t play so much a person here, but an emotion. Although he was being complimentary, I found that to be a very apt description. Tolerating her miserable mood was an exercise in frustration. Her narcissistic and disaffected air is exceedingly unpleasant.

If there is a saving grace, it’s the look of the picture. The film is unquestionably highlighted by some very beautiful images, particularly in the opening and closing sequences. The cinematography is haunting. Many of the middle scenes almost exist in kind a suspended reality where time really has no meaning. The soundtrack is just as fittingly luxurious. Appropriating the prelude from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde is a genius move on the director‘s part to make his drama more accessible. The score provides an absolutely gorgeous main musical theme.

Lars von Trier’s dissertation on mental disintegration is nothing new. Anyone who has seen Ingmar Bergman’s Persona or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris has experienced these existential themes before. But what separates Ingmar Bergman from a director like von Trier is outlook. Bergman considers the non-believer that so desperately wants to believe. Lars von Trier deals with the non-believer that has no desire to change. Life sucks and then you die is apparently Lars von Trier‘s grand statement. Its meditation on human nature is defined by a hateful point of view. His treatise on human suffering shouldn’t feel like a tortuous ordeal, but it is. As a result, he fails to engage us emotionally. By the time I had slogged through the 130 lugubrious minutes, I was ready for these people to die. Bring on the apocalypse!

10 Responses to “Melancholia”

  1. I just don’t get it. So many people like this movie, but no one can explain “convincingly” why. Oh, she’s depressed ….so what. The opening scenes and the ending were the only things that made this movie tolerable.


    • I know what you mean. I guess it’s like comedy. It’s hard for people to explain why something makes them laugh. This is the complete opposite, yet people have told me this picture has some very funny moments for them in it too. Udo Kier as the Wedding Planner for example who won’t even look at Justine. Sorry didn’t find that funny either. Lars von Trier has always been a difficult director to “get”. This movie didn’t change my mind about him. (Although I kind of liked Dancer in the Dark so I guess there are exceptions)


  2. Very nice review, Mark! And you’re absolutely right when you say that “audiences do not enjoy Lars von Trier movies so much as they suffer through them”. I’ve only seen two, mind you, but Antichrist scarred me for life haha and although I loved the first half, Dogville became too weird for its own sake.


    • fastfilmreviews Says:

      Haven’t seen either of those 2 films, but I’ve heard enough about both to know I probably won’t like them. I think Melancholia is actually a little more accessible than something like Antichrist though. I still can’t get behind von Trier’s hateful attitude toward humanity.


  3. Dunst was very good in this role but her character was just a little mopey for my liking. However, von Trier keeps his artistic vision in-tact and although there are moments of boredom, it still all comes together so well in the last 40 minutes. Great review.


    • Yeah prologue and the ending were the best parts for me. I get that Justine suffers from depression, but that still doesn’t make me want to spend over 2 hours with her and her attitude.


  4. Ah! I see you didn’t enjoy this film Mark! I have to admit, it was a bit of a slog, and it really got me thinking long after the movie ended. I guess I reacted differently to his message of “life sucks and then you die”.

    There is an expression here in the UK that aptly predicts audiences’ reactions to this film- “its like marmite” – Marmite being a yeast extract that you are force-fed at some point by your parents and there is only ever 2 possible reactions to it – you love it…or you hate it!

    I love this review! You deconstructed some elements we missed on ours!


    • fastfilmreviews Says:

      I can return the compliment. I truly enjoy your podcasts. They’re very well edited snd entertaining.

      Occasionally I am a guest on a friend’s podcast and we reviewed this and several other Indies. I was odd man out in my feelings for this film. Actually one other watched about 30 minutes before stopping. l can understand why people like it. It’s technically brilliant. I just find von Trier’s nihilism hard to take.

      Thanks for the comment!


  5. Look, if Lars von Trier was able to sell this script to a bunch of financial backers, HE ought to take Justine’ s place with the advertising agency. Obviously directing is not the guy’s talent. SALES is.


  6. Interesting review, need to watch it as it seems to be one of those films that people either really like or really hate.


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