Movie Review: Melancholia (2011)


Directed by: Lars Von Trier

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Jesper Christensen, Udo Kier, Brady Corbet, Cameron Spurr

This… was a hard movie to watch. If Lars Von Trier’s intent with Melancholia was to inspire that same sentiment in the audience, he certainly was successful. This is a maddeningly depressing film. This is right up there with Darren Aronofski’s darkest(Requiem For A Dream, The Wrestler) as one of the most depressing films ever made.

The movie is divided into two chapters, which each feature one of the two sisters as a protagonist. Before the movie starts proper, we’re shown a collage of dream-like sequences foreshadowing the events of the film, leading to the first chapter and start of the film proper, with a wedding reception organized for newlyweds Justine(Kirsten Dunst) and Michael(Alexander Skarsgard). Late for the reception, they are chastised by Justine’s sister Claire(Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John(Kiefer Sutherland). Absentmindedly, Justine looks to the sky and asks John which star a particular one that caught her eye was(this will be very important later). Finally, after some delays, the newlyweds arrive at the reception for what promises to be a beautiful evening.

However, it is quickly apparent that this will not be a fun evening, as mishap after mishap happens that slowly ends up ruining the festivities. Justine, it turns out, is a Major Depressive, and the bustle of the wedding reception is slowly inching her towards an episode. This is not helped by her family, who each, directly or indirectly, worsen Justine’s anxiety as the reception moves along. Claire, who organized the reception, basically tries to control Justine’s actions throughout the whole affair, afraid that Justine won’t be able to handle the pressure. John, meanwhile, lays on the pressure that it was his money and influences which helped the whole affair being put together, and he doubts the value of the reception if Justine is apparently on a course to ruin the whole affair. The most damaging to Justine’s mood, however, are her mother Gaby(Charlotte Rampling) and her boss Jack(Stellan Skarsgard), who vocally oppose the marriage and pressure her with work-related concerns, respectively. The only people who show actual joy at Justine’s marriage and willingness to support her are Justine’s nephew Leo(Cameron Spurt) and her father Dexter(John Hurt!). However, Leo’s much too young to fully understand and support Justine in her moment of difficulty, and Dexter, although well meaning, is nonetheless distant because of Justine’s condition.

To make a long story short, all the events of the night end up ruining the festivities, and Michael even ends up leaving Justine right on their wedding night, a moment that’s actually pretty damn powerful. I certainly was affected by it, there is just a total sense of wrongness and tragedy in a bride being ditched by her husband on her wedding night. After the whole tragic affair, Justine is quite obviously an emotional wreck, and Claire brings her to live with her family to take care of her. The first chapter of the story ends with Justine noticing that the star she saw in the sky on her wedding night can’t be seen anymore.

The star’s disappearance is dramatically explained at the beginning of the second chapter: a rogue planet, dubbed Melancholia by astronomers, is heading towards Earth. Astronomers claim that the planet will fly by the Earth, becoming possibly the most spectacular cosmic event in the human race’s history. Claire, however, is overwhelmed with an unshakable sense of dread, as many people claim the planet will actually impact the Earth and destroy it. John tries to comfort Claire telling her that it is foolish superstition to think that way, but strange phenomena happen that exasperate Claire’s mood: electricity fails, animals are restless, snow suddenly falls in the middle of summer. By far, though, the most distressing thing for her is Justine, who is disturbingly serene and nonchalant about the whole affair and is fully convinced the planet will impact Earth and destroy it. The night of the planet’s fly-by comes, and the family is relieved to see that Melancholia indeed bypasses the Earth. However, the next day, Claire after talking to an obviously disturbed John, realizes that Melancholia is actually turning back…

First of all, the technique of the film is impeccable. Lars Von Trier is nothing if not an excellent cinematographer, and every scene is wonderfully shot. The Swedish castle were the filming took place is a stunning building, and Von Trier milks that for all its worth, with beautiful external shots. Von Trier has always been a fan of the digital camera, and he takes advantage of it by using filters and effects to give the movie an ethereal glow, producing a fairytale-like atmosphere. The titular rogue planet, when is it near the Earth, is a chilling spectacle, being both a supremely beautiful and unnervingly oppressive presence. Bottom line, the movie is pretty, that is undeniable.

The performances in the film are universally excellent. I have never been a fan of Kirsten Dunst at all, her only role I’ve actually enjoyed being Interview with the Vampire, but I honestly have to swallow my pride and say she genuinely does an excellent performance in this film. Usually, characters with Major Depression in movies are portrayed as kind of bored-looking, comically lazy or functional enough that some crazy highjinks can lift them from their fugue. This is NOT the case with Dunst’s performance: Justine is a broken, dysfunctional woman, barely able to feed herself without breaking down in tears. As someone who’s had family and friends undergoing depression, I can appreciate the verisimilitude of her performance. Charlotte Gainsbourg is equally excellent as Claire, accurately portraying the frustration a loved one can feel at dealing with a depressive, and the desperation one would exhibit at their whole world being turned upside down without any power to stop it. Kiefer Sutherland as John also turns in a great performance, juggling his characters love for his husband and child with the frustration of dealing with his in-laws, who are, in his opinion, certifiably insane. The rest of the performers do a great job, even if their performances are much less prominent than the three leads’. John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling, in particular, are excellent as Justine and Claire’s parents. Hurt is completely likeable and charming; I wish he were my grandpa. As for Rampling, she is a stone-cold bitter bitch in this, and is a great “villain” for the little screen time she gets.

Now, if I have problems with this movie, it’s in the script. It is by no means a BAD script, but it is, in my opinion, an example of wasted potential. There are hints of a much deeper story that was not explored here. I understand that the movie is episodic, and so is there to show us the present events in the character’s lives; it is almost documentary-like in the way it tells its story. I have no problem with this. The problem I have is that it makes it kinda hard to connect with the characters when you don’t have some context to their actions. We see the symptoms of Justine’s depression, but we don’t see the causes. We get hints of them, to be sure. A domineering mother who treats her like shit, a domineering boss who is willing to harass and blackmail her about work in her own wedding reception, a domineering sister who treats her like a child(see a pattern?), we can definitely see the possible causes for it. But we don’t know. Her mother is domineering and cold, why? What is her workplace like? How could a barely functional depressive like her keep it together enough to actually marry? What was her childhood with Claire like? As great as Dunst’s performance was, it’s hard to sympathize with her character if we only see how badly she’s screwed up but not why.

Similarly, the other characters could have used a little more fleshing out as well to understand their motivations. I have no complaints about John, since he’s very clearly defined as far as characters go. He’s a good husband, a good father, and is worried about how his sister-in-laws condition affects his family, pretty straightforward. But in Claire, we get the impression of deep-seated resentment and frustration, but without context she comes off more as a cold bitch. Gaby also comes off as supremely cuntish for the sake of being cuntish. We get the impression that Dexter was a loving father, but not a very involved one. Like I said, we only get hints of the characters’ motivations and reasons for being the way they are, but we never know concretely. It feels like the movie has a huge chunk taken out of it. The movie’s already pretty long, at 130 minutes, but I really wouldn’t have minded maybe an extra half-hour to explore the characters’ backstories and better make us sympathize with them.

Be that as it may, Melancholia is nevertheless a haunting film, and one that will linger in your mind for days afterwards. It is emotionally draining, and Dunst’s performance will drag you down with her as much as she does the other characters in the film. As a story, it leaves a little to be desired, but as an experience, it’s well worth watching.