Cannes 2011. Lars von Trier's "Melancholia"

David Hudson

Updated through 5/23.

"It's the end of the world but also the start of something new for Lars von Trier, whose mind-blowing Melancholia offers perhaps the gentlest depiction of annihilation one could imagine from any director, much less the Danish provocateur," begins Peter Debruge in Variety. "If Antichrist was the needle in the eye von Trier needed to shake a bout of pulverizing depression, then Melancholia serves as his unexpectedly lucid response, blending grand-scale Hollywood effects with intimate, femme-focused melodrama. Think The Celebration meets Armageddon."

"It takes a baffling, almost bone-headed premise, the stuff of schlocky genre movies, and from it creates a mesmerizing, visually gorgeous and often-moving alloy of family drama, philosophical meditation and anti-golfing tract," writes the Telegraph's Sukhdev Sandhu. Kirsten Dunst "is Justine, an advertising copywriter who's about to get married (to a sweet, but rather out-of-his depth chap played Alexander Skarsgård) at a remote and lavish castle. The wedding has been organized by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), but quickly slides into a Festen-style nearest-and-dearest disaster: Justine's parents (John Hurt, obsessed with women called Betty, and a deliciously citric Charlotte Rampling) don't get on; her arrogant boss (Stellan Skarsgård) is trying to conduct business; she herself, when she's not crying or holding up proceedings by taking leisurely baths, has sex with a stranger on the estate's golf course. Justine suffers from depression, almost a pathetic fallacy seeing that a planet called Melancholia is heading for a collision course with Earth within days."

"This is a lethargic, pretty and frustratingly empty study in ways of living and dying," finds Time Out London's Dave Calhoun. Von Trier "follows Antichrist with a more calm and restrained work but also one which feels curiously disengaged from the world and only impressive and powerful on a technical level rather than an intellectual or emotional one." To Calhoun, it seems he's "mostly in it for just a handful of striking images set to music from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Much of the rest of the film feels like wading through glue in beautiful surroundings."

"Although at one point in the film I was hating it, by the end I was entirely under its spell," blogs Screen's Mike Goodridge. "Key to its success is a stunning performance by Dunst (who has also talked publicly about suffering from depression)… Dunst's star is reborn here and she is an immediate contender for the best actress award at Cannes…. Memorable and hilarious in a small role is Udo Kier as the wedding planner who refuses to look at Dunst after she disturbs the order of the day, shielding his eyes every time she comes into his line of vision."

Screen's Lee Marshall, though, is less impressed, finding Melancholia to be "such a long and sluggish haul that many in the audience will find themselves cheering on the apocalypse…. The film's opening pre-title section is a standalone tone-poem… For eight minutes we are presented with a series of captivating symbolic tableaux shot with dreamlike clarity: birds falling dead from the sky around an expressionless Kirsten Dunst; Charlotte Gainsbourg trudging with a young boy in her arms through grass on a golf course that seems to have turned to quicksand, and other doom-laden augurs, which culminate in a magnificently visualized planetary collision…. Melancholia's imagining of a lonely, internalised apocalypse, experienced, in the end, only by Justine, Claire, Claire's young son and the horses in the stables, in a big old country house isolated from the rest of the world, does build a weirdly memorable dreamscape, for all its faults of story, script and character."

For the Playlist's Kevin Jagernauth, Melancholia is "easily the most restrained film the director has made since Europa. Essentially shock free, the operatic, three act film plays more like an Ingmar Bergman chamber piece than anything else and the biggest surprise the film packs is just how contemplative Von Trier is this time around."

"The greatest possible expression of Von Trier's recent 'no happy endings' edict, Melancholia is supremely operatic, enlivened by its cosmic sensibility, and yet amazingly rendered on an intimate scale," finds indieWIRE's Eric Kohn. "Beyond its opening and closing minutes, the movie's appeal mainly comes from its fine-tuned performances, each of which adds to the developing sense of dread."

"I have an on-again/off-again relationship with the work of Von Trier," admits Drew McWeeney at HitFix. "But with Melancholia, there's no ambivalence, and I don't need to wrestle with my reaction. I loved it, pure and simple, and I cannot wait to watch it again."

"As one might expect with von Trier, the film has some truly breathtaking visuals, especially the opening sequence and the closing few minutes, but in-between that, there's not much to it," argues FirstShowing's Alex Billington.


"It's hard to recall a more chipper Lars von Trier," writes the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Eugene Hernandez from the press conference. "Laughing, poking fun at his colleagues on stage, teasing them about pornography, joking about Hilter. Oh wait, he may have just gone too far." At Vulture, Jada Yuan lists "10 Most Controversial Things Lars Von Trier Said at the Melancholia Press Conference." Update: As Christopher Rosen reports at Movieline, von Trier, eager to clear up any misunderstandings, has issued a statement since that press conference: If I have hurt someone this morning by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologize. I am not antisemitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi."


More viewing. The Playlist has a quick clip, a very short trailer and a VFX reel. And the grades are coming in at Micropsia.

Updates: "Antichrist was the first von Trier movie I genuinely loved, after a decade’s worth of railing against the sufferdome atmosphere of pictures like Dogville, Dancer in the Dark, and even the mildly bearable Breaking the Waves," writes Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek. "Antichrist stunned and upset me, but it also filled me with compassion toward the man who made it, a feeling I’d never imagined I could have…. With Melancholia, von Trier hasn’t tried to top himself, thank God. Despite the somber nature of the title, the movie is something of a breather, a respite, a chance for von Trier to explore emotional anguish and intricacies in vibrant, often elegant visual ways, with no self-mutilation involved. It’s gorgeous to look at, deeply moody and atmospheric, and it’s always in on its own grim little joke."

A "staggeringly tiresome and facetious film," finds the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw. "If Melancholia had been conceived with real passion or imagination, or if it had been well written or convincingly acted in any way at all, it might have been a loopy masterpiece…. Once again, Von Trier has written and directed an entire film in his trademark smirk mode: a giggling aria of pretend pain and faux rapture. The script is clunking, and poor Dunst joins Nicole Kidman and Bryce Dallas Howard in the list of Hollywood females who have sleepwalked trustingly through a Von Trier production. Even the spectacle is thin and supercilious."

"Melancholia would seem to have two purposes," surmises the Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy: "To express the state of deep depression the director has so often described his being in for the last several years, and to articulate his non-belief in anything beyond our temporal presence on this rock." Ultimately, though, he "manages to turn the end of the world into a bit of a bore."

For Mike D'Angelo, writing at the AV Club, Melancholia "plays as if Lars von Trier saw The Tree of Life on Monday morning and then somehow shot a feature-length rebuttal in less than 48 hours. Conflating the personal and the cosmic with equal bravado, but focusing on the opposite end of the universal timeline, it's clearly every bit as autobiographical as Malick's film, though in this case the details have been shrouded in allegory…. [A]s much as I generally love Von Trier, his forte is the schematically conceptual. Complex human emotion just isn't what he does. And while two-dimensional stick figures were ideal for a Brechtian piece like Dogville, here they fail to convey the situation's true ghastliness…. As always, I'm gratified to see him swing for the fence, but while this is a less spectacular whiff than was Antichrist (which was also depression-inspired), it's a whiff in my book all the same."

The Voice's J Hoberman: "On Monday I characterized The Tree of Life as a train wreck — I was wrong. It's Von Trier who has contrived the spectacle impossible to turn away from…. [W]hen Von Trier obliterates the world in Melancholia he also destroys Malick's worldview, or at least puts it in perspective…. The comparison is not a matter of filmmaking (although the first five minutes of Melancholia are more innovative, accomplished, and visionary than anything in The Tree of Life); it's a matter of sensibility. (For some, Von Trier's appalling skepticism might make Malick's faith all the more touching.) But for me the most important difference is the distinction between art and kitsch. Von Trier has made a movie about the end of world — when I left the theater and exited out into Cannes, I felt light, rejuvenated and unconscionably happy."

"Congratulations to everyone who has ever accused director Lars von Trier of self-absorption and hollow pretentiousness," offers Twitch's Todd Brown. "You win this round. Von Trier's Melancholia is a glossy but hollow exercise with shockingly little to say and — seemingly — surprisingly little effort put in to saying it well. Poor performances and shoddy dialogue are just the most obvious problems with this one, a film that handily wrests the 'Worst Film of Career' title away from The Boss of It All and, in the process, takes its place as the first Von Trier film that I would classify as just plain bad."



"Von Trier divides Melancholia into two parts, separate but equal chapters titled after the two sisters," writes Glenn Heath Jr at the House Next Door. "The first focuses on Justine's compressed trajectory, the second on Claire's extended suffering. The segments are mirror images of each other, creating diverging experiences that both have balcony seats to the end of the world…. Melancholia descends calmly into the fiery red night with an unnerving grace only von Trier could conjure. Life on Earth may be evil, as Justine resolutely confesses in a sobering monologue to Claire, but there's hope in the mortal resignation that there might be a chance to start again, somewhere ethereal beyond the scope of cinema."

For the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris, "this isn't particularly daring moviemaking from von Trier, not in the way he's capable of. It's just severely controlled, touchingly sincere, and apparently the result of a conversation he had with unlicensed therapist Penélope Cruz, who opted to make a Pirates of the Caribbean movie instead of this one. The hearty, jeerless reception the movie received suggests his vision is preferred medicated. Unpacking American movie genres has always interested von Trier (this time, it's wedding comedies, disaster film, and psychological dramas). But Melancholia has much more in common with 1960s Michelangelo Antonioni. Which means that his protagonist is not, for once, a woman he wants to antagonize. It's a woman he wants to help in whatever way he can. In part, that's because that woman is him."

"Every Cannes Festival needs a Wow! moment, and the opening few minutes of Lars von Trier's Melancholia provided the artistic sensation of Cannes 2011," writes Time's Richard Corliss. "Again as with the Malick film, Melancholia is a spiritual autobiography. No question, Justine is von Trier. Nils Thorsen, author of the book The Genius: Lars von Trier's Life, Films and Phobias, writes that the director 'has been haunted by anxieties all through his life, and believed that World War III was breaking out every time he heard an airplane as a boy.' But von Trier finds solace in his affliction…. If you were to play a game in which you had to pick one movie to take to a desert island when the world is ending, you might well choose Melancholia — its first and last reel."

"The Tree of Life chronicled nothing less than the conception, birth, travails and glories of earthly existence," writes Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune. "Von Trier's Melancholia answers Malick's spiritual inquiry by saying, well, it was a stupid planet anyway, with a limited shelf life. Yet von Trier, a serious man when he isn't being the most ill-advised ironic wiseacre this side of a visiting planet, creates startling moments of beauty."

Melancholia is "the work of a man whose slow emergence from personal crisis has resulted in a moving masterpiece, marked by an astonishing profundity of vision," argues Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly.

"I think I prefer Melancholia to Terrence Malick's much-debated The Tree of Life," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir — for the moment, it should be stressed — "but to have two new career-defining works from major film artists that can plausibly be defended as cinematic and philosophical masterpieces in the same festival is close to miraculous."

Catherine Shoard interviews Charlotte Rampling for the Guardian.

Updates, 5/19: "What is rather amazing is that a film about the destruction of all life (and von Trier posits that we are alone in the universe) could be so turgid," finds Barbara Scharres, blogging for the Chicago Sun-Times. "That said, I think I rather prefer von Trier's wacko view of the cosmos in Melancholia to Terrence Malick's in The Tree of Life. With the ingredients von Trier had to work with, it's surprising that he didn't make a better film."

By this point, you'll have noticed that, on the Croisette at least, setting this film next to that one has become all but irresistible. Aaron Hillis for Moving Pictures: "Where Terrence Malick's overly ballyhooed epic posits that God is in the details, beauty lying in each trivial moment, then Melancholia — at times just as lyrical and painterly and perhaps the best film yet screened at Cannes — rebukes that there is no higher being and all life is, face the facts, cosmically insignificant."

"One wag has already begun repeatedly referring to this slow march to nothingness as The Tree of Death," notes Time Out New York's David Fear. "Despite all the apocalyptic tidbits that pop up in Malick's latest, it's still takes an overwhelmingly positive view on this great experiment burped up by the universe: Grace can be achieved, we can grow as individuals and as a species, and all of your loved ones and dead pets are waiting for you in heaven when you die. Von Trier's vision of negation almost feels like a chuckling rebuke: No, this is what life is really like, a circus maximus of pain, anxiety and darkness that weighs you down until it's snatched from you by the indifference of fate."

"In ambition and scale, Melancholia towers over most of the rest of the competition," writes Time Out Chicago's Ben Kenigsberg. "Still, for reasons I'm still figuring out, I wasn't bowled over by the movie the way I was by von Trier's masterpieces… Despite its subject, it's one of a few von Trier films that doesn't hit like a genuine cataclysm."



Blake Williams for Ioncinema: "Evil, for von Trier, is not obviously malicious or dark-sided, but rather the veneer of precious moments and gestures that prevents humans from doing and feeling what they actually want. The planet and it's heavy-handed nomenclature dispel a nasty, yet authentic, worldview suggesting that all of these things that make us happy are so irrelevant that it's a wonder that we aren't running and screaming, dreading death, from the moment we first learn to walk and speak. It's an extreme notion, but do we expect less from him?"

For In Contention's Guy Lodge, "the film's lack of overt audience-baiting serves to place his formal gifts in starker relief. A subdued, even elegant, vision of the apocalypse that begins as a waking dream and continues in an actuality no less feverish, Melancholia represents the natural culmination of the depressive doubt in self and society that has needled most of von Trier's features."

"I found von Trier's recent Antichrist (life as Satan's playground) unpalatably preposterous but was absolutely won over by the audacious new film," writes Jonathan Romney for the London Review of Books.

Adam Woodward at Little White Lies: "It is a beautiful, empowering film full of elegance and repose. It's ballsy, and though it won't be universally adored, von Trier continues to command the utmost respect as an artist."

Follow the commentary on Cannes' declaring von Trier "persona non grata" here.

Update, 5/20: "It's like Antichrist but this time you get to laugh with von Trier instead of just appreciate being laughed at," writes Simon Abrams for the L. "[W]hile the results are surprisingly easy to take, the film is slight for him. It's never dreamlike enough to fully take off, but it does feature exceptional performances from Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland, as her golf-obsessed, petty bourgeois brother-in-law."

Update, 5/21: "Seemingly scripted and filmed on the fly, with copious CGI made to bookend the ladies' nervous mania with fatal, swoony grandeur, the film is made around one idea," writes Daniel Kasman here in The Notebook: "that for one sister (half of a person) the end of the world is a party, wedding, family — people, society — and for the other, the end of the world is the uncertainty of the many possible indifferent catastrophes in such a large and powerless world — that is, a crisis of mental stability and faith."

Update, 5/23: Gail Tolley interviews Stellan Skarsgård for Dazed.

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