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Review: Lars von Trier's "Melancholia"

The delirious, tragic romance of woman’s anxiety is at the center of the new Lars von Trier.

Suffering from a vague script, vague performances, and even vaguer mise-en-scène, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia achieves a strange momentum towards the abstraction of scattershot filmmaking reminiscent, despite his new film's romantic grandeur (no one has quoted Wagner as vividly as this film does) of his Dogme days.  After an illustrated prologue picturing exaggerated, slow motion tableaux of events to come, the film begins its first half, dedicated to Kirsten Dunst’s Justine, with a limousine bringing the newly married young woman and her husband up a road with such sharp turns that the couple's carriage, in a prefiguration of what will soon happen to the story, immediately gets stuck and is unable to move forward.  It is a fittingly weird and funny beginning for the darkly comedic wedding party that makes up the film’s first half, and which surrounds the fatally melancholy Dunst with figures from her life so absurd—Charlotte Rampling, mother, John Hurt, father, Udo Kier (stealing the movie) as a wedding planner (!), and Stellan Skarsgård as her boss—and so cartoonish the context provided for her depression seems as fragmentary and ill-formed as the film’s handheld camera work and editing.  The second half Melancholia focuses on Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her increasing alarm at the chances that a planet  (titular Melancholia, also the mental affliction of Justine) scheduled to pass very close to the Earth might crash into it despite scientific assurances from her husband (Keifer Sutherland).

This half, even though it takes place in the same uncharacterized and arbitrary country mansion as the opening wedding, loses the unity of place and event in Justine’s story, drops most of the supporting cast, and peers with relentless, handheld curiosity at Gainsbourg as she struggles to express a tension that can exist only on the surface of the film.  Her child, her husband, and her life in the film’s unreal mansion setting has no texture of plausibility, and she hangs floating in the film like Dunst floated through the wedding and indeed as Earth is floating through space—all scheduled to collide with melancholia.  Dunst expresses a very powerful and sustained despair through each half's ordeal, but the film is lopsided, with Claire’s family too generalized to provide insight into her anxiety, just as Dunst’s depression is impossible to place amongst the remnants of her life Trier barely sketches around her.

Indeed, the film feels nearly improvised, the lines happenstance and awkwardly phrased in English—witness Skarsgård’s insistence on a “tagline.” 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: 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. Faces tell little beyond immediate emotional states, extended in duration, compressed in spaces, blurred and rendered general, anonymous, abstract by Trier’s slipshod filmmaking.  And it slips right over the surface of the film, seeing only superficial womanly anxiety—and the delirious, tragic romance of it—and not much else.


This review originally appeared in our coverage for the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

These are my exact sentiments! But for some reason at least 60% of the reviews I read online say the opposite? It doesn’t add up. I even heard people say that Dunst gives an accurate portrayal of depression! I don’t think there’s anything accurate in this movie. Good review!!!
I guess a symptom of depression is an American accent when the rest of your immediate family sounds British…. It’s pretty to look at and has a few nice scenes, but the overall effect is spotty and more than a planet hitting the earth, it implodes…. The cast at times seems to grasp at one character trait in an effort to maintain the plot, but it doesn’t keep the film from unraveling.
I feel more aligned with this review of the film than any other.
Thanks Hugo and Adam! I was beginning to doubt my reaction when I saw that Taubin/Hoberman exchange.
such simplicity in acceptance of depression. comfortably numbing.
I have never been a fan of von Trier yet I thoroughly (and beyond my expectations) enjoyed this film. I disagree with this review as it seems to me to be missing out the essential theme of an incoming natural disaster and the inability of mankind to deal with, indeed to accept, this. I find the absurdities of the characters and the events in the first half not only amusing but also meaningful in the contrast they generate with the utmost tragedy which is about to come. I also think the psychologies of the single individuals and their behaviour are not intended to be investigated because the film is pointing at a cosmic dimension. It seems to be inviting humans to recognise and, at the same time put aside, their earthly experiences for a moment. What did strike and moved me was the incredibily interesting opposition between a rational and content adult who becomes sick with fear at the approach of the threatening planet (death), and another whose fragile psyche makes more prone to accept a total destruction coming from nature/cosmos. Her mental “sickness” makes her stronger than the “sane” sister. The borders of sanity are put into question. The upcoming catastrophe is accepted as a genuine event, as opposed to the melodramatic and worthless expectations humans impose on each other on earth.
I appreciate that some people may not be convinced or touched by ‘Melancholia’, but i cannot help but notice that the arguments advanced in Daniel Kasman’s critique basically turn on a lack of ‘realism’ and ‘plausibility’ (of events, location, characters … with others chipping in about the accents). If there is anything that this film clearly does not aim for, it is this kind of down-to-earth realism. This is the sort of argument that can be (and often is) used to knock anything that defies the tenets or realistic narrative storytelling – exactly what Raul Ruiz devoted his career to. At the same time, it may be too slick to defend a film by claiming it is beyond all this, and that it strives for greater things, or realism on a higher plane – although this happens to be exactly how I feel about Melancholia or Von Trier’s cinema in general for that matter. So thanks to Emanuela for arguing the case with her essential and well-made points about sickness and sanity and the cosmic dimension.
Thanks for the in-depth comments, Dirk and Emanuela. Just to clarify Dirk’s reading: I’m certainly not looking for realism as a style in this film, but rather, in the words you quote out of context, I was looking and found wanting the kind of coherency in regards to some cinematic expressions I thought necessary for Von Trier to make his melodrama legible, empathetic, and meaningful rather than vague, wandering, uncontextual. I don’t think Ruiz is an apt comparison here, as Von Trier is clearly in the melodramatic not fantastic mode, despite the doomsaying cosmic context for the melodrama. I disagree with the most part with Emanuela’s reading (though I found it very interesting and thank you for sharing) which for the most part is a thematic one, of the film, though I do agree that the film is in part looking at the lines of difference and similarity between two kinds of existential anguish: that of society and that of something grander, more abstract and cosmic. However, I think the film is 100% behind “the psychologies of the single individuals and their behaviour”, which has always been Von Trier’s interest of late and in this film in particular. Strip away Gainsbourg and Dunst’s psychological turmoil over what’s happening around them and you’re left with a vacant parody of a marriage and a giant CGI planet.
Thanks for sharing, Firebird. Your reaction — the LVT you’ve liked the most — seems somewhat common amongst the film’s fans. What is it about this particular LVT that worked for you while others didn’t?
It’s not easy to make apocalyptic movies that aren’t blockbusters and to dare presenting the end of the world intuitively, without explosions and/or visual and audible excess but to attach it to a portrait of a clinically depressed individual. Because in your review you mention you don’t believe Justine to be a "homo melancholicus’’ because the wedding party is cartoonish and absurd – in fact this is a very realistic portrayal of how people who suffer clinical depression see their own surroundings. In this sense the 1st part that is led from Justine’s perspectve sculptures the world as a cartonish, absurd and meaningless place-to-be from which she gets introvertially and narcissistically allienated to finally crash it with a perfectly destructive force. If you remeber this movie Girl, Interrupted that depicted an institution for mentally ill women, you will certainly notice there was plenty of satire and comic effects too. It is a cliche, I think, that depression should be depicted in ‘dark’, ‘tragic’ tones to be considered consistent. This is a mental stage that has it’s phases and is in fact extremely fragmentary. In this sense the movie is trully genuine. As I mentioned the second part should be of treated as a second story (the cosmic apocalypse to which the name Melancholia is an allegory) and it shows the agony of the common worldly and socially balanced individual as it should be Claire. I think this movie speaks a lot for LVT’s genius and I hope it will be recognized by the critique for an Oscar nominee as well :) To answer your Q: It is surely very much different from Dogville, Dancer in the Dark or Breaking the waves and it’s good the LVT changed his visual language and themes of interest so much! His previous movies tried to conceptualize various social isses with severe dramatic energy and the opposition individual vs. a form of socially organized body was predominat.To me they look more like classic novels in the tradition of the literary realism ca 18-19 century. With Antichrist (a film which I personally don’t like) LVT started to experiment in a more modernistic direction, to which Melanholia is the peak.
I will say I enjoyed the film. However, I did not find it to be very good. The acting is good as is the cinematography, but the films main issue to me is the story. First of all, the beginning segment felt pretentious. There is only so much slow-mo I can take. Besides, It just didn`t feel like it added anything to the film. I´m not against artistic pieces in films, but it didn´t feel like that. Also, Justine`s part seemed like a different movie in contrast to Claire`s. I´m sure it was probably meant that way, but it detached me from the film. If he wanted the first part to be a prelude to Justine´s sorrow in the final part, it didn´t work with me. I would have bought Justine´s depression more easily if he had focused on the final part. The way he showed it to us made me believe there was no reason for her depression to be that bad. It´s not like she even loved the man she married anyways. Overall it´s an ok film

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