Melancholia (2011) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : The end of the world imagined by Lars von Trier

The end of the world is coming. This is inevitable, and nothing can abort it, and everything on the Earth will be destroyed forever along with the Earth itself. This is quite a depressing news, but Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” surprisingly, and disturbingly, finds its serene beauty in the pit of the ultimate depression for everyone. Come to think of it, what is possibly more depressing than the end of the Earth, except the end of the universe? There will be no lower bottom for us to be plunged into, and the personal depression will look trivial in front of this melancholy of epic scale, so we may find the consolation in that fact even when the end is about to start in front of our eyes.

The opening sequence captivates us with the series of visually powerful scenes. The dead birds are fallen from the sky. The aurora is on the sky, and the sparks are generated from the tip of the fingers and other objects. The girl looks quite depressed but she looks gradually peaceful – especially when she, in her wedding dress, immerses herself in the pond like Ophelia in “Hamlet”. In the vast garden of the country manor, she and other two characters are waiting for something, and we know a horrible cosmic event will soon happen because the movie also shows the big planet moves toward the Earth in the space while the prelude for “Tristan and Isolde” by Richard Wagner is dramatically played on the soundtrack(I wonder… will it be as immortal as “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss in “2001: A Space Odyssey”(1968)?).

But the first half of the movie does not focus on this depressing disaster of the universal scale. When we meet Justine(Kirsten Dunst), she is on the way to her wedding party with her groom Michael(Alexander Skarsgård). They are very late for their wedding due to the amusing problem with their limousine on the road, but they look happy as the bride and the groom who are about to be a wife and a husband.

But when they finally arrive at the wedding held at the big country manor owned by Justine’s brother-in-law John(Kiefer Sutherland), we see the ceremony may not be as successful as intended by its fastidious wedding planner. While keeping her smiling face in front of everyone at the party, Justine is almost paralyzed by her chronic depression, and there is no one to help or comfort her. Her father(John Hurt) only cares about having a good time while casually giving formal gestures as the father of the bride. Her mother(snarky Charlotte Rampling), who still hates her divorced husband, gives a bitter speech about marriage which results in lots of awkwardness among the guests. John pressures Justine with how much he spends for this big event. Her older sister Claire(Charlotte Gainsbourg) also asks Justine whether she is really serious about the wedding. Her boss, played by Alexander Skarsgård’s father Stellan Skarsgård, keeps bugging Justine to get some important tagline for his business from her(it is implied that she has worked in an advertisement company). Michael is a caring man, but he does not know what to do his troubled wife.

With the handheld camera by the cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, the first half of “Melancholia” looks like a misanthropic version of “Rachel, Getting Married”(2008). While the camera moves around the wedding guests, most of them are pretty unlikable or despicable, but they come to us as the distinctive individuals even though they do not talk about themselves a lot.

When you have the performers like John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, and Udo Kier(he plays the wedding planner in the film), the personality of their characters comes handy with their presences – you instantly knows who they are when you see them for the first time. The oddity always follows the actor like Kier, and Hurt is a fun to watch as the old man hanging around with his “two Betties”, and Rampling exudes a cold, venomous, and classy cynicism during her own moment. I’d love to see what will happen if she and Isabelle Huppert, another compellingly cold and enigmatic actress who always draws our attention whenever appearing on the screen, are in the same movie.

Kirsten Dunst, who received Cannes Best Actress award in last year, is stunning as the moody center of the film. Many of Las von Trier’ films usually test the talent of their lead actresses under the extreme conditions, and Dunst responds this challenge with one of the best performances in her career. Her character is not easy to like due to her severe emotional problem and the resulting effects on the people surrounding her, but, thanks to Dunst’ precise performance, we come to see that it is really hard for her to move on with others while still being stuck with her depression. She wants a happy wedding like others, but the darkness inside her mind cannot allow her happiness easily, and she becomes more depressed because of that and her dysfunctional family.

As a more stable and dependable sister, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who previously won Cannes Best Actress award for her brave performance in von Triers’ another dark film “Antichrist”(2009), wonderfully creates the interesting dynamic in the second half of the story with her co-actress. The new planet named Melancholia(who gave it such a depressing name, by the way?) is discovered, and now it is heading toward the Earth second by second. Claire, who has been so composed and strong, finds herself getting disturbed by the possibility of the doom, while Claire, who has recently been more depressed than before, finds the calmness in that dire possibility.

With that reversed situation, von Trier provides several beautiful moments with the increasing sense of approaching doom in the mundane atmosphere. It was initially only a small object eclipsing Antares on the sky, but Melancholia looks bigger and bigger in the sky with its pale blue light as the time goes by, and it eventually leads to the strange but ethereal scene which looks as if there were two moons in the sky. While the world outside the manor also seems to be deeply disturbed by Melancholia, von Trier stoically sticks to his characters and their small world surrounding them like Andrey Tarkovskiy did in his last film “The Sacrifice”(1986), so we are spared from usual stock scenes such as the one showing the people becoming panic and running on the streets.

I heard von Trier made his previous film “Antichrist” after going through the darkest moment in his life. That movie was unforgettable because it presented us a bleak, disturbing, and nihilistic view on human nature. “Melancholia” retains his misanthropic view(“Life on Earth is evil”, says Justine at one point), but, compared to “Antichrist”, “Melancholia” is somehow strangely optimistic with its annihilating catharsis. I guess, if you really hit the bottom, there is always the possibility of going up then. The world is surely going to end, but they confront it with their eyes opened – and so will von Trier and his camera if that happens, probably

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1 Response to Melancholia (2011) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : The end of the world imagined by Lars von Trier

  1. S M Rana says:

    Antichrist too had a cosmic dimension, and was quite drenched in misanthropy. I have been toying with the idea of seeing Melancholia, and you have conveyed the beauty which it seems to share with the earlier movie. The world, if at all it ends, will be as a result of human bungling.

    SC: The movie is more ‘comforting’ than “Antichrist”.

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