Melancholia (2011)

Director/Screenwriter: Lars von Trier

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Melancholia, the film that garnered for its star, Kirsten Dunst, the award for best leading actress at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, has been finding both appreciative praise for its beauty and depth and indifferent and openly hostile reactions from audiences and critics alike for being slow, impenetrable, and just another uninspired investigation into Lars von Trier’s depression. While Melancholia is a quieter and more ordinary film in many respects than much of von Trier’s output, it shows a certain maturity in the way the director treats his twin obsessions of depression and the sorry lot of women in this world. He seems finally to have been able to put his bag of cherry bombs away and find a narrative that deals with these problems realistically.

Realistically? The film invents a planet called Melancholia that moves cometlike through our solar system and threatens to collide with Earth; it and its “dance of death” are “authenticated” by coming up in a Google search. However, if you accept von Trier’s statement that this is not really a scifi film about the end of the world, but rather a film about a state of mind, it’s easier to see this as a sensitive gestalt exercise by the director to locate the sources of his problems and attempt to exorcise them.

For von Trier, the bond between mother and child is the most beautiful and sacred, and disruptions to that bond have catastrophic consequences, often as the result of that love. We all know what happened to the children of Medea (1988) as a result of the ruthlessness of her husband Jason. In The Kingdom (1994/1997), Judith’s love for her bizarre baby, the product of impregnation by the devil, displaces any fear she might have of her baby’s physical repulsiveness and supernatural growth. In Dancer in the Dark (2000), a mother sacrifices her life for her son, perhaps without needing to.

And now we have Melancholia, which shows us both the positive and negative aspects of motherhood, and tellingly, of fatherhood as well, and how painful they each can be for children. In Part 1: Justine, the stunningly beautiful Justine (Dunst) has just gotten married. She is late getting to her wedding reception at her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) massive estate because the stretch limo that carries her and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) is having trouble navigating the snaking approach road. With this symbol of a difficult birth at the outset, we are then confronted at the reception by Justine’s feckless father Dexter (John Hurt) and her mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), a version of Sleeping Beauty’s wicked witch who basically lays a curse on the marriage in her crazed hatred of her ex-husband and the institution of marriage. Justine starts to unravel, her father takes a powder, and by the end of the evening, her union with Michael is over.

Part 2: Claire focuses on the approach of Melancholia in its “fly-by” of Earth. John, an amateur astronomer, is thrilled by this celestial phenomenon and shares his excitement with his young son Leo (Cameron Spurr). Claire is frightened that the planet will strike the Earth, a notion John dismisses with the full weight of scientific calculations behind him. Into this tenuous situation comes Justine, dull-eyed, mousey, and so depressed she can barely walk. She hopes that Melancholia destroys the “evil” Earth, thus wiping out all life in the universe—Justine claims she “knows” things and that Earth alone is inhabited. Claire, trembling with fright, buys pills she can use to overdose the entire family, while at the same time wondering where Leo will grow up if their planet is pulverized. When it does indeed appear that Melancholia is not “friendly,” which Claire first thought of the planet when the crisis appeared to be over, she discovers that John has taken all the pills, leaving nothing for her and Leo. She frightens Leo by saying there is no escape, but Justine gives him back a ray of hope by building with him a magic cave of tree branches under which she, Leo, and Claire sit holding hands, waiting for their heavenly kiss.

What, then, is Melancholia? Von Trier offers a hallucinatory synopsis of the film to come with an ultra-slo-mo preamble of Claire holding Leo and sinking into the golf course their home overlooks, of Justine tangled in heavy yarn and skimming the surface of water in her wedding gown, of birds falling from the sky, of worlds crashing. It is as though the director were offering up a dream he had at the very beginning of the film, and then presenting us with his corporealization of his unconscious material—the gestalt of his anxieties and preoccupations. As such, both halves of his film constellate his concerns about families, showing the damage inadequate parents do to their children, and both the terrorizing and seductive aspects of depression itself.

For example, when Michael leaves the estate, Justine sends him off coldly with, “What did you expect?” Indeed, what did he expect from someone whose parents never gave her a positive image of marriage and who actively worked to destroy her happiness on this day? Her fragile ego was absolutely no match for them, and Michael wisely packed it in before he got caught in the maelstrom of their messed-up lives. Justine identifies with Leo, an only child in a house so large and isolated that he could be lost in it for days; there don’t seem to be more than a couple of servants to tend to the vast estate or the lives inside it. In dream psychology, the house is the symbol for the self, and this self is beautiful, but largely empty of life.

Claire is a loving mother, but she, too, came from the same damaged family as Justine. It is entirely possible that the approach of Melancholia is, in fact, her plunge into a soul-crushing depression. Notice that as she walks across one of the greens of the golf course, the pin flag reads “19,” a telling detail that picks up John’s repeated questioning of Justine about how many holes are on his golf course—18. Thus, we can’t take the events of Part 2 at face value even if we were to see this film as science fiction. And so, the Justine who tells Claire that her plan to go out nicely with a glass of wine on the terrace is shit could very well be a projection, and the horses who were nervously bucking in the stable suddenly going quiet as Melancholia looms at its largest in the sky could be Claire deciding to let go and fall down the rabbit hole. In a previous scene, she saw a naked Justine laying in a beautiful, forested area, looking at Melancholia in erotic bliss; could depression really be this beautiful and fulfilling? Most reviewers of this film have commented on the use of the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde throughout the film. The music is mournful, in keeping with the tragic love of the title characters, and Wagner preferred to refer to the prelude as the “liebestod,” or love-death. It’s certain that love and death are intimately connected in this film, whether of the body or the spirit, and Claire is flirting dangerously with it.

Von Trier isn’t the subtlest of filmmakers, but some people’s dreams are fairly straightforward (mine, for example). To prevent his vision from seeming trite, he surrounds himself with the best actors and knows how to get them to inhabit their roles with preternatural ferocity. I honestly don’t know what or how Kirsten Dunst made Justine breathe with the kind of magnetism mentally ill people generate, but she is astonishing and mesmerizing, by turns hateful, pitiable, sweet, and morose. It was interesting to see the father-son team of Stellan and Alexander Skarsgård fight for Justine’s attention, the former as her overbearing boss, the latter as her hunky, simple husband, but it did add a dimension of familial dysfunction to the proceedings. Gainsbourg did a nice job of falling to pieces, her more controlled facade to Justine’s angry intemperance an easily breachable wall, her anger limited to a simple “sometimes I really hate you, Justine.”

Melancholia is a long day’s journey into night that merges the beauty and horror of depression through its committed point of view, full-bodied performances, and precise visual sensibility. In backing away from his usual histrionics, Lars von Trier shows his serious and sincere desire to engage thoughtfully with his subject. My hat’s off to him.

  • Colin spoke:
    14th/11/2011 to 4:19 pm

    From reading this site for over a year, I was fairly certain that you would both write about and praise this movie. I liked it a lot too, despite being wary (and often appalled by) his other films. How would you rate this in the von Trier pecking order?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/11/2011 to 4:26 pm

    Colin – It’s hard for me to say. I have too many holes in my viewing of his films. But right now, simply because I recognize a real maturity that has him toning down the pyrotechnics, this seems the strongest to me. For pure enjoyment’s sake, I’d pick The Five Obstructions, which is less his film than Jorgen Leth’s.

  • Pat spoke:
    15th/11/2011 to 8:17 am

    Marilyn – Now that I have a reliable internet connection, I can finally offer my congratulations to you on this brilliant essay.

    I ‘m so relieved to see that you treat MELANCHOLIA as the mature, serious work that it is. Of Von Trier’s films that I’ve seen to date, it is far and away the most mature and compassionate, and the characters of Justine and Claire the best and dimensional he’s ever written.

    Your knowledge of dream psyhcology adds a great deal of insight and value to your review. (I particularly liked the image of the limo’s perilous climb up that winding road as a metaphor for birth and the house as a symbol for the self – two insights that had escaped me, but now make me appreciate the film even more.)

    I’ve heard Von Trier quoted as saying the MELANCHOLIA is a comedy. I didn’t have that impression on my first viewing, but the second time around, I found a lot of dry, morbid humor in both chapters. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that as well.

    Stellar work, Marilyn. Thank you.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    15th/11/2011 to 3:46 pm

    Yes, this indeed a brilliant piece, one of the best written on this film anywhere.

    I like the fascinating alternate approach, examining the role of women in this film and in three of Von Trier’s previous films. I do accept teh director’s own explanation that the film is less sci-fi, and much more a state of mind. This is how I interpreted it. Dunst is absolutely extraordinary, the use of Wagner’s ravishing overture to “Tristan und Isole” is electrifying (love your own provocative explanation of the music’s significance here) and visually it’s awe-inspiring, especially that extraordinary opening segment. Dunst is as revelatory as any of the Bergman actresses, and the film owes at least a small indeptedness to Tomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration,” which similarly displays familial discord in public. There’s a big dose of Sandinavian angst here, but it”s certainly a step back from ANTI-CHRIST.

    One of your greatest pieces.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/11/2011 to 4:57 pm

    Pat – I’m so glad you got something out of this, the umpteenth review of Melancholia. I think this is one of von Trier’s most integrated and thought-out films, and the way Leo is blasted along with Justine and Claire is a serious, but succinct look at a child’s view of the depression of his loved ones. One feels for Leo, and by extension, for von Trier.

    As for humor, yes, it’s there, but I think von Trier was backing away from the sincerity and nakedness he put on display in this film by trying to be flip about it. Many depressives are adept at mordant humor, their insights cunning, cutting, and a thorough reflection of their pessimism. I don’t see this film as a comedy by any means; comedy is a defense mechanism in it.

    Sam – Certainly one can’t fail to feel the echoes of The Celebration in the first part of the film, but that is a much inferior film to this and only incidentally linked with it in that they show a very common occurrence – family conflict at a time of celebration.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    15th/11/2011 to 5:00 pm

    I forgot to mention that I thought the use of the Dogme 95 panning here fully realized a sense of urgency, and was as effectively employed as it was in BREAKING THE WAVES and DANCER.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    15th/11/2011 to 5:01 pm

    And yes, while I do regard THE CELEBRATION highly, it is inferior to MELANCHOLIA for sure. I agree with you on that.

  • Jerry Roberts spoke:
    18th/11/2011 to 9:30 am

    This was a film that I did not fully understand as I was watching it, but it was only after it was over that I began to really appreciate what Van Trier was trying to do. Like “Tree of Life”, I suspect that this is a film whose mysteries I will only be able to unlock with repeated viewings.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    20th/11/2011 to 11:43 am

    And Jerry, I think it stands with TREE OF LIFE as one of the best films of 2011.

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