Lars von Trier’s Melancholia would have to be the “deepest” most demanding movie in cinemas at the moment. The word melancholia refers to profound depression, apathy, and withdrawal. In the movie, it also refers to a planet that is about to collide with earth bringing the world to an end and to the experience of one of the main characters of the story, Justine (Kirsten Dunst).
The movie opens with a stunning series of slow motion scenes (snapshots of what is to come) to the music from Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. The images are surreal and dark and create a degree of anxiety with an impending sense of doom. Following this prologue, the rest of the movie is in two parts – Part 1 is “Justine” and Part 2 is “Claire”. These are two estranged sisters and the story of the impending end of the world is told by focusing on each of them in turn, comparing the way in which each of the sisters deal with the end of the world. The whole movie takes place in a mansion owned by Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), beginning in the first part with Justine’s wedding reception and, in the second part, with Claire caring for Justine as she descends into a profound depression. Justine’s depression begins in the first part of the film and traverses the second part until she begins to improve just before the end of the world occurs.
There are many layers to this film and many possible “readings” of the story. The director has, however, left those things to the viewer to work out – there is no preachiness, no exegesis, just superb storytelling that leaves us deep in contemplation when it is over.
Melancholia is ambitious in using a cosmic event to parallel Justine’s depression. Dunst is superb in her role and, as someone who has experienced a major depressive illness, I resonated with much that she portrayed as she descended into her private hell. Ultimately, for me, the film portrays the different ways that people might face the end of the world (and depression) – opting out before it happens (in the case of John), becoming fraught with anxiety (in the case of Claire), or facing it head on with calm acceptance for what it is (in the case of Justine).
The end of the world is stunningly portrayed by von Trier. There is no cliché, no sensationalism, no “Hollywood” happy resolution. In fact, there is nothing clichéd about this movie at all. It is deeply courageous film making and will, therefore, not suit every viewer. It is tough to watch; patience is required as some parts move slowly; there are nuances to observe; and the subject matter is bleak and confronting.
Apparently, the idea of this movie grew out of von Trier’s own depression while he was in therapy. He came to understand that depressed people could, in the face of impending doom, act with rationality. Because of their experience managing depression, they could perhaps deal with this sort of event better than others (see Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald for more on this).
God and/or religion is nowhere to be found in this movie. This is the end – that’s all there is. For many Christians, this will be an omission that is significant for them. Most Christians cannot conceive of people dealing with depression or obliteration without God. But they do – and often with ultimate peace and tranquillity. (Feel free to comment on this issue in the comments area below!) Melancholia is a stunning piece of moviemaking – except it is a bit long and slow in the second half. If you want to bypass the superficial fare of the holiday period, check this one out!
You will probably enjoy this movie if you liked Solaris, The Tree of Life, The Virgin Suicides, or The Antichrist.
'Leave it to von Trier to conceive an intergalactic sci-fi metaphor for a psychological disorder – and then make it work so astonishingly well.’ – Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald
'Melancholia is his latest pile of undiluted drivel, nauseatingly filmed by a wonky hand-held camera and featuring a crazy, mismatched ensemble headed by Kirsten Dunst, who won an acting award in Cannes last year for looking totally catatonic.’ – Rex Reed/New York Observer
some graphic nudity,sexual content and language