Wednesday 28 September 2011

Film Review: Melancholia (von Trier, 2011)

I saw Melancholia (2011), Lars von Trier’s latest piece of provocation, in Łódź's Kino Charlie back in July. And while it would be an exaggeration to say that it’s taken me over two months to formulate a response, it’s certainly true that von Trier’s film is a tough one to sort out your feelings about. I think that’s because what’s good and what’s not so good in Melancholia is very close indeed, sometimes to the point of being indistinguishable. For that reason alone, I’d place von Trier’s movie alongside Terrence Malick’s recent evolution opus The Tree of Life (2011). Like Malick’s film, von Trier’s variously lush and stately, urgent and contemplative offering often teeters on the cusp of being a ludicrous, pompous folly as it scores the end of the world, ever so picturesquely, to Wagner. But, also like The Tree of Life, Melancholia is possessed of an ambition, audacity and singularity of vision that it’s hard not to admire and, ultimately, embrace. (And, boy, what a truly cosmic double-bill these two pictures would make!)

One of the exciting elements of von Trier’s output has been the way in which it has fused literary and theatrical elements into a thoroughly cinematic form. Melancholia’s thoughtful, elegant structure divides the film into two chapters that focus on two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). We encounter Justine on her wedding day to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) - at a reception that, even from the opening moments, fails to go as smoothly as planned. After all, the presentiment that a planet called Melancholia may be on a collision course with earth is hardly likely to get a girl in the mood for her nuptials, though in truth there seem to be a few reasons other than the prospective end of the world for Justine’s sudden dose of cold feet. The second section then shifts the focus to Claire, who, some time after the wedding, is attempting to deal not only with Justine’s melancholia but with her own increasing anxiety about the planet Melancholia’s approach.

For all the exasperating, contrived and over-obvious elements present in this scenario, the assurance of von Trier’s handling of the material comes as a relief after the risible art-film-meets-torture-porn miscalculation Antichrist (2009), a true folly. Indeed, even as you’re stifling groans, you’re likely to find yourself caught up in Melancholia, an “atheist’s On the Beach” - to borrow Michał Oleszczyk's brilliant description. Felicities abound, not least in the performances of the cast, from Charlotte Rampling’s caustic cameo  to amusing bits of business from Udo Kier and John Hurt, neat work from Kiefer Sutherland, and the wonderfully intense characterisations offered by both Dunst and Gainsbourg. (This is another only-in-von-Trier ensemble if ever there was one.) It’s debatable that the movie’s portentousness adds up to any kind of profoundity: perhaps the director is doing little more than working out his own depressive condition here. Melancholia makes its impact, though: it certainly feels quite unlike any other film released this year. See it, love it, hate it, argue about it. But do see it.


  1. My relationship with von Trier has often been love hate (mostly swinging more towards hate) but you have to admire the man's singular vision for better or worse. Still I think I'm looking forward to this film for whatever strange reason.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mike. Yes, I definitely have a "love/hate" relationship with von Trier as well, but it's hard to deny the guy's vision and talent. Will be interested to read your take on MELANCHOLIA.

  3. I have now seen Melancholia, and while I didn't love it, it had its moments, particularly the first hour, the remaining hour for me lacked drama or tension. I found it distracting that C Gainsbourg and K Dunst were talking in American and British accents, yet were sisters, and also they don't look like sisters either.

    I'd give Melancholia a 6 or 7 out of 10. Maybe I just didn't get the point. As you say, possibly it can be read autobiographically, about Lars Von Trier projecting his own depression and dysfunctional relationships onto the screen, other than that, who knows.

    The opening 10 min of the film, so promising, metaphorical, beautiful, and ambiguous, a pity there wasn’t more of that!

  4. Thanks for your review, Alex, as always. I saw this film in New York City last night, and I definitely found it to be involving, especially the second "chapter." The whole end-of-the-world theme feels both tired and timely at the moment. Although the topic didn't border on profundity for me, the tone or mood sometimes did. I felt affected by the incipient periods of calm and panic that alternate so strategically throughout the second half of the movie. And the final moment seemed like a believably apocalyptic scenario; that could be what things look like when they end, or if they do.

    One thing that finally clicked into place for me about Lars von Trier's films (out of the five of them that I've seen): his abruptly elliptical jumpcut/editing style creates moment-to-moment inconsistencies that work for me mainly because that particular style is itself consistent across his oeuvre. His distinctive and aggressively improvisational tactics have trained me to accept as a viewer what wouldn't really be sensible in anybody else's movies.

    I also love how the actors so clearly trust him with what must surely be presented to them as very amorphous material. I think that's part of what makes Kirsten Dunst's and Charlotte Gainsbourg's performances so intense and authentic at several points. They're given a certain liberty to plunge into extreme emotional (and physical) states that they probably wouldn't be permitted to inhabit otherwise. That's exactly what won Björk an Oscar nomination, which also probably wouldn't be otherwise permitted!

  5. Thanks for the comment, Jason. Glad you "enjoyed" MELANCHOLIA. ;-) I think you’re exactly right about von Trier’s style and the way it "trains" us as viewers. And yes, the intensity of performance that he gets from his actors is always exceptional.