DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Melancholia

Thursday 10 November 2011


Melancholia (2011) dir. Lars Von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård, Stellan Skarsgård, John Hurt


By Alan Bacchus

Lars Von Trier is back to titillate us with another meta-spiritual film featuring a tortured woman on an emotional downward spiral to oblivion. Last time it was Charlotte Gainsbourg battling the obsessive therapy of her despicable husband in Antichrist. This time it’s Kirsten Dunst as a bride on her wedding day, which rapidly goes from the highs of nuptial bliss to utter despair and humiliation – all the while another planet in the celestial skies has been approaching Earth on a collision course.

It’s another bold conceptual stroke from the same hand that dared to make a three-hour movie on a soundstage with no sets (Dogville). Immediately we get the same kind of feeling we got from Von Trier’s Dogme 95 films in the late ‘90s. We’re introduced to Justine (Dunst) and Michael (A. Skarsgård) in a limo on the way to their wedding taking place on a spectacular mansion estate. It’s an affable scene showing the inability of the driver to fit the lengthy car into the entranceway to the grounds. Von Trier’s handheld camera and jump-cuts recall his work in The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves. The film also shares the optimistic tone that opened those films compared to the eventual trough of depression that ended them. As such, this scene induced a certain excitement about where Von Trier would take us this time.

The film is structured formally into two distinct halves, titled appropriately using the two sisters’ names, Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg). Justine’s story depicts the wedding, which, after the fun romp at the entranceway in the opening, devolves through the petty family squabbles of Justine’s divorced parents and the obsessiveness of her brother-in-law, John (Sutherland).

From the get-go, something is wrong with Justine. Everyone treats her with kid gloves and walks on eggshells around her. For no apparent reason she starts to exhibit signs of manic depressive behaviour. Instead of comfort, everyone from Claire to John, and even her new husband, rejects her. It’s a deeply tragic ending to this chapter, but it sets up her eventual redemption in the second half. Unfortunately, we never get to the cause of Claire’s melancholia, or at least we never receive the satisfaction implied by Von Trier’s very mysterious setup.

Claire’s story begins in the fall-out after the wedding. After the guests have left, Claire finds herself babysitting Justine in the estate with her rotten husband who obsesses about the encroaching planet in the sky. Although John is convinced that the planet will pass by Earth safely, Justine is not. When it’s clear to Claire that Earth is doomed, including her and her son, Von Trier moves into the heightened realm of cinematic existentialism.

A powerful reversal occurs for Justine, as she rises up from the depression of her wedding to accept her fate with grace. For Claire, the realist, she can only see death and destruction, which enables her own breakdown.

Melancholia works best on this conceptual level. Unfortunately, Von Trier leaves much to be desired in execution. Sadly, his film is bogged down by a heavy running time (134 minutes) without a full narrative to support it. To put it simply, not much happens, and since we know where the film will end it becomes a struggle to engage in the journeys of the characters when they’re drawn out to such an excessive length.

It’s a shame because like Antichrist, Melancholia features some of Von Trier’s most beautiful and profound moments. His use of Wagner, which conveys the sad tone implied by the film’s title, fits perfectly. His expressive use of extreme slo-motion in the opening scene is stunning, and the actual ‘disaster’ moment is a climax of extreme power leaving the viewers awestruck at the end.

Melancholia opens this Friday in Toronto via E1 Entertainment.

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