Movie Information

The Story: The end of the world -- and the effects of its approach on a small group of the fabulously wealthy. The Lowdown: Dark, strange and somehow terrible, but also compelling and a masterful, powerful film.
Genre: Allegorical Sci-Fi Drama
Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt
Rated: R

Lars von Trier meets the end of the world. The world loses. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is a difficult and weighty proposition—and it’s not your normal movie. I wouldn’t even call it normal von Trier—whatever that even means. My reaction to Melancholia—which I think is probably within shouting distance of a kind of greatness—is equally difficult. I can’t say I like the film. I’m not even sure that it’s possible to like it in any normal sense. But I had a strong, visceral reaction to it and find myself haunted by it in ways I can’t make entirely clear in my own mind. I’m also not sure I want to watch it again, though I feel I’ll be drawn to do so.

This is a long film and a pretty slow one. It commences with a beautiful and disturbing eight-minute sequence—set to the “Prelude” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—that depicts the essence of the rest of the movie in both literal and allegorical terms. The sequence is done in a very formal—even classical—style. It reflects several things—ranging from Last Year at Marienbad (1961) to Millais’ painting of Ophelia—while other aspects are completely its own. For that matter, the overall feeling is unique to Melancholia. Some of the images we will encounter again at the end of the film—though in altered forms. Other images are best thought of as portents and visions of things to come. It’s also possibly all happening inside the mind of Justine (Kirsten Dunst in a fearless performance)—the film suggests as much along the way.

From there the movie goes into “Part One: Justine,” which ostensibly focuses on that character and that’s at least sort of true. The style of the film shifts dramatically at this point, eschewing the formal style for a hand-held camera and an almost cinéma vérité look as it follows Justine’s wedding reception—an incredibly expensive affair put on by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) with her sister’s husband Jack’s (Kiefer Sutherland) money (a fact he never lets anyone forget). The mood shifts as well, ranging from the apparent good humor (which might be a form of hysteria in retrospect) of the bride to the first sighting of the planet Melancholia to the bitchy in-fighting of the relatives and guests. Once things start going wrong they go increasingly wrong because we’re watching Justine disintegrate.

The second part of the film is called “Claire” and the cast is basically reduced to Claire, Jack, their son (Cameron Spurr) and Justine. They alternately wait for Melancholia to collide with the Earth and hope it won’t. But the dynamic has changed. Justine is increasingly pulled together by the prospect of impending doom, while Claire falls apart. In fact, her actions start to resemble Justine’s earlier ones. It’s giving nothing away to reveal that the film is going to end with the end of the world, since we already saw that at the beginning. I’m half-inclined to believe that only this little, wholly separate privileged microcosm is destroyed and that the end of the world is more allegorical than literal, despite what we see, but that’s the disturbing and endlessly debatable strength of the film. There is some reason that the place is hard to get into and, for some, nearly impossible to get out of.

The very last section—however you interpret it—returns to a more formal style, which again only increases the visceral nature of what happens. I think part of what I find so haunting and disturbing about the film’s Wagner-soaked finale (hey, if the world ends, it needs the operatic) is in part due to von Trier’s use of the music. Like the opera itself, he keeps moving it to the “Liebestod” (Love Death)—which certainly and literally fits Justine’s embracing of death. Unlike the opera, von Trier never erupts into the “Liebestod” and leaves us uncomfortably hanging. This is strong stuff, but worth it if you’re up to it. Rated R for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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16 thoughts on “Melancholia

  1. Jeremy Dylan

    Lars von Trier meets the end of the world. The world loses.

    My favourite theatrical review of all time is:

    Smith played Macbeth. Macbeth lost.

  2. luluthebeast

    Although a beautifully shot film, overall I didn’t like it. The entire wedding scene moved and felt like sludge. And I know I shouldn’t look at it this way, but I think it’s sad when a George Pal movie has better science than this.

  3. Ken Hanke

    I can understand finding it slow and not liking it. Caring one way or another about the science…no, that I can’t understand.

  4. Xanadon't

    Its science can be as suspect as the science in Another Earth and I won’t care one bit. I’m just hoping it’s not as dramatically underwhelming. Sounds like Melancholia fares better there.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Its science can be as suspect as the science in Another Earth and I won’t care one bit. I’m just hoping it’s not as dramatically underwhelming. Sounds like Melancholia fares better there.

    It fared better for me, but that doesn’t mean it will for everyone. However — and regardless of how you read the film — this has a much more powerful ending.

  6. kjh.childers

    On heav’nly ground they sat, and from the terrace shore
    They yearned to open their eyes to look
    Into the vast immeasurable Abyss
    As Melancholia passed
    Through the vast profunditie obscure…

    Wagner’s score necessitates a quote from him:
    “I am fond of them, of the inferior beings of the abyss, of those who are full of longing.”

    What happened to half that 5th star, KH?

  7. Ken Hanke

    What happened to half that 5th star, KH?

    It may grow it eventually.

  8. Xanadon't

    …and I’d be happy to hear your thoughts, Ken…

    Ha, I maybe wouldn’t bug you about this movie specifically, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t look as though any further thoughts were addressed in any of your podcasts (RIP).

  9. Ken Hanke

    Well, I pretty much said everything I had to say about it. I can understand not liking it. There are things in it I don’t much care for, but one thing that might have bearing is I stringently avoided Antichrist and Dogville sits unwatched on my shelves even though I bought it years ago, so what seems like sameness to you from those obviously isn’t going to to me. It’s one of those movies where the first section and the last one make up for a lot of things I didn’t like or was indifferent to. That and the fact that I’m not sure whether to think this really depicts the end of the world or merely the world of this isolated group of wildly overprivileged people. A lot of times that would annoy me. Here, for some reason, it fascinates me.

  10. Xanadon't

    Hmm. Well I more or less hated it. I feel like von Trier presents himself as the same smug sadist that was apparent in his last film, Antichrist. I wouldn’t mind his joyless film-making so much if it wasn’t bogged down by what feels to me like a lot of tedious sermonizing with none too much interesting to say. Add Dogville to the mix and we’ve got something of a miserable people in isolation trilogy. But I’d revisit either of those films before this one. (I spent a good deal of the time wishing I was watching Repulsion instead) And I do feel that if someone bought von Trier a tripod for Xmas we’d all be better off for it.

    I’m sure I’m wrongheaded somewhere in here and I’d be happy to hear your thoughts, Ken, or anybody else. At any rate I agree that Dunst’s performance was admirable.

  11. Xanadon't

    or merely the world of this isolated group of wildly overprivileged people.

    I prefer that reading.

    Dogville sits unwatched on my shelves even though I bought it years ago

    It’s outrageous run-time kept me away from it for a while, but my Nicole Kidman fanhood finally won over.

  12. Ken Hanke

    I prefer that reading.

    I do too, but I’m not sure it’s “right.”

    Nicole Kidman fanhood finally won over.

    So how’d you like Bewitched and Just Go with it?

  13. Xanadon't

    So how’d you like Bewitched and Just Go with it?

    She’s in Just Go with it? Aw man, why’d you have to tell me that… NO. Nope. Don’t care. Not watching it. Not a chance…

    Bewitched was so bad it was goo- wait, no -it was terrible. Terrible is the only thing that movie was.

  14. Barry Summers

    If I had to pick my favorite downer film of all time, it’s Dogville. The fact that it’s an Our Town sort of ripoff is interesting (black soundstage with sketched-in walls & a ‘stage manager’-type character etc.).

    If you watch it, you have to watch it all the way through the horrifying ending and into the credits. That’s what makes it a really beautiful film, IMO…

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