Melancholia: A Review


Over the weekend I went with my husband to watch the Lars von Trier film Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland and Alexander Skarsgard. The basic premise of the film is that the already strained relationship between two sisters is further pushed to its limits when a large planet is recently discovered which may collide with Earth. The film begins with a series of semi-still shots, which I describe as such due to the fact that you don’t even notice right away that there is movement at all. It isn’t until you watch most of them for several seconds that you begin to notice the subjects are not static. As you watch you will realize that all of the shots you saw during the first five minutes are all transpiring throughout the film, in sequential order. The only exception to this that I could find was the very first frame involving Justine (Dunst) staring blankly ahead while dead birds fall from the sky behind her – this never happens to my recollection. As you realize that these previous frames are precisely what happens in the film, the ending should come as no surprise to anyone. While this segment does seem to drag in moments, the images are all quite lovely and reminded me somewhat of the work of Gregory Crewdson, which if you aren’t familiar with his work I would suggest it highly. After this little thematic preview, the film & story itself actually begins with what is quite possibly the longest wedding reception in history in what is quite possibly one of the biggest houses I’ve ever seen. For awhile all seems quite light and lovely with smiles, kisses and laughs, but as the night progresses the cutting remarks of the sisters’ mother and the various little family dramas begin to take a noticeable toll on Justine’s enjoyment.

As the viewer continues to watch the train-wreck that is this wedding reception it becomes markedly clear that Justine suffers from (at the very least) a SEVERE case of depression which leads to erratic and inappropriate behavior throughout the night. She locks herself in a bathroom to take a bath, wanders off to take a small nap in her nephew’s room after tucking him in, roams around the golf course surrounding the estate, and has sex with her boss’s assistant on the green quite randomly. Though, to be quite honest, I had a feeling that last scene was going to occur at some point. While I’m not a mental health professional, I would surmise that Justine possibly suffers from some form of Manic Depression as she would be in a listless state of depression then in a few moments angry and lashing out at others. I found all of her self-absorbed and self-destructive behavior incredibly annoying. I hardly felt anything at all for this character because I was too distracted by my feelings of contempt for her. In fact, it appeared to me that she and everyone else she knew was WELL aware that she had problems yet no one seemed to think she might actually need professional help of any kind. One of the aspects of the film which broke my heart a little was that her husband, Michael (Skarsgard), so sincerely and so earnestly loved her and wanted her to be happy and then she turns around and shits all over him and his efforts without any hint of remorse or regret. “Did you really expect it to be any different?” (paraphrasing there), she asks as he drives away at the end of the night. Which is another thing: Michael leaves after all this drama occurs quite calmly even though noticeably sad, and this is delivered to the audience in such a way that is supposed to feel like a natural end, yet it felt sudden and without any real explanation. Did he somehow witness her tryst? Or did he finally just have enough of all her bullshit and realize that any further efforts were futile? I read another review of this film where the writer felt that Michael was in fact rejecting Justine, but I got just the opposite impression. I felt that Justine was rejecting Michael, his attempts to make her happy, and their potential life together by her flippant attitude towards all of it. I got the impression that though Justine thought all those things might be “nice”, she didn’t really want them because she either felt she couldn’t have them because she didn’t think she could be happy, or it was just a result of her manic thoughts as a method of self-inflicted harm.

Part two of the movie deals with Claire (Gainsbourg) and takes place sometime after the disastrous wedding reception. You know this because Justine is a droopy ball of sadness that can barely walk on her own and her hair is now cut short. She sleeps all day, she doesn’t eat, and Claire attempts to get her to bathe which fails terribly by ending in the sad Justine (who is just SO sad she can’t even open her eyes) collapsing in a sobbing heap because she was unable to lift her leg to get into the bath. Claire tries to coerce her into getting up and eating meatloaf (which is apparently a favorite) and yet when she takes a bite, all she can do is spit it out and break down into tears crying, “It tastes like ashes”, which almost made me start to giggle a little at the melodrama of it all. It becomes very obvious that Claire’s role in their relationship is that of the hopeless enabler – she constantly makes excuses for Justine’s behavior by stating that “she’s sick” and therefore can’t help herself. Even though Justine’s behavior and presence create an obvious strain on Claire’s marriage, nothing is ever Justine’s fault and Claire is always there trying to take care of her and do things for her, trying to find things for Justine to do to distract her from her melancholy (do you notice a connection here?). In response, Justine does nothing but berate and insult Claire in spite of her efforts when she’s in her manic moods.

Meanwhile, Claire is obviously not entirely well balanced herself as she is obsessed with the planet (called Melancholia) that is headed towards Earth. Despite her husband John’s insistence on the correct calculations of reputable scientists the world over that Melancholia poses no threat, she can’t help but still be quietly panicked that the world is coming to an end. She is momentarily calmed when the night the planet is supposed to pass us by she is able to observe the planet getting smaller, which John (Sutherland) assures her means that it’s moving farther away and has missed Earth. The next morning, John is seen staring into his high-dollar hobby telescope silently, yet obviously very disturbed. Claire dozes in the sun for a bit, relaxed, feeling as though all is well. When she opens her eyes again John is no longer in sight. As it becomes very clear to Claire it should just be confirmed to the audience that all is not well regarding Earth and Melancholia.

Claire shortly thereafter commences to engage in full-speed panic mode, completely freaking out and attempts to leave the grounds. However, none of the vehicles will start – presumably due to the affects Melancholia is having on the Earth. She is bound and determined to leave and get to “the village” (it’s never clear where this movie is set, FYI) even though Justine tries to talk sense to her effectively stating that it really doesn’t matter where she goes she can’t escape it (paraphrasing). Regardless, Claire manages to get a golf cart to start and with her son Leo in tow tries to make it out of there, only for the golf cart to die a short distance from the estate. Finally recognizing & accepting defeat, Claire picks up Leo and starts back towards the house as it begins to hail.

One of Justine’s only redeeming moments comes after Claire & Leo’s return where she decides to comfort Leo by telling him that if they build a magic cave and sit inside of it then they will be safe. She and Leo gather large sticks/branches in the forest, strip the bark, and arrange them in a teepee fashion, large enough for all three of them to fit inside. Justine tells Leo to close his eyes once they’re in and all three hold hands, waiting for the end. The last frame of the film is a wider shot showing all three of them inside the stick house with Melancholia looming towards them, finally colliding and wiping out the planet.

Now, you may have gotten the impression that I did not like this film but that isn’t the case. I didn’t like the character Justine at all and Claire was only somewhat more sympathetic, though her enabling and hysteria were kind of annoying. And before you think that I’m being cold or uncaring towards people with mental disorders that is not my intention either. I understand that people do indeed suffer from mental illnesses and should be viewed & treated as anyone else who is ill. The problem that I had with this film was that no one ever fully acknowledged Justine’s illness or the need for any kind of help. I am extremely annoyed by martyrdom and self-indulgent behavior and in my opinion Justine’s illness was used by her as a means of getting to do whatever she wanted to do and always having an excuse for it, as well as a way to force people to actively care about/for her. Despite the fact that she had access to the best drugs and therapy money could buy, neither she nor her family ever made any mention of getting her help. The “help” they offered was indulging her in all her drama and enabling her destructive behaviors, while only acknowledging her illness enough to use it as an excuse for her actions. I realize that it’s “just a movie”, but that doesn’t make the actions performed in the movie any less grating.

I didn’t hate the film and I didn’t love the film but I can say that I liked the film. Many of the images in Melancholia could be described as beautiful (especially the opening). Visually speaking, it was lovely and the color scheme employed reflected the title and subject matter of the film effectively. Melancholia was good and it was certainly interesting and very different when you consider what most family dramas or end-of-the-world flicks are like these days – you certainly don’t often seen a combination of the two genres. The first word that pops into my head to accurately describe the film is nihilistic. Justine even makes the statement that Earth is evil and no one will miss it once it’s gone, to which Claire rather piteously responds, “But where will Leo grow up?”. The movie comes off as rather cold to me in the sense that there is nothing redeeming about any central figure in it, in addition to the lack of any defense for mankind or the planet, but instead displays a rather steely acceptance of the inevitable end. Do not expect any warm fuzzy sentiments about humanity in this picture. Not that there’s anything wrong with that if that is the point, it is merely an observation.

One aspect of the movie which I did not even really begin to understand until I began writing this, is that really the whole film can be viewed as a metaphor for depression and the affect it can have not only on one individual but an entire family. I don’t think it was any kind of coincidence that the name of the planet and the film share the same name as what is plaguing Justine and her family. Just as the planet Melancholia threatens the existence of Earth, Justine’s melancholy destroyed her marriage & her career and stood to destroy her relationship with the only family member left who really cared for her. Just as Melancholia had a strange and damaging effect on the Earth causing it to behave out of balance, so too does depression act on an individual’s psyche and behavior; the erratic behavior exhibited by Justine was reflected by the erratic behavior of both animals and weather patterns on Earth. The fact that Melancholia was always there and just hiding behind the Sun can read as depression being ever present in a person but merely looming, waiting to appear and wreak havoc. Justine’s comments about Earth being destroyed as a positive outcome conveys, to me, her own feelings about the value of her own existence and quite probably how Von Trier’s own outlook on life is colored. All of this, of course, brings me back around to the nihilistic philosophy that is this film. With all that being said, I would recommend Melancholia to others as it is an example of very good cinema, my own personal irritations aside :).