Sunday, November 20, 2011

Melancholia (2011)

Movie quotes:
"The earth is evil; we don’t need to grieve for it."
- Justine

At a glance:
Lars von Trier’s slow-moving, occasionally beautiful but mostly painfully entertainment-free end-of-the-world tale is really a thinly disguised ode to depression

Our review (with spoilers):
There’s no doubt that I have masochistic tendencies, and I like to confirm that every couple of years by forcing myself to sit through the latest Lars von Trier joint. It all began many years ago when I was taken to see von Trier’s first English language film, Breaking the Waves. Eschewing its supposed artfulness and deep hidden meaning, I found it to be an absurd film, populated with people performing moronic acts to suit the hidden pleasures of their director. Art porn, as it were. Many critics disagreed – but I don’t care. I took a long break, but was not disappointed by the deep symbolism, talking foxes, genital mutilation, and abject fail of von Trier’s Antichrist. Many critics agreed – but again, I don’t care. And now this.

Melancholia begins with an 8 minute segment of unrelated end-of-the-world scenes, all filmed in super-slow-motion. I was glad my partner wasn’t watching this; she had enough of super-slow-motion during TV coverage of Wimbledon tennis a few years back.

And then the film proper starts, with section 1 – Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and you know what? Von Trier proves once again that he has limitless talent. The wedding scenes are filmed with a hand held, but it is not for style – it is the perfect way to portray the claustrophobic dining and dancing. I was completely immersed in the moment. The content, however, is another story: we watch Justine trash her own wedding, not by getting drunk and vomiting, but by (supposedly) being depressed, although it comes across more as petulance and immaturity.

Section 2 is titled Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and now Justine is in full depression mode. Perhaps this is being caused by planet Melancholia, which is tracking toward Earth (although scientists say that it will not collide). Justine is now paralyzed with depression; there are long scenes of her trying to get into the bath while Claire tries to help her and coerce her. The dour Gainsbourg is not ideally suited to help anyone out of depression – perhaps if an in-drag Jim Carrey or Robin Williams had been cast in that role, the movie would have been a lot shorter. Next, Claire brings out the big guns: she makes Justine’s favorite food: meatloaf. Justine, guided to the table with eyes closed, smells this delight and smiles for the first time. She eagerly takes a bite, but then quickly spits it out and begins to cry, saying, "It tastes like ashes." "Good ashes or bad ashes?" asks Claire. Okay, Claire did not say that; I’m just punching up the script with a few jokes. Claire actually says, "Did you say ashes…or asses?" Alright, Claire did not say that either. I’m really seeing Emma Stone in this role now.

The next day, Justine rides her favorite horse, but in another painful-to-watch scene, almost beats the poor animal to death when it will not bend to her will by crossing a narrow bridge. Later, Justine planet-bathes naked in Melancholia’s light. Claire is an observer to this. As Melancholia draws near, Claire begins to stress about the collision and basically continues to do so for the next hour of the film. John (Kiefer Sutherland) keeps telling her that the scientists are right. When John realizes that they are wrong and a fatal collision is imminent, he scoots into the beaten horse’s paddock and somehow gets himself killed. These are not happy people, even if no planets were about to crash into the Earth. Claire reaches full hysteria, but the depressed Justine gets into a Zen-like state as the end nears.

I’ve pieced together a possible reason for why von Trier has made Justine the character who ultimately copes with the end of the world better than Claire. Von Trier suffers from severe depression, so he casts the depressed woman as the one better suited to cope with life and death. The Earth and its inhabitants deserve to die anyway, in his eyes. That is the way von Trier he sees the world. His movies are without joy. His characters are driven to desperation; they often torture themselves and others. If you find anything redeeming in all of this, good for you. I see it as a petulant child indulging his own ego. I will say this: I respect any director who can get their work to the screen without having it reshaped by a Hollywood committee, or changed by counterproductive audience screenings. Woody Allen, Ken Russell, and, yes, Lars von Trier are names that spring to mind.

Rating: 1 of 4

Other reviewers said:
"I see Lars Von Trier movies to remind me why I hate Lars Von Trier movies."
- Willie Waffle (

"If only Lars von Trier took into account that audiences might actually want to enjoy "Melancholia," rather than endure it, or sift through it, or submit to the director's will, he might have made something extraordinary."
- Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle)


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