Monday, August 8, 2011

MIFF Review: Melancholia (Lars Von Trier, 2011)

Lars Von Trier’s hotly anticipated follow up to 2009’s Antichrist garnered controversy at the Cannes Film Festival once again with the outspoken director being banned from future festivals for bizarrely expressing his admiration for Hitler during a media press conference. Kirsten Dunst went on to win the Best Actress award and the film, considered to be one of Von Trier’s least controversial (considering the subject matter), was met with largely positive responses. It was my first screening of the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival.

I think the comments Von Trier made at Cannes were overblown out of proportions. The man, though it doesn’t seem to be the case judging by his resume to date, has a sense of humour. In Melancholia, this is eerily prevalent in the bizarre wedding sequences that make up the film’s first, and superior, half. Essentially, Von Trier’s idea for the film was to dramatise how a depressed person reacts more calmly than others in a situation of high stress. The man has a past plagued with anxiety and depression, so he is certainly no stranger to the afflictions. But the sledgehammer subtlety he adopts overwhelms some of its more brilliant reservations.

The film begins with an introductory sequence, which depicts a number of highly stylized (and in my opinion, over-indulgent) images of the main characters experiencing a phenomenon, as well as an incredible image from space, which presents a collision between Earth and a larger planet. What are these images? Are they a dream? A premonition? Evidence of what is to come? The rest of the film is split into two parts, centred on two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who each experience individual psychological traumas. The former suffers from chronic depression, and the latter from a crippling existential mania about the end of the world in the form of a planet called Melancholia that has emerged from behind the sun and started a collision course towards Earth. Subtle right?

The films first half revolves around the wedding night of Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), at the castle owned by Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). Well aware of Justine’s fragile mental state, Claire hopes that throwing her a lavish wedding will bring her some happiness. After all, your wedding day is supposed to be the happiest of your life. The night does not run successfully, with Justine’s divorced parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) openly bickering at the dinner table and Justine, through a series of ever-worsening incidents, gradually becomes sadder and more desperate throughout the night, resulting in her complete alienation from her sister, her parents, her boss (Stellan Skarsgard) and eventually her new husband. While Justine's self-destruction is near unfathomable and does draw sympathy, the dysfunctional family dynamic is riddled with humour, which kept these sequences watchable. 

The film then shifts to focus more on Claire, who welcomes a now severely depressed Justine to the castle where the wedding was held. Some time has passed, and Melancholia is now visible in the sky. Justine, on her wedding night, had been intrigued by a red star. This star had then disappeared, revealed to have been eclipsed by the presence of Melancholia. John, an astronomy enthusiast, is excited about the 'fly-by', the event set to take place in five days where Earth and Melancholia will pass by one another. Claire, however, becomes very anxious about the planet, believing it will collide with and destroy Earth. 

I thought Kirsten Dunst was exceptional here. She very convincingly plays an intriguingly tragic woman whose frayed mental state gradually reveals more and more demons during the course of her wedding. Her happiness is painfully artificial, and her anxiety horrifically self-destructive. Charlotte Gainsbourg, who I had some admiration for following Antichrist, was very good, but nothing short of irritating. The supporting cast mostly played themselves. This was an observation by Tom Clift, one of my viewing colleagues. Kiefer Sutherland (who still possessed the Jack Bauer-like growl) was the most engaging, though Stellan Skarsgard, John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling all turned in interesting performances. 

But, here’s what I didn’t like about the film - the direction adopted by the second half of the film makes this web of complex and dysfunctional relationships seem inconsequential. They exist solely to reveal the motivation for Justine’s depression. The stellar ensemble is trimmed to just four characters, with Justine’s worsening mental state resulting in her cynical, but calm, outlook about the end of the world (“The Earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.”). Faced with the possibility of the Earth ending in five days time, how do you react? You don’t know. Claire becomes anxious and hysterical.

In Melancholia the only rational thinker during this time of great stress, is the manic-depressive. The events of the second half of the film take place after the wedding, with Melancholia supposed to pass by Earth in five days time. We witness these five days and the crumbling of Claire. Initially I thought that the events depicted here were before the wedding, and I really wish they were. I think the film would have been more interesting if the night of the supposed 'fly by' was also the night of the wedding, and it would have given Justine's brave performance on her wedding night a little more complexity too.

There are a number of ways this film could have gone, but with the exception of tying depression in with the apocalyptic sci-fi premise, and an instinct vs. science argument, I felt like it didn't actively engage in very much. The film does look amazing, mixing raw, hand-held footage with striking hyper-stylized captures. The fleeting emotions and tics of the characters add to their naturalism. Several shots, in particular the ones of both the Moon and Melancholia shining down on the courtyard and the final one, are phenomenally done.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly didn’t hate the film, but it was a disappointing, often-frustrating and unnecessarily tedious experience. I tried, quite excruciatingly, to remain attentive, but amidst the bloated length and snail pace, I couldn't shake the feeling of inevitability that dampened the tension. But as an ambitious exploration of the extremes of the emotional spectrum, it is hard not to admire and respect Von Trier. The wedding sequences are strong, the visuals staggeringly beautiful at times and the performances excellent. It is also most definitely a film to experience in the cinema environment (like The Tree of Life) but those unacquainted to Lars Von Trier films should proceed with caution.

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars (B-)


  1. Brilliant. I'll mention this review tomorrow for my blogging around post.

    I'm very eager to see this as I'm also someone who has experienced depression which I went through last year. Yet, we should note that this is just the second part of von Trier's Depression trilogy as he will make one more called Nymphomaniac.

    I'm willing to go into low expectations with this film as I know what von Trier can do as a filmmaker. Yet, I think he's just trying to sort whatever demons he's going through. After all, he puts my lazy ass in the seat.

  2. Cheers man, that would be greatly appreciated! I wasn't aware that he had another film centred on depression planned. You are never quite sure what to expect with him, though. Most people have liked it a lot more than me. It felt like two completely different, divided films, but it is clear that Von Trier had a very specific agenda. I think he succeeds, but this going to be another Tree of Life when it hits cinemas...i know people at my theatre will hate it!

    Thanks for reading :-)

  3. I don't know what it is about Von Trier but I start to dry heave when I think of his films. I really can't stand the over pompous twaddle. Sorry Mr B, as you review is excellent. But I would rather drag my nails down a black board than watch this film or any other VT film.

    (I am hungover this morning, so a little grumpy)

  4. Haha, I was hungover yesterday! I understand your reaction to LVT. His films have always been thought-provoking for me, but simultaneously repulsive in many ways. Antichrist was one of the most disturbing film experiences of my life; and it is a film I actually own :-/ I went into Melancholia with high expectations, and while it could have been one of the year's best, half of the film bored me to tears...

  5. Nice one. I hope I don't find it as boring when I finally get to watch it. This was a must see for me since way before all the controversy.

  6. Gosh...I'm wondering if getting tickets to this was a good idea after all.

    By the way, did you feel sick in any way while watching it? Because in Wellington, people have been leaving the cinemas and vomiting whilst watching it...apparently it's not good if you get motion sickness :/

  7. I didn't get sick at all while watching it. Though, I had had such a long day that my eyes started watering as I tried to keep them open :-p The hand-held (dominant use of the camera) is quite jarring, but it's not enough to get sick from. That's unfortunate to hear.

    I think it's worth a look Stevee. Many critics have called it their top film of MIFF (critics who saw 60 films too), and I will watch it again at cinemas.

  8. So much VT hate been spread around in the comments. I guess it's a loveithateit thing, I mean there's really nothing I can say in his defense other than you suck : ---)))

    No seriously I do get it. But ... NO. I'll try and write an "in defense of Lars Von Trier" post at some point to kind of organize my thoughts.

    I didn't find the film at all boring.

  9. Hahahaha. Anna, I don't hate VT. I really admire his filmmaking. I haven't seen Breaking the Waves, but I really liked Dancer in the Dark and Antichrist made my top 10 of 2009. I think the wedding scenes are some of the best cinema I have seen this year, but, perhaps it was the fact that Charlotte Gainsbourg irritated me, but it became a tedious wait for the inevitable conclusion and it grated me. I'm no less a fan of VT, but I was disappointed. I'll certainly watch it again, though. I haven't dismissed it yet :-)

  10. "Initially I thought that the events depicted here were before the wedding, and I really wish they were. I think the film would have been more interesting if the night of the supposed 'fly by' was also the night of the wedding."

    That's an interesting thought, and one that never occured to me. Which is yet another reason why I think this movie is brilliant even if I don't necessarily like it - there are just so many angles, so much to think about.

    Intense review for an intense film. Well done.

  11. It was odd, because when I came out of the film (the first time) a few of us shared this idea. Watching it again, I don't think the film would have been any better, and I now think it is fine the way it is. But, I have problems with the second half. It all just seemed inevitable, and becomes an impatient and often maddening wait for the final 'event'. The tension evaporated because of the pace, and tedium of the build-up. I like a lot of things about it - but I didn't get much out of it, which I am disappointed by, but can't shake.