Melancholia, Marriage and the End of the World

Lars Von Trier’s epic ode to depression and the end of the world – perhaps one and the same – opens with Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde playing over a series of breathtaking, beautiful and perfectly composed shots that at first appear to be stills until you realize they are moving in ultra slow motion.  With the hauntingly operatic music full of swooning lilts and gasping rises into the stratosphere, Von Trier symbolically (and in some shots literally) transmits what we are about to experience.  The slow motion represents the trudging through emotions while the music elicits thoughts of a great tragedy about to befall us all.  And then boom! – he lays all of his cards right on the table as we watch in simultaneous horror and joy as two worlds collide.  It’s an eerily quiet yet emotionally bombastic counter action to Terence Malick’s creation of the universe sequence in The Tree of Life.  Both films, operating at opposite poles and giving us glimpses into the vast outward expanse of human imagination through the precipitous downward spiral into the mind and madness of one, are miraculous masterpieces.


Following his audacious prologue, Von Trier cuts his film into two parts representing two sisters – Justine (Kirsten Dunst, a revelation) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, regaining the dignity here that she lost in Von Trier’s abominable Antichrist).  The first half details the lavish wedding reception of Justine, a woman of immense charms and success who appears to be smiling at the top of the world.  Von Trier wisely infuses bits of humor and pop-culture movie aesthetic when we first meet Justine.  Soon, though, he’s commenting on the past works of other great Danes (Vinterberg’s The Celebration is recalled) as we come to realize this wedding party is catered by a highly dysfunctional family, and creeping up underneath Justine’s facade is a great depression capable of drowning everyone.

For Justine, her marriage to Michael (a likable and sympathetic Alexander Skarsgard) is the equivalent of the end of the world.  She imagines only the worst, and those who are supposed to love her know it best.  Slowly her family picks away at her – Claire is resentful of her flightiness and tardiness, Claire’s husband (Kiefer Sutherland, excellent) is bitter that he forked out the cash for this wedding fit for royalty only to have Justine ruin it with what he views as a selfish indifference, her mother (Charlotte Rampling, in what may be the coldest depiction of a woman who is stark raving mad I have ever seen) is bitter and doesn’t hold back her feelings in front of the guests about what a mockery she thinks this all is, and the perfectionist wedding planner (Udo Kier in a sardonic cameo where he spends most of his time hidden behind his hand) literally can’t bear to look at Justine after she ruins “his wedding” with her juvenile theatrics.  Only her sweet nephew Leo (Cameron Spurr), who wants to play and build caves with her, and her eccentric father (John Hurt), who calls every woman Betty, show her any bit of kindness – but perhaps it is because they are both oblivious to her inner turmoil.  All of them want to know why Justine can’t just be happy…or at the very least, why can’t she just act like she is and smile for everyone?

Justine is a woman who appears to have it all, but over the course of the evening, she loses everything.  Kirsten Dunst pulls off Justine’s disintegration with a performance that is so nuanced and textured (you can feel the ironic bitterness in the tone of her voice when she tells off her boss played by Stellan Skarsgaard) that not even the actress’ most ardent sympathizers (myself included) would’ve ever imagined she was capabale of this.  It’s not only the best acting performance of the year (thus far) but possibly the single greatest performance by an actress in the last ten years.

Von Trier then abruptly moves onto the second half where Claire is literally facing down the end of the world.  A planet called Melancholia, that had been hiding behind the sun, is hurling past the inner planets heading for a “drive by” of earth.  As silly as the idea sounds, Von Trier does a good job of making it appear somewhat plausible, and he treats it all with such sincere self-seriousness under the gauze of an eerily pleasing gloom that one can’t help but be enthralled by the predicament.  Claire, always the sensible and stable sister, is suddenly at wit’s end as her scientist husband welcomes the “drive by” as the experience of a lifetime, her inquisitive little boy is equal parts scared and excited, and her sister has just arrived fresh from a monumental emotional breakdown.  Though it is here where we see Claire fall apart, it is again Justine’s depression that seems to be dragging everyone down with it, as if it has grown so large that it is the planet Melancholia dragging itself into the earth’s gravitational pull so that it might annihilate our very existence.

What transpires next is positively electrifying and represents a seismic shift for Von Trier the likes of which one could not imagine after his downward spiral from the psychotic minimalism of Dogville and Manderlay into the sickening overly-stylistic descent into personal hell and madness that was his Antichrist.  Throughout his career, Von Trier has derived great pleasure from depicting the nerve-shattering existential quandary post-feminist women face in a still fiercely patriarchal world that for the director always manifested itself through violence (in Madea and Dogville), martyrdom (in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark) and self-destruction (in Antichrist).  Lately (and especially in Antichrist) he appeared to be annihilating this archetype as he had grown to (or maybe always did) loathe it.  Perhaps during his crippling bouts of childhood depression his mother was not there to comfort him, and thus through his films he always battled those conflicted feelings of love and hate and sought to uplift her and then murder her.

We hear echoes of this when Justine calmly tells Claire things like, “Life on this earth is evil…We are alone…Life is only on earth and not for long.”  It’s as if Von Trier is speaking through her.  At one point, Claire breaks down and expresses her wish to Justine that the family, when the time comes, go sit on the  terrace together…with some wine…some music (Perhaps Beethoven’s 9th? Justine sarcastically suggests)…and find solace in each other and the beauty of the world before it all ended.  But Justine sees things as they are, and she thinks she knows things.  She always expects the worst – whether it’s the wedding symbolically representing the end of her or the actual end of the world her once sane sister can’t handle.  To Justine, Claire’s request is sick.  “I think it’s a piece of shit,” she tells her.

And you think that’s how the film will end.  That’s how Von Trier wants it.  He wants these women to hate each other and die alone and bitter.


But behold…there’s been an evolution in Von Trier’s expression of his innermost desires through film, and Justine is not just another incarnation of his favorite archetype – she is his most complex and alluring character ever conjured.  After rebuking Claire, Justine gravitates towards her innocent nephew Leo who is now scared to death of the impending doom.  His father told him if Melancholia got this close, nothing could be done.  But in one final act of unexpected kindness, Justine is willing to put on a front and pretend like she doesn’t believe that which she knows is true.  She tells the boy she can build a magic cave where they will be safe – and the two of them go about building it out of huge sticks.  And Justine, Claire and Leo all sit in there, holding hands, pretending that everything will be alright…and we know from those opening shots…that it will not.

The best escape is to pretend, and Von Trier (the auteur), Justine (the archetype) and Kirsten Dunst (the actress) form a cinematic trinity which knows this all too well.  In this regard, the film becomes the ultimate modernized Grimm’s Fairy Tale – a transfixing story parents can tell their children to help calm the dark passengers in their minds.  But it also represents a return to simpler times…a return to innocence…perhaps the innocence lost in Malick’s The Tree of Life?  The cinematic gods have brought us full circle.  In the end, Justine finally took her sister’s advice, and she chose to be happy…and then the world ends…and that, my friends, is Melancholia

It is beautiful, and it is Von Trier’s greatest achievement.

SIDE NOTE:  It’s a shame Von Trier let his vices get the better of him at Cannes and perhaps limited the film’s commercial appeal with his controversial statements, when stylistically and narratively this is the type of thought-provoking and artsy stuff that niche audiences will occasionally go gaga for if spurred by buzz and critics.  Magnolia Pictures, probably sensing they have a tough sell, has premiered the film On-Demand before a limited theatrical distribution in November.  Though I understand on one hand the economics behind this new trend of film distribution, on the other hand I feel it robs the films of the allure of having to be seen on the big screen.  Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer going to the theater and watching a film with strangers in the dark over the comforts of my sterile home theater.  With that being said, I had to see Melancholia as soon as possible no matter what the venue, and thus I caved in and purchased it On-Demand.  I still plan to see it in the theater when it is released as its large-scale images and audio (cue the Wagner below) deserve the biggest treatment possible.
Naturally this will be a film to spark debate and talk about until we are blue in the face.  As we hurtle towards the theatrical release, I will try to keep tabs on the blogosphere buzz below:
  • The always astute Jake Cole at Not Just Movies was one of the first to weigh in.
  • Bobby Myers at As Seen By weighs the film’s uncertainties and comes out with a balanced view.
  • Over at Lacus Spei, d’Albert offers up compelling commentary focusing on Dunst’s revelatory performance.
  • Thom Dicomidis at Postmodern Idiosyncrasies boils the film down with gleefully nihilistic aplomb.
  • Laura Marie Scott at Feed Me Films talks of art, Von Trier and misogyny. 
  • CyniCritics expands on the idea of Melancholia being the “dark twin” to The Tree of Life.
  • Steven Rea at The Philadelphia Inquirer is wise to focus on the awe-inspiring sense of doom we share with Kirsten Dunst’s Justine.
  • In increasingly lucid ways as he advances in age (and ill health), Roger Ebert, once again, totally “gets it.” 
  • Jason Marshall at Movies over Matter takes the contradictory approach and declares the film pretentious and of little interest spare for the lead performances.
  • James Clark at Wonders in the Dark has keenly kept the debate over the film’s merits alive and well.


  1. Great review, I just watched this myself and plan to write my own review of it in a couple of days, but this is a good analysis!

    Laura – thanks for coming to The Spin! I look forward to reading your review of the film. –DHS

  2. Von Trier is that rare bird – a director who has crafted some of my favorite films of the last 25 years but who has also made a few that I despise with every fiber of my cinematic being. With that being said – shall we rank Lars’ output?

    Melancholia – 10/10
    Zentropa/Europa – 10/10
    Breaking the Waves – 10/10
    Dogville – 9/10
    Dancer in the Dark – 8/10
    The Kingdom (series) – 8/10
    The Element of Crime – 7/10
    Madea – 6/10
    Manderlay – 4/10
    Antichrist – 4/10

    And the bottom two would normally warrant ZEROS from me, but there was an artistic integrity to them that, as vile as they were, made them compelling viewing.

  3. I love the images you chose to represent the film, they capture the film’s essence and mystique perfectly! It really was a beautiful film. I honestly just found the score to be a bit overbearing and discomforting, but like I said, I’m sure that was intended. But, I cannot and will not dispute the acting in ‘Melancholia’ is really quite amazing and the imagery is truly breathtaking and I think your review established that.

    Thanks, Bobby! There were so many great images to chose from. Von Trier should release a photography book with shots from the film. I could look at them all day. And yes, Wagner can get overbearing at times. –DHS

  4. It’s definitely one to see in the cinema, the fact that the Wagner is deafening as the last shot plays out so large as to almost make you fear for your own life was the perfect capstone to the experience.

    Thom – I definitely plan to re-experience it on the big screen. I’m still puzzled by Magnolia Pictures’ tactic here in the States to release it On-Demand a month before the theatrical release. I’m glad I saw it either way – but nothing beats the big screen. –DHS

  5. Beautiful work here David! I am astonished that you have awarded the film 10/10, but the opening is right up my alley and I have teh screener here waiting to be watched. I will do so ASAP. In the meantime, I’ll chime in:

    Dogville 10/10
    Dancer in the Dark 9/10
    Breaking the Waves 9/10
    Antichrist 9/10
    Zentropa/Europa 8/10
    Manderlay 7/10
    The Kingdom 6/10
    Elements of Crime 6/10
    Madea 6/10

    It seems like we are in disagreement over MANDERLAY, but for most of them we are comparable.

    Sam – it’s a toss up between this and The Tree of Life for best of the year (hell – they will probably be both in the running for best of the decade when all is said and done years from now). I will have to watch this multiple times before I can decide. Ummm…and we also disagree big time on Antichrist, of course. I eagerly await to read your reaction to the film. –DHS

  6. I missed this at the TIFF when I was in Toronto last month. Have heard a lot of positive response. You’ve done a marvellous job in reviewing the film in such a deep and thorough style. I doubt if I’ll ever be able to see it in theatres in my city though. We’re just screening Sarah’s Key now in one theatre only, a year after it’s released.

    Arti – do you have On-Demand through your cable provider in that part of Canada? You might be able to see it that way. I imagine you’ll have much to ponder/say after watching it. –DHS

  7. I heard about Melancholia and was in 2 minds about seeing it, but your review has totally sold it to me. I love your style of writing and the fact that you clearly know what you’re talking about 🙂

    Thanks, HayleyBee! –DHS

  8. I didn’t read your review beyond the first para. I want to go watch this one completely blank. But then again, God alone knows when it’s gonna release here. I missed Tree of Life but I don’t want to miss this one. I’ll get back to your review after I’ve seen Melancholia.

    Prakash – good thinking. I’m glad I put the spoiler warnings in my write-up. I do reveal everything (though this isn’t a movie with a big twist or anything…but still). –DHS

  9. This is one of the best write-ups about Melancholia I’ve read thus far. I definitely agree that this is an evolutionary step for von Trier’s style and his narrative approach.

    I also appreciate you linking to my own review, and glad that I’m not the only one who sees parallels between this and Malick’s Tree of Life.

    Thanks! I enjoyed your write-up a great deal as well – and I’m glad many are seeing the parallels between this and the Malick masterwork. Melancholia is also very similar in theme and narrative to Take Shelter. –DHS

  10. UPDATE: I have now had the chance to see the film for a second time (this time on the big screen at the Ritz at the Bourse in Philly) and it’s truly a cinematic experience not to be missed.

    Upon second viewing:

    – A few of my burning questions were enlightened:

    – I became even more convinced that Magnolia totally botched the release of this film by letting it play On Demand for a whole month before a theatrical release in the states. Based on the healthy size of the crowd I saw it with and their reaction – I’m convinced a savvier studio could’ve played this as a “European Black Swan” and turned it into a medium-sized hit during prime-time Oscar season. Here’s hoping the audience and critical buzz still carries this film to some level of box-office success (by art-house standards) and that Dunst gets her much deserved Oscar nod.

    – I’m still not sure if this or Malick’s The Tree of Life will top my year end list (or some other film even yet to be released). So far, 2011 has been a great year for film, far surpassing the last 3 years and on par with 2007 in my book.

    For those who have had a chance to see it on the big screen…your thoughts…reactions?

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