Melancholia Goes from Grim to Grimmer
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- Updated Apr 30, 2013
DVD Release Date: March 13, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: November 11, 2011 (limited); November 18, 2011 (wider)
Rating: R (for some graphic nudity, sexual content and language)
Run Time: 136 min.
Director: Lars von Trier
Actors: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Stellan Skarsgard, Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Brady Corbet, Udo Kier
Danish director Lars von Trier has a reputation for several things. First and foremost, he’s known as one of the world’s great filmmakers, based on previous work like Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville. But those films share a common thread beyond critical acclaim: They all feature a female protagonist who is pushed to extremes. That element of von Trier’s films has earned him the label, in some circles, of “misogynist,” although the performances he’s received from his lead actresses have earned top industry accolades. Bjork, the star of Dancer in the Dark, and Kirsten Dunst (All Good Things), the lead in von Trier’s latest film Melancholia, both won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Von Trier is also known for outrageous comments. A provocateur, he has given several press-generating interviews over the years, including one at the most recent Cannes festival that got him banned from the event. He’s also spoken about religion in ways that have ranged from respectful to dismissive and even hostile.
Melancholia, which von Trier wrote and directed, is an examination of depression and cold-eyed rationality that grew from the filmmaker’s own struggles with depression. It is the story of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), during events surrounding the wedding of Justine to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard, TV's True Blood). The first half of Melancholia tracks Justine’s wedding at the home of Claire and her wealthy husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland, Marmaduke). As the wedding party unfolds, we slowly begin to see that Justine’s behavior isn’t that of a happy newlywed. Claire implores her not to act up, but only gradually do we come to understand why: Justine suffers from severe depression. By the time the night is over, Justine’s depression will overtake her, causing her marital union with Michael to remain unconsummated. Claire and John will watch as Justine shuts out those around her, helpless to stop it.
Part two of the film focuses on Claire and the way she copes with the imminent threat posed by Melancholia, a planet that, we are told, emerged from behind the sun and will pass closely by Earth. John keeps a close eye on the planet, calmly telling Claire that the world’s scientists have predicted that Earth won’t collide with Melancholia. Their young son carries on with his care-free existence, while his aunt Justine resolutely faces the possibility that the end of the world may be nigh.
Justine is ready for the world to end. Her life has been one of misery and pain. “Earth is evil,” she says. “We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.” Nor does Justine see any hope for what might come after death. “Life is on Earth, and not for long,” she says.
But if religion takes a beating in Melancholia, so does science, which is mocked. Claire’s husband, John, watches Melancholia through his telescope, projecting confidence that everyone will be safe from the threat Melancholia represents. “He studies things. He always has,” Claire says at one point, trying to convince herself and her family that they’ll be safe. But she wonders aloud, “What if your scientists have miscalculated?”
They have, as the film’s opening moments, which show the collision of Earth and Melancholia, have already revealed. So we watch the unfolding story with a sense of dread at the inevitability of what will come. When it does, the moment is overwhelming in its power. Prepare to leave the theater shaken.
Although Melancholia mostly steers clear of religion, its sudden cataclysm has echoes of a day of wrath (Romans 2:5) and destruction, minus any hope for what follows that event. Melancholia is a film of despair and hopelessness, destruction and meaninglessness. That said, it is, in many ways—performances, cinematography and use of music—excellent. Those who come to it with a firm grounding in Christian faith will see much in Melancholia that they see in everyday life—people who need a hope that is grounded in something unchanging.
But, as in real life, some people are hard to reach with good news. Melancholia’s best asset is that it reminds us of how difficult it can be to overcome the weariness of people who have concluded that faith is a fantasy, and that life is temporal rather than eternal.
In the end, death comes for all of us, at a time not of our own choosing. Melancholia is best viewed as a reminder that we need to be prepared for that eventuality.
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; several uses of the “f”-word; “dam-it”; “s-it”; “da-n.”
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Some drinking, including at a wedding reception and during the final moments of Earth’s existence.
- Sex/Nudity: Justine stands at a bathtub naked, and most of her backside and breasts are visible; Justine lies on the ground naked, with breasts and pubic hair visible; cleavage; Justine’s mother refers to Justine’s first time having sex; Justine and her husband kiss, and she puts his hand between her legs; Justine has sex with a man on a golf course.
- Violence/Crime: Justine bumps her husband accidentally with a car; Justine beats her horse; a suicide.
- Marriage: Justine and Michael marry, but Justine soon has sex with another man; her parents are distant from each other, and her mother says she doesn’t believe in marriage.
Religion/Morals: Justine says Earth is evil and that we don’t need to grieve for it; Justine says we’re all alone, explaining that “life is on Earth, and not for long.”
Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.