Movie Review: "Melancholia"

Scott Pfeiffer

Updated Fri, Jan 13, 2012 10:04 am

Von Trier returns! While it’s true that Melancholia is Lars Von Trier’s film “about” depression and his struggle with it, if I had to say what it’s “about,” I’d say it is about his love for paintings: for Caravaggio, Brueghel and John Everett Millais.

He recreates Millais’ Ophelia (one of my favorites as well), with Kristen Dunst in the water, wearing a wedding dress. Late in the film he gives us a nude Dunst happily lying in a moonlit clearing in the woods by the water: she is a strikingly-gorgeous Venus, bathing in the ghostly “moonlight” of planet Melancholia as it gets closer and closer on its collision course with Earth. The film, then, is “about” Von Trier’s love of the naked human female form, the eternal feminine, the inspiration for artists throughout the history of mankind.   

This is one of the first films I saw after coming home from three weeks in Italy. In a world that is saturated with images and which pimps their power (can it be a coincidence that Dunst’s character Justine is in advertising?), we can become desensitized to the power of images. As I strolled through the world’s great art museums, churches and palaces, I felt that power while looking at the paintings, and again experienced my capacity to be filled up with their strange mystery. 

Melancholia has the same effect. There is an extraordinary, beautiful, wordless prologue: as if in a dream we see visions foreshadowing what is to come. A horse falls. A woman makes her way towards us through a forest in slow motion as a boy whittles in the foreground. I love to see a director putting a truly personal vision, straight from his dreams or the inside of his head, onto the screen. It's what the film-going life is all about to me. Gorgeous classical music builds; you might say that the film is “about” Von Trier’s love of beautiful music. 

There’s a quick scene in a little octagonal room with shelves displaying propped-open coffee table books. In a flurry of fury, Justine pulls down the books and replaces them with her own choices, propped open to make a display. We get a quick montage of the paintings picked, and they turn out to be ones that resonate with me as well: a Brueghel wintry landscape, Caravaggio’s Judith beheading Holeferness, another Breughel where everybody's laid out next to a self-carving pig.

So Melancholia is a thing of great beauty, but it is also the truest invocation of depression I've ever seen. On his grand rural estate (a castle next to the water, replete with golf course and horses), Keifer Sutherland, the husband of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), has thrown a huge wedding party for Justine at great personal expense (as he never tires of pointing out). It's fun on a meta-level to watch Sutherland in this picture: what could be more culturally apposite to a Lars Von Trier movie than, say, 24? As planet Melancholia looms larger and larger, you keep waiting for Jack Bauer to save the world.

We watch as Justine and her groom (Alexander Skarsgard) arrive at the castle, two hours late (Chapter 1 of the film is entitled “Justine”). They have a great playful rapport and seem very much in love. Justine seems happy, alternately giddy and serene, just as a bride should be on her big day. But Claire and her husband eye her suspiciously.  Gradually we begin to see that her smile is a bit of “fake it till you make it." We watch as she succumbs to the gradual, inexorable pull of distraction and self-sabotage; the odd lethargy that we recognize as depression. In thrall to its centrifugal force and the pull of its undertow, she begins to behave bizarrely: everyone’s been waiting for me for hours now, and yet I must take a bath right this second.   


In the reception hall, the groom raises a toast to his bride. It is shy, heartfelt, deeply loving. And yet he can feel her drifting away. In private, he gives her a gift: a snapshot of an apple grove he has just bought for them, their land.

Imagine yourself sitting under a tree here, he tells her. Keep this picture with you always. Then whenever you feel sad, you can look at it and it will make you happy. She tells him she’ll keep it with her always, but you can see in her eyes: the idea fills her with nothing but emptiness. She is vacant. He has no concept of the dark place she’s in, how deeply she needs to do something he can’t forgive. Why? She probably couldn’t say. A moment later she rises and distractedly leaves the room. He looks down; she has left the photo behind on the couch.    

By the end of Chapter 1, Melancholia has blotted a star out of the sky. In Chapter 2, entitled “Claire," it’s headed right at us. 

As a writer, Von Trier often gives us people conceived as an allegorical “type”. Basically he’s saying to his actors: I conceived this, now it’s up to you to make it flesh and blood. Claire is the nurturing mother, to her little boy and, really, to Justine herself. She is petrified of planet Melancholia. Sutherland is “the man of science” with his telescope who regards Melancholia as a thing of awesome beauty, to be observed with wonder from afar, but which can’t actually hurt them. He reassures Claire that there’s no way Melancholia will collide with Earth.  


For all his reputation for torturing women in his films, Von Trier gets extraordinary performances from women. Kirsten Dunst is a revelation here. Von Trier’s dialogue can sound stagey when put in the mouths of Americans, a people he arguably doesn’t really “get." The quintessentially-American Dunst’s great gift, however, is that it is quite impossible for her to sound unnatural. She gives such a smart performance here, nailing depression perfectly, particularly when she’s in its full grip in the days following the disastrous wedding, when she’s wrecked her life: the inertia, the way she can barely lift herself into the bath or out of a cab. She and Von Trier make it more complex than “she’s just sick." Justine also just has a really dark streak, believing firmly that “life on earth is evil."       

Some may scoff at the metaphor of depression as a planet that immolates everything in its path and wipes out the Earth as too obvious, but not anyone who's actually suffered from it. Not anyone who’s felt the intractable pull of depression’s gravitational field. Von Trier and Dunst have captured how the sufferer from depression welcomes oblivion, and almost looks forward to the event that will end everything. There is something brutal about the way the cataclysm never actually comes; the way life just proceeds inexorably on its day-to-day course.   

However, if you're an artist, that sense of yearning for oblivion--of wanting to obliterate everything--is in constant struggle with the impulse to create. Indeed, this friction is probably the spark of all art.   

Von Trier was in a bad place when he gave us 2009's Antichrist, a place full of pain. It was a film of great beauty but also of almost unbearable pain, though the impish, mischievous Brechtian sense of humor was still there. Ironically enough, he was reportedly in a good place when he made Melancholia. He will always be the gleeful provocateur, delighting in pulling the rug out from under us. But it was only when he was able to finally get to a place where he was happy that he was able to give us what is perhaps his finest work of art yet. 

Born in Athens, Ohio, Scott Pfeiffer has lived in Chicago since 1993. He did a minor in film at Ohio University back in the day. These days, he knocks about Chi-town, taking in film, music and theater. Read his other music and film reviews at The Moving World.