Thoughts on ‘Melancholia’

Obviously, this blog post has absolutely nothing to do with Chicago theatre (though, I technically saw this movie in a theatre in Chicago, so there’s that). But Lars Von Trier’s masterpiece had such a deep, personal impact, I felt compelled to write about it.

Please note: This isn’t a review — just my thoughts. Also, in these ramblings, I may be revealing what some might consider spoilers.

When I first saw the trailer for Melancholia months ago, something about it hit me deep and hard. The Wagner soundscape. The saturated and highly evocative images that seemed like oil paintings yearning to break free. The bold idea that a movie about doom, dread and depression could be so fucking beautiful.

Sometimes a strong preview can lead to disappoint. Not here. Von Trier’s movie is so uncompromising in its commitment to tone and style, I sat rapt from begging to end.

And yet, more than a half dozen people left the theatre an hour or so in, audibly throwing their hands in the air and storming out.

This is not a movie for everyone. Particularly the slow moving, yet perfectly paced first half, which is preceded by a stunning prologue of visual metaphors for depression — a woman trudging through a field of grass, frantically carrying her child, as her feet inexplicably sink into the earth. A horse slowly collapsing to the ground, defeated. A bride trapped mid-run by shapeless grey amoebas. The Earth colliding into a planet many times its size.

Wait a minute. What?

The stage is set and your interest piqued. And now we’re at a wedding.

It’s difficult to watch as Justine, a deeply depressed young bride (the exceptional Kirsten Dunst), slowly undermines her own reception. Something’s lurking beneath her steely, mask-like smile.

A sense of knowing dread? Hopelessness, perhaps?

Justine knows she should be happy, but she’s “trudging,” as she tells her concerned sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). “I smile, and I smile, and I smile” she weakly asserts to her gruff brother in law, John (Kiefer Sutherland), who doesn’t understand why she just can’t be happy for once, especially since the reception cost him so much goddamn money.

The harder she tries, the faster she falls.

Not even the fact that she’s hitched to cutie Alexander Skarsgård keeps her from continuously fleeing the reception to take a bath or, you know, drive a golf cart to the nearby course to pee on the green while staring up at the sky.

And just what *is* going on up in the sky, Justine?

What could easily be a simple family drama about lives torn apart by depression is taken to another level — another world, if you will — with the introduction of an impending planetary collision. It’s a brilliant move for many reasons. Not only does it effectively set up a universal sense of doom and hopelessness, it plays on the notion that we are physiological beings, and massive gravitational forces, such as a rogue planet careening its way toward Earth, mess with our body chemistry. We become catatonic, inert, defeated.

The second half of the movie, following the ill-fated wedding by what we can assume is several weeks or months, looks at how this family (Justine, Claire, John and Claire and John’s son, Leo) grapples with such a harrowing reality.

Justine is well-acquainted with these feelings as we get the impression that depression has been eating away at her for most of her adult life. The sky has been slowly falling around her for years, and now is simply the ultimate conclusion. While she appears defeated, Justine’s made her own peace with the situation. “Life on Earth is evil; it won’t be missed,” she says to a stunned Claire.

Claire, on the other hand, isn’t ready to give up, and she turns to her husband, an amateur astronomist, for assurance. Acting as a false prophet, John fills her with artificial hope by convincing her the planet will simply pass the earth by. Justine, who “knows things,” looks her sister dead in the eye and coolly says, “I’m glad he makes you feel hopeful.”

In one last feeble attempt, Claire grabs her child and seeks escape. But she ultimately returns to join Justine.

We know where things are headed because we’ve seen the prologue. And Von Trier never cheapens the piece by making the impending apocalypse a panic-stricken mess of chaos, looting and mayhem. Yes, the world’s end is met with fear, hopelessness and dread, but also with dignity and breathtaking beauty.

One thought on “Thoughts on ‘Melancholia’

  1. Dunst was very good in this role but her character was just a little mopey for my liking. However, von Trier keeps his artistic vision in-tact and although there are moments of boredom, it still all comes together so well in the last 40 minutes. Great review. Check out my review when you get the chance.

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