Thoughts on Melancholia (2011)

Opening with something rather like an art installation, Melancholia (2011), Lars von Trier’s personal masterpiece, is a mood piece, in the sense that everything is two-dimensional except for the leads who carry the mood in their respective parts of the film. In other words, the film is another Lars von Trier dark fairy tale. This is especially evident in the characterization; as Richard Brody aptly puts it, “everyone is either a shit or a doormat.” Interestingly, so are the leads when they play supporting roles.

The CGI, the most beautiful part of the film, is effective and suitably fairy tale-ish; von Trier tries to imbue the rest of the film with reality by using handheld cameras, but it only creates a weird dissonance between the putative realism of the psychology of each scene and the brazen surrealism that rears its head upon the slightest contemplation. Kirsten Dunst is amazing as the depressed Justine, portraying so much subtractive interiority that it morphs into charisma, and seemingly drawing her essence from the planet Melancholia (get it?). Charlotte Gainsbourg is also excellent as Justine’s sister, Claire, who tries to maintain a veneer of normalcy in the face of both her family’s dysfunction and the possible impending end of the world; her emotional turns would be more than enough to give most actors psychological whiplash. Of the other roles, everyone’s cold and actively isolating; even worse is the idiotic role that Cameron Spurr is saddled with as Leo, Claire’s young son, who has less agency than Abraham the horse; while the latter refuses to cross a bridge, the former isn’t even allowed to walk.

The world of the film, at both small and large scales, doesn’t make much sense either. Justine, for instance, is a depressive savant, something I never knew existed (and probably doesn’t). And key events play out near the nineteenth hole of an eighteen-hole golf course. But, buoyed by the two lead performances, it’s all (barely) worth slogging through to reach that final, haunting shot.

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