Film Review – Melancholia

18 Nov

– by Walton Pantland

In a hopeless situation, only those who have given up hope can find any strength.

I am not a fan of Lars von Trier. He is a difficult man to feel affection for, and his films are often oblique, challenging and downright depressing. Breaking the Waves was powerful, but remorselessly miserable. Dogville and Manderlay bored me, and I didn’t watch Dancer in the Dark because it sounded too relentlessly bleak. I hated Antichrist: while it was aesthetically interesting and had powerful images, I felt mocked by it, and by his suggestion that there is something primevally wrong with women that men need to overcome. Women are witches, he seemed to be saying, with an unholy relationship to a malign natural world.

Melancholia, however, is one of the most powerful and prescient films I have seen in a long time. A beautiful fable about the end of the world, it tells the story of the collision of the rogue planet Melancholia with the Earth, and of the annihilation of all life, from the point of view of three main characters. The film suggests an analogy with the environmental, economic and political collapse we are experiencing, and coldly compares responses and coping mechanisms. In the film, the only character who is able to face the end of the world with sang froid and equanimity is Kirsten Dunst’s Justine, who is so incapacitated by depression that annihilation seems like a mild inconvenience.

Dunst’s acting in this film is exceptional, and challenges our assumptions about her artistic range. We witness her psychic descent over two acts. In the first act, we experience the beginning of her mental collapse at a disastrous wedding party. What starts out as predictable behaviour from a nervous bride becomes significantly more serious after she locks herself away and then has a random sexual encounter with one of the guests.

By act two, her mental state has deteriorated so much that she is unable to feed or wash herself and is cared for by her sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. However, as Melancholia encroaches on the Earth and doom becomes immanent, she finds strength in her despair while the other, more ‘rational’ characters fall apart.

Claire is made to look ridiculous in a powerful scene where she suggests that the end of the world can be made ‘nicer’ by lighting candles and enjoying a final glass of wine. Her husband, John, played by Keifer Sutherland, is unable to cope when his scientific rationalism and optimistic world view has has no remedy for the impending doom.

Only Justine has the courage and fortitude to face the darkness. She is also able to use a magic realist conceit to shield Claire’s son Leo from the truth, and the two face oblivion by calmly holding hands.

Does this suggest that those who are anticipating the collapse, such as the Dark Mountain project, have got it right?

Shot through with powerful imagery evoking German Romanticism and featuring Wagner on the soundtrack, several scenes remind us of the work of Caspar David Friedrich. Von Trier’s vision of apocalypse is strangely beautiful, and the film acts as a darkly moving counterpoint to Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life.

As we contemplate our end, we reconsider the value of what we do.




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