Review: ‘Melancholia’

Beautiful doom, gloom, and the peaceful certainty of the end of the world. What’s not to love?

For Justine (Kirsten Dunst), all the dreams that a beautiful young woman are supposed to have are about to come true. After a lavish wedding to her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård), the two arrive late to their wedding reception where well-wishing family and friends await. Everything should be perfect, but Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), knows that Justine’s smile isn’t real, that she isn’t happy, and that it’s very likely she’s going to sabotage her own day. Just as everything predictably goes to hell, Justine notices the eve of a celestial event: a rogue planet named Melancholia is on a collision course with the Earth. As the end of the everything approaches, the two sisters come to understand one another better, even if it’s only for a little while.

Since the first trailer of this self-proclaimed “beautiful movie about the end of the world” (possibly inspired by that ultra slow-motion Soundgarden “Black Hole Sun” video effect), the beauty of the cinematography hasn’t been in question. The rule is “Fixing the problem is adventure; dealing with the problem is drama.” Director Lars von Trier has truly set up the ultimate plot device to show how it feels to live with the worry and uncertainty of depression as well as the calm that accompanies its end. Divided equally into two parts featuring each sister, the final cut feels Kubrick-overlong while watching it but has the effect of watching an incredibly detailed train wreck in slow motion (that you can’t look away from). This will likely be a polarizing film (love it or hate it), but for anyone who’s suffered depression or has ever tried to understand someone who does, they can relate. It also doesn’t hurt how gorgeous the global destruction effects are, either.

The setting is a countryside manor where the reception in the film’s first half takes place, an isolated refuge that will later set the stage for the end of all things. The director shies away from the obvious end-of-world destructive scenarios like 2012 (ie no montage of people dying all over the globe). With only a brief reference and glimpse of the Internet, the story isn’t about a global crisis, only how it affects this one small family. This is the story of Justine and Claire, and the drama is squeezed from Claire finally getting a taste of what Justine’s world is like while Justin experiences what being Claire’s caretaker feels like. Of course, it’s Justine who’s better prepared for it all to end, but with the point of view switched, even Justine appears to experience genuine regret that there’s nothing she can do for her sister other than provide support and comfort.

As mentioned before, the film takes its time, a little over two hours. The orchestral fanfare (heard repeatedly in the trailer and throughout the movie) does wear a little thin after a while; it’s so over-the-top in its majesty and operatic importance that it nearly becomes laughable (likely not the intended effect). There’s also the artsy full-nude scene with Kirsten Dunst (planet-bathing?) in the light of approaching Melancholia, a metaphor for her calm in the certainty of death but, while striking to look at, it still feels more gratuitous than necessary. Fortunately, these are small nits to pick as this is a opportunity for Dunst to embrace a role that showcases her acting ability; as much as you want to hate the character for being a foil for the happiness of everyone else, getting a taste of what it’s like to live in her world certainly redeems it.

(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)


  1. I really hate having to provide a “rating” for movies, because it’s very difficult with many films to even say “yay” or “nay” due to their complexities. This is another reason you will always see the word “recommendation” in my ratings as a refusal to simply state good or bad.

    But did I recommend this one too high? I don’t think so. I’m still thinking about it after watching several other films since, and I’ve been fairly passionate about it talking with others. Honestly, isn’t “forgettable” one of the worst things you can say about a film?


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