Thursday, December 8, 2011


Justine isn't happy. Surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues during her wedding dinner, Justine's profound sense of depression and alienation casts a thick pall over the proceedings. This is evident to no one so much as Justine's doting (if frustrated) sister Claire, and Claire's husband John (who financed Justine's wedding). An untold number of days later, Justine's mood seems to change as a mysterious planet pulls dangerously close to Earth's orbit.

While watching MELANCHOLIA I couldn't help but flash onto Hitchcock's THE BIRDS. Like that film, the supernaturally-driven disaster of the second half seems indirectly caused by the heroine's actions and moods during the more realistically domestic first half. (Further Hedrenism comes in a painful horseback riding scene that recalls MARNIE.) But outside this atypical rhyme of another filmmaker's work, MELANCHOLIA is a Lars von Trier film through and through. The shifts from gorgeously rendered effects shots to documentary-styled scenes of domestic disturbance are familiar from BREAKING THE WAVES and THE KINGDOM, and the completely ineffective intellectual, aggressive male (played effectively here by Kiefer Sutherland) is a staple of Trier's work all the way back to EPIDEMIC.

Trier's use of an overture (music from Tristan und Isolde accompanying scenes of the film's cast amid apocalyptic images) is particularly deft here. Setting up our expectations from the very start, allowing that yes, indeed, the world will end in this film, we become more alert to the story unfolding. We're attentive to the strong performances of both Kirsten Dunst (who powerfully nails both Justine's depression and her eerie tranquility) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (whose groundedness gives way to all-consuming desperation). We look for hints that Justine's moods are tied into the events transpiring around her. We become more deeply engrossed, hoping that the stylized opening was only a fantasy, that maybe we're not doomed after all. And we take comfort in the weird grace and strength that ultimately radiates from Justine, seeing the futility and pointlessness of the world's rituals through her eyes and feeling an odd calm as we separate from them.

For all the film's stylization, it's in many ways Trier's most human film. I can't think of a more true-feeling representation of depression (this is surely aided by both Trier and Dunst's experiences with it) in film, or the reactions to it. There's something oddly upbeat in the very realization of this film - I don't recall Trier ever realizing a project this quickly that resonated with such depth.


  1. I too suffer from depression and the denunciations of certain critics (the always comically hostile Rex Reed, who has become a parody of film criticism, and David Edlestein calling the film "hateful" on Fresh Air) just baffle me. This movie really, really, really gets across what depression feels like and I have not had the pleasure of sitting through a movie that has haunted me so hypnotically as Melancholia. One question I would ask Lars von Trier, should I ever have the pleasure or meeting him, "Sir, have you EVER read Shirley Jackson?" Melancholia really captures the psychological agony in her work. I address that in my own review (which is being posted on Monday).

  2. Eager to read your words on the film, Chad. Thanks for writing in.

    I need to read more Shirley Jackson.