Melancholia is an unusual film. Not just in content, but in pace and structure, and it is easy to see why it has prompted a division of opinion. In the session I went to most of the audience was unsettled and restless. I’m fairly certain at least two people left, and when it ended there was silence followed by a slow clap. One woman exclaimed “that was the worst film I’ve seen” and exited as those around her laughed awkwardly. Despite this, a decent amount of people remained in their seats well into the credits, and didn’t look as though they would be back to lynch the box office.
It would almost seem that when Lars von Trier wrote and directed Melancholia he was creating a film that, in terms of reception, would be a reflection of himself.
This film debuted at the 2011 Cannes film festival. Whilst Kirsten Dunst walked away with the Best Actress Award, von Trier was asked to leave after making some misguided comments during a press conference which made him come across as a Nazi sympathiser.
Through his own experience with depression, von Trier came across the idea that someone who is depressed can remain calm in what would otherwise be a traumatic situation. Inspired by this, the film shows a snapshot in the lives of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the months leading up to the destruction of Earth through a collision with Melancholia, a planet previously hidden behind the sun.
The film is split into two parts, each focussing on a different sister. Part one shows Justine on her wedding day. Despite initially appearing happy and content, over the night her mood and behaviour deteriorates, starting with a bit of semi-public urination, and eventually culminates with her having sex with a relative stranger on a golf course. By the end of the night her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård) has left her, she has been fired, and her sister has walked away saying “sometimes I really hate you”. Part two focuses on the weeks leading up to the collision. The almost catatonic and severely depressed Justine is now living with Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). The only one who does not believe that Melancholia will simply “fly by” and avoid hitting the Earth, Justine alone remains calm when the inevitability of the collision becomes apparent.
I enjoyed it. I think. It was a bit like taking a two-hour walk through an art exhibition where all the paintings are linked by an odd theme. Whilst the film is slow-paced, sometimes even painfully so, it is difficult to look away as each shot offers up something that makes you want to keep staring. The part of me that enjoys things like matryoshka dolls and origami also enjoyed seeing Alexander and Stellan Skarsgård appearing in a film together.
It was definitely different, and hard to compare to anything I’d seen before. It offers an interesting perspective on depression with, almost just incidentally, a space catastrophe thrown in. Anyone going in looking for Armageddon is going to be sorely disappointed. They may even feel that it was the worst film they’d ever seen. That aside, they might change their mind later, as this is a film that I think is enjoyed progressively more in hindsight. Verdict? Slow clap: not justified.
Elizabeth can also be found at her blog Harold is Cool.