Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Keifer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Alexander Skarsgård and Stellan Skarsgård.
Directed by Lars Von Trier
Written by Lars Von Trier
From behind the sun emerges a planet previously unknown to the human race, much greater in size and set to travel past Earth’s atmosphere within very close proximity, Lars Von Trier is quick to establish the greatness of the spectacle that the aptly-named Melancholia will provide, whether it passes us by or smashes straight into us. However, like a prophecy being foretold, the viewer is allowed to witness the chaotic end-to-the-world within the film’s opening sequence, leaving only a constant sense of ambiguity within the story as to whether the two planets really will collide.
Released in 2011, ‘Melancholia’ is a very clear story of two parts. Divided neatly by title cards which simply characterise the first act as being called ‘Justine,’ whilst the second is named ‘Claire,’ these acts take their names from the two sisters that lead the films narrative, and it’s their relationship that the focus of the film is deeply rooted in, despite the chaotic and life-changing circumstances that surround them.
Rich with symbolism, Von Trier is a director known for his affinity for detail, and this shines through particularly in ‘Melancholia.’ Perhaps the most persistently recurring symbol found within the film is the allusion to John Everett Millais’s ‘Ophelia,’ a painting which depicts the character of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet,’ as she lies in a river and sings, despite the fact that she will soon drown. This beauty in the face of death is a clearly recurring element within ‘Melancholia,’ and is characterised by the films lead, Justine, who is played brilliantly by Kirsten Dunst. Certain scenes directly allude to the similarities between Ophelia and Justine through their visual details, but they also coincide within the narrative elements of their tragic stories. Set to be married just a few days before the two planets meet, Justine’s overwhelming depression often takes full control of her actions, much to the despair of those around her. The film’s first act concerns itself directly with her actions on the wedding day, and allows for the frequent distractions and tangents that she explores to be focussed on within the narrative, creating a true sense of who this character is. Her flaws are often either completely ignored or directly condemned by those around her, but all too often she is far too detached to show any reaction to these attitudes. It’s clear that Von Trier is using the traditional joy of a wedding scene and the happiness of the bride to explore the true lack of emotion that comes with depression, and the harsh contrast between what these two ideas represent allows for a more complex exploration into the range of human emotions.
The film’s second act, named after the elder sister ‘Claire’ appears as slightly more convoluted than the first. There is no wedding scene to revolve the character’s conflicting narratives around, and the impending sense of doom from the oncoming planet causes many of the characters to begin acting strangely (or, stranger than they all were before). The more subtle focus of this half, however, once again rests on the back of one of the sisters. This time it’s Claire’s emotional anxiety that becomes the crux of many scenes. Of course, some might argue that in the face of a possible planetary collision, anyone might be overcome by anxiety, but Claire’s emotional instability is highlighted in a way that sheds a light on her actions within the film’s opening half. The presence of her sister’s depression seemingly overshadowed her own anxiety, reducing it simply to a by-product of the environment around her, but this isn’t really the case. As shown by her actions when finally relieved of the pressures from weddings planners and over-eager guests, her worries are not lessened, but amplified. Once again, Lars Von Trier is cleverly hiding his own experiences with mental health within the actions of these two sisters, creating a personified caricature of anxiety that, despite its presence within a film about the end of the world, remains relatively familiar to many of us.
‘Melancholia’ is a film about many different ideas, and tackles most of them in a fairly avant-garde or experimental manner, but ultimately has a deeply honest message about mental health. With film being a largely visual medium, such an issue can often be difficult to tackle, but Von Trier incorporates his experience with experimental cinema and greater access to a larger budget than such directors would usually receive, to create a beautiful portrait of the minds of two sisters who struggle greatly with their own mental health.
Quite a haunting film, never felt I could watch it a second time, but very moving and the opening scenes are stunning to look at.
Thank you for this amazing article.