They Literally Have a “World” of a Problem

Movie Review: Melancholia (2011)
Summary: A woman to be married stays with her sister and her husband as they begin to suspect a larger planet will consume Earth.
Spoilers: none

Looking at the main promotional image, you might get the idea that Melancholia is some kind of romantic drama that involves cold feet or conflicts of a girl entering a marriage with pressure from loved ones. Or you might think it portrays the woman who finds her inner-feminist or some sense of individuality with the ability to put herself before a man. You’d be utterly wrong in assuming so.

Melancholia is a film about
a young woman, “Justine” (Kirsten Dunst) getting ready to get married. She is talented, smart, and with a strange sense of awareness. In her life is “Michael” (Alexander Skarsgård) who not only loves her, but seems to understand her, the complex, withdrawn girl that she is. Most consider her extremely troubled.

They are at the beginning of the wedding when the film begins. When it does, it is one of the most awkward and uncomfortable experiences for everyone involved—and for the viewer. The film’s artistic prowess may precede it, but it will take a rather unusual viewer to fully appreciate it.

A large planet a number of times the size of earth has been hiding behind the sun. It is supposed to do a fly-by and be seen from earth, but this makes Justine’s sister, “Claire” (Charlotte Gainsbourg), nervous. Who’s to say it won’t swallow up earth? Claire’s husband, “John” (Kiefer Sutherland), who is an astronomer (how convenient) believes this to be groundless paranoia.

What at first seems slow and unable to compensate for its own eccentric styling delivers a strange compulsion to watch. Driven by an ever-present tinge of grim darkness, Melancholia boasts acting that is second to none, and it proves that there is an acting career for Sutherland after 24. It’s nice to see he can be something other than a yelling torturer.

Melancholia claims to be a psychological thriller, but in subject matter alone, it is more than that. It is one of the most unforgettable movies this year. How would you conduct yourself believing certain death to be upon you? Is there a limit to the despair in contemplating that one’s world – and everything that makes it unique – will be consumed by a greater world and every single human achievement – past, present, and future – will be reduced to nothing?

As we watch the cast cope, that’s when we see what director Lars Von Trier really wants us to see. In an interview, he explains that his motivation for the film was his own depression. The name of the planet itself is based on mood. The character of Dunst was a direct extension of his feelings and struggles. Several tasteful nude shots of Dunst were a nice touch (one could say).

But it takes half a movie to generate the stomach-rumbling interest we crave. The project could have been whittled down, but it takes determined focus to put a secluded home (basically a castle) in the country as our “ground-zero.” Nobody is watching TV. Nobody is making plans beyond one simple trip to the city for supplies in case of power outages. No rioting, no looting, no out-of-control crowds, no solemn presidential announcements, and no trying frantically to make cell phone calls to say some sobbing last words. Our attention is called only to a few people who come to believe crisis is imminent.

Earth vs. Melancholia

The rending emotional highs and lows will make you uneasy, even as the film revels in its own achievement. Hardly a care was taken to fact-check the astronomy, but what it has is impressive enough to grab our imaginations. This is what makes the slow approach of the film’s final moments so chilling.

The films that stick in our heads are the ones that make us want to bury all their flaws. Melancholia has done its own fly-by for us and a lot of us are going to remember it.


Grade: B+ (3 ½ stars)
Rated: R (for nudity, sexual content, language, and adult situations)
Director: Lars Von Trier
Starring: “Justine” (Kirsten Dunst), “Claire” (Charlotte Gainsbourg) “John” (Kiefer Sutherland), “Gaby” (Charlotte Rampling), “Dexter” (John Hurt), “Michael” (Alexander Skarsgård), “Jack” (Stellan Skarsgård)
Genre: Thriller / Drama / Sci-fi