Melancholia (2011)

Melancholia movie poster

I’ll preface this by saying this is the first film I have seen from the controversial Danish film maker Lars von Trier. I’m aware of his work and had an idea what to expect. I’ve got Antichrist queued up to watch but haven’t dared to sit through it yet.

Melancholia tells the story of two sisters and is in two parts. Part 1 focuses on Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her wedding day. To begin with she seems like any normal newly wed - deliriously happy and truly in love. It isn’t long, however, until we learn that something is not quote right with Justine. She suffers from depression, maybe she’s bi-polar, it isn’t spelt out. As the night progresses the demons inside her take hold and self-destruction begins.

The second half focuses on her sister - Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her anxiety caused by the impending event.

I should mention at this point that the impending event is the potential end of the world. I’m not giving anything away here as the end of the world takes place in the first 5 minutes of the movie. A completely bizarre opening which features slow-motion images of scenes from throughout the film set to the haunting strings of Wagner, culminating in a planet, which we later learn is called Melancholia, approaching and colliding with Earth.

I can’t say I particularly enjoyed this film. The first half was fairly interesting, albeit flawed. The second half was simply boring. How can the impending end of the world be so boring? The film seemed to just drag on and on and on.

Melancholia is not a mainstream movie. It’s an art piece which was nominated for the Palm d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It has been nominated for a number of different awards and has received a lot of good reviews from film critics.

When I read reviews of art pieces such as this it makes me wonder whether the 5 star rating is due to the critic generally thinking it is a great movie, or, because they want to be part of the pretentious intelligentsia club and don’t want people to think they don’t understand the underlying meanings of the film.

I got that Melancholia is a film that explores mental illness. I could see that the anxiety that increased within Claire as Melancholia came ever closer to Earth was used as a metaphor for how depression works; the growing feeling of despair that builds up even though you know there’s no logical reason for it. I get all that and I’m sure that people who have suffered with depression will find Melancholia painfully familiar. That doesn’t make it a great film though.

I’m not averse to arty independent films, and I don’t necessarily mind strange films, but even strange films should have their own internal logic. The actions of some of the characters in Melancholia just didn’t seem plausible. For example, the idea that Justin’s boss would set her a work task on her own wedding night, and her mother acting the way she does at her own daughters wedding reception, just didn't ring true. There are some callous people out there but does anyone seriously know anybody that would behave in that way?

Another aspect of the film that grated was the camera work. Yet another film using the annoying ‘shaky’ hand-held camera technique.

On the positive there is a good supporting cast, including Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt and Stellan Skarsgård. It’s hard to watch Kiefer Sutherland though and not think of Jack Bauer. When Justine’s mother pissed him off at the wedding reception I was half expecting him to do some arse kicking!

Talking about Jack Bauer, a lot of the camera angles used in Melancholia seemed to be copied directly from the later seasons of 24, such as filming conversations as if observed from half-hidden behind a corner. Those type of techniques could work in horror or spy films but it’s really unnecessary for what’s basically a drama.

Also on the positive side is the cinematography. The setting of the film is never mentioned and it’s made hard to discern by the mixed nationality of the characters - there’s no explanation why Justine has got an American accent, whereas her sister and parents are English. It looked to me like the film was shot in Scotland but I now know the exterior shots were largely shot around Tjolöholm Castle in Sweden, and it does look stunning.

This is the second film of 2011 that I’ve watched about another planet approaching Earth, the other being Another Earth, and in both films the other planet is used mainly as a plot device. Neither film is worth a second viewing.