The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (the so-called “DSM-IV”) defines depression as a mood disorder with many subcategories or subtypes of precise diagnostic criteria. One of these subtypes is melancholic depression, also known as melancholia. Melancholia is an extreme form of depression. Melancholia, too, is an extreme form of depression. While the film is presumably, at least on some level, supposed to be a type of cinematic representation of extreme depression, I don’t think this is exactly what Lars von Trier had in mind, as its effect is more like an experience of bipolar I disorder, with a good manic episode (the first ten minutes or so of the film) followed by two hours of major, soul-sucking tedium.
Now here is where I should probably pull back the curtain and admit that, at least in theory, I’m ill-equipped to review Melancholia. I haven’t seen any of Lars von Trier’s other films — aside from a glancing understanding of the divisive nature of Antichrist gleaned from several reviews, I really don’t have any understanding or appreciation for what it is that von Trier tries to do as a filmmaker. And aside from the recent kerfuffle over his admission at the Cannes Film Festival that he sympathizes with Hitler, I don’t know anything von Trier the man (and let’s just say that with this being my one piece of information, I don’t think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship). So I can’t contextualize Melancholia within the greater von Trier oeuvre. And I’m also not a particularly eloquent or well-versed film critic, so I also can’t speak to how the film fits in within the greater universe of similar movies that are trying to be art.
But I don’t think any of that necessarily matters. I’m equally ill-equipped to contextualize or “appreciate” The Tree of Life, the first and only Terrance Malick film I’ve seen. But I fucking loved it, and though I can’t wax as eloquently about The Tree of Life as Dan did, I’ve been able to at least explain to friends and colleagues what I loved about it and why I loved it, and give them enough info to decide whether it’s something they might enjoy.
In my day job, in fact, friends and colleagues often ask me what I know about some movie, and they’re generally not interested in a truly critical analysis. Now please don’t get me wrong — critiques and criticism matter. What Dan or Dustin do in reviewing and contextualizing a film is far more than I am capable of, it’s an important and wholly under-appreciated talent, and I wish I was capable of that type of critical review. But I’m generally not. In any event, when my friends ask about a film, they usually want the movie reviewed in a vacuum, as it stands on its its own. Is it good? What works? What doesn’t work? Should they shell out some coin and hours of their lives to see it? And that type of review I am capable of.
So I can’t tell you if Melancholia is better or worse than other von Trier films. I can’t confirm, as others have said, that it’s his most “accessible” film. I can’t tell you what its place is in some long line of similar films. But I can tell you, as I did in the beginning, that it’s ten minutes of good followed by two hours of my life that I will never get back.
The film opens with a seven or eight minute type of moving slide-show/montage that’s pretty fucking mesmerizing. With a Wagner piece scoring the background, these cinematic pieces of art are displayed, representing (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively) things to come in the movie. It’s very “artsy,” and I often don’t have the patience for this type of thing, but von Trier pulls it off splendidly. The shots are absolutely gorgeous, and with portions of the screen frozen while others move in slow motion, it has a very cinemgraph feel to it. Even though I didn’t understand what some of the imagery were supposed to be showing or representing at the time, I couldn’t take my eyes off any of it.
The film then abruptly jumps into an opening scene which gave me such high hopes. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are in a limo, heading from their wedding to the reception, when the limo gets stuck on a small dirt road. It’s a very brief vignette, no more than three of four minutes, but it’s bright and amusing and entertaining. And though I’m not particularly a fan of Dunst’s, she is radiant in the scene, pure charm and affability. And so as we cut to the limo arriving at the reception, I was really excited for the rest of the film and where it might go, particularly knowing that the backdrop for the story is a potential-end-of-the-world scenario.
Turns out, the only potential to end was that of the film itself (wordplay!). Oh the two hours of bad. Justine, who we learn suffers from clinical depression, is more or less just going through the motions, even on this supposed happiest of days. Incapable of truly enjoying herself, the next hour of the film, fashioned as “Chapter One - Justine,” follows the reception and Justine’s delicate emotional state fall apart. Justine vanishes for hours on end, to the chagrin of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and the absolute ire of Claire’s rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) who put up his fancy castle and money for this reception. There’s some drama between Justine and her boss/father-in-law (Stellan Skarsgård, playing his real-life-son’s father), drama between Justine’s separated parents (Charlotte Rampling and the always enjoyable John Hurt), drama between Claire and John, and drama between Justine and everyone, but none of it sticks. It’s all very cold and detached in a way that not only fails to be engaging but which actively pushes the viewer away.
Eventually we get to “Chapter Two - Claire,” in which we learn that the world is ending as a planet dubbed Melancholia is careening towards Earth, possibly aimed for a direct hit. The film has been billed as a sci-fi film, but that’s false advertising. The second half is really about how Claire and Justine deal with their possible imminent demise. And it’s not like Another Earth, where the science fiction plays a subtle backdrop to a character piece. Here, the threat could be anything because it’s really just a manufactured way to force these two sisters to share space in a stressful time. Justine, now in the midst of a full-bore depressive episode, remains relatively calm and detached throughout, as those suffering depression often do during extremely stressful and emotional events. Claire, meanwhile, loses her shit in ways that are not wholly believable. Here, again, the film fails to engage — there’s no real emotional connection to Claire or Justine, so it’s hard to give a shit about either the macro (will they die from an interplanetary collision?) or the micro (in this bad time, will they find a way to heal their broken sisterhood?).
In the end, none of it matters. I’m about a month removed from watching the film, and there’s so much I just don’t remember anymore after the opening bits. Dunst won an award at Cannes for her performance. I don’t know. She’s good, walking around in a dead-eyed haze for the better part of two hours just isn’t a compelling performance. Gainsbourg presents the far more interesting performance, but because von Trier seems more interested in the beauty of his shots (which are gorgeous, throughout) and the art of this cinematic depression, it just doesn’t stick. I actually thought about The Tree of Life as I was watching this, because it’s like someone took Malick’s style in that film and threw it into a blender with a music video director — Melancholia is a two hour Wagner music video, full of color and imagery, but very little substance.
The film ends with Melancholia destroying the Earth. This isn’t really a spoiler, as you see it in that opening prelude. And for a movie that opens so beautifully and ends so dramatically, it’s hard to believe that the intervening two hours land with such a flatness. I wish that I could say I hated Melancholia, because at least that would mean von Trier managed some type of emotional engagement. Instead, at the movie’s end I simply felt cold and in need of either a hug or a punch in the face, just so I could feel something. And maybe that’s what it’s like to be wallowed in depression, and maybe that’s exactly what von Trier was going for here. If so, good on him. But I don’t care — this shit is not for me, and I can safely say that, based on this, von Trier is not for me. If this sounds like your type of thing, pop a Paxil and enjoy the numb. But for most, I’d recommend waiting until you can see the flick for free on cable or online, where you can watch the first 15 minutes and then move on with your life. Because if you keep watching, you’ll walk away realizing that those are two hours of your life you’ll never get back.
And that’s really fucking depressing.