Netflix Review: ‘Melancholia’

Since I didn’t make it to the movies this week, I thought I’d fall back on the time-honored tradition of finding the good stuff on Netflix. Melancholia got a fair amount of critical acclaim when it came out, and then praise from people in my Film Theory class. Since most of what I’d heard made it sound both pretentious and depressing, I watched other stuff instead. But as we all know, a movie isn’t good until I say it’s good, so here’s my review:

Melancholia (2011):

melancholia poster

Magnolia Pictures

The Plot: The film is divided into two parts, and mainly revolves around the relationship between two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Both parts take place in a beautiful, isolated mansion that has its own golf course. In the first segment, “Justine,” Claire tries to keep her emotionally-unstable sister’s wedding running smoothly. Justine’s depression and conflicting family dynamics make this a futile task.

Between the two parts, scientists discover a new planet, “Melancholia,” which is possibly going to collide with and destroy Earth. Also, Justine has an emotional breakdown.

In the second part, “Claire,” Justine arrives to be cared for by her sister. Justine spends most of her time in bed. Her favorite foods “taste like ash.” Claire mothers her sister, a dynamic that we suspect has been present since childhood. As “Melancholia” gets closer, the put-together Claire begins to fall apart, and Justine’s crippling depression gives way to a kind of pragmatic nihilism. The power dynamic switches as the characters prepare to meet death.

This film is not pretentious, though it is, shall we say, super artistic. The first nine minutes are a kind of slow-motion montage of…the end of the world? Metaphor? Intense foreboding? When you’re watching it for the first time, you may ask yourself what the shit am I watching? That’s perfectly natural, if a bit immature. Keep an open mind, and think about what you’re seeing. It all makes sense by the end of the movie.

It's kind of a metaphor.

Magnolia Pictures
It’s kind of a metaphor.

So that’s one prejudice hurdled. Melancholia isn’t pretentious. Nor did I find it particularly depressing, though it does deal with some pretty heavy stuff. Like the end of the world? Yeah, that. Whether or not it’s depressing is debatable. I’m not saying that Melancholia won’t make you sad, but Lars von Trier is trying to do more than just gloom up your day.

This is a film intended to inspire reflection. Not just “what would I do if the world was about to end,” but “how will I face death when it comes?” I talked earlier about how the film is divided into two parts, and how the first part doesn’t even deal with “Melancholia.” There’s a reason for that.

“Justine” gives us a good idea of who the two sisters are, and provides a very, very insightful look at their family dynamics. Wait, so…character development? Yep. Character development. In an artsy, independent drama, no less.


Magnolia Pictures

For a film about meeting death to work, we need to understand the characters. It’s what made The Grey such a good movie. Melancholia is very interested in digging into its characters’ minds and motivations. It often does this simply though observation, by putting real people in front of us and having them act like…real people.

“Claire,” builds upon the characterization of the first section, letting us watch as the fact of impending death strips the characters down to their core.

But that’s enough about meaning for now. Before this thing gets too long, let me talk about some other stuff in Melancholia that is good:

1) The directing: This was my first Lars von Trier film, but he’s prolific enough that I wasn’t really surprised by how pretty it was. There are times when watching Melancholia is like looking at a painting, but Trier also makes very good use of handheld camerawork during those scenes of observation I talked about earlier.

Like a painting.

Magnolia Pictures
Like a painting.

2) The performances: Kirsten Dunst acts the shit out of this thing. Seriously. She and Charlotte Gainsbourg, playing two well-developed female characters, both give strong, layered performances. Even the supporting cast—made up of the likes of Kiefer Sutherland, Stellan and Alexander Skarsgård, and John Hurt—feel like real people.

And there you have it. Melancholia is a good movie. It’s artistic but not pretentious, and it’s dark and thought-provoking without being totally depressing, maybe, actually it’ll probably make you sad. It’s good, though!

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