You’ve been cordially invited to a celebration of the end of the world hosted by writer and director Lars von Trier! Sure, the topic of our planet’s untimely apocalypse is an automatic buzzkill and anyone familiar with this particular filmmaker knows a party of his is sure to be anything but a joyous occasion. As the second installment of his Depression Trilogy, which includes the gloomy Antichrist and erotic Nymphomaniac, Melancholia marks the end of days for two women, Justine and Claire.
Portraying an allegorical study of depressive nature and the unstoppable doom lurking on the horizon, Melancholia reveals the writer and director’s centered art as “A planet hurtles toward a collision course with Earth. Two sisters, one of them trying to recover from a heavy bout of depression and a failed marriage, cope with their destiny in very different ways.” Starring Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man), Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood), Kiefer Sutherland (24), Stellan Skargård (Good Will Hunting), Charlotte Gainsborg (Antichrist), John Hurt (Alien), Charlotte Rampling (45 Years), and Udo Kier (Blood For Dracula), von Trier’s acclaimed 2011 film runs a luxurious two hours and 15 minutes, but when time is meaningless it’s an immersive encounter that will either provide solace or agony at the concept of the apocalypse.
Well, I Can See It’s Not Looking Good
The horror genre provides audiences with plenty of objects and concepts to fear. Whether it’s the fantasy of a possessed children’s doll or the reality of a cold-blooded killer, the terrors that haunt even the smallest of humanity’s microcosms range in a variety of threats to warn, teach, and entertain. One of the most common factors expressed within these narratives is the obvious fear of death. The end of life as we know it and the true anxiety of an unknown afterlife is not only one of the genre’s most popular themes, but one that is present across all kinds of demographics, cultures, societies, and races around the globe.
Melancholia plays an elegantly disturbing story around one of the most terrifying, unspoken fears within the human consciousness: the ultimate destruction of our planet. From the Mayan calendar’s predicted expiration date to Y2K to the grand slump of 2020, the end of days wearily hides behind the shine of our daily existence like a silent predator in orbit just waiting to smash into our space. Casting an uneasy and genuine air of impending doom upon the characters of Justine and Claire, von Trier crafts a unique reckoning tale. Through a notably theatrical use of grace and dread, Melancholia revolves around an eventual planetary collision bearing no signs of hope or help for humankind.
“[…] anyone familiar with this particular filmmaker knows a party of his is sure to be anything but a joyous occasion.“
The sense of complete dread is set from the start as Justine and Michael’s wedding kicks off at her sister and brother-in-laws breathtaking estate. Being no stranger to the establishment of doom, von Trier applies a lingering sadness carried out by the grand performances of both Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Separated into parts, Part One: Justine and Part Two: Claire, the film depicts two major consciousnesses of the end of the world, therefore it weaves two different horror stories with one another. Circling an affair that is whimsical in nature and grounded in ugly sincerity, Melancholia finds its lead, Justine, in a predicament of opposing serenity and confusion as she fails to find happiness in her very full life. As her attitude moves from bliss to bitter, Justine’s awareness of her internal conflict and the signs of an oncoming collision establishes the film’s tense notion of total destruction.
Following up the ominous wedding with the transition focusing on Claire, viewers become more certain of the imminent disaster about to strike. While Justine’s concerns are more internalized and suppressed, Claire’s distress is exhibited outward and exposed with her young son Leo becoming a subject of innocent regard. Melancholia’s final act ultimately represents three major conditions of fate: acceptance, ignorance, and chaos. As the end of the world tragically draws near, the emotional misgivings of the two women shape a touching, dark narrative that may not necessarily turn out standard components of horror, but successfully illustrates one of the most tastefully real illustrations of fear.
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Very Sweet With Perfect Tartness
Just like Melancholia’s cleansing rush toward the world, this film comes at viewers with an exhilarating force of both opulence and sorrow. Von Trier’s visionary connection to the environments he builds and the individuals he destroys unfolds with seasoned confidence and masterclass technique. Similar to the other films in his oeuvre of discomfort, Melancholia delivers a deep, poetic plot decorated by stunning and, oftentimes, shocking imagery. In addition to its opposing charming aesthetic, Melancholia’s cinematography is a statement to its crashing depth and upsetting ingenuity.
As a director, von Trier expertly captures the essence of beauty in misery and the notes of tranquility in despair. Complemented by the natural cinematography of Manuel Alberto Claro (The House That Jack Built), Melancholia acts as a visually cathartic experience draped in grounded repression. The camera zooms and focuses centralize key elements throughout the film, directing the viewer’s attention to revelatory emotions, reactions, and responses between the characters. The perspective even becomes shaky at times, furthering the intention of an uneasy, uneven composition of Melancholia as if the viewer is looking and observing, yet remains controlled by the storyteller.
“[Lars] von Trier applies a lingering sadness carried out by the grand performances of both Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg.“
As the strong, consternating cinematic elements are brought together to condition a profound layer of pathos, the supporting factors of Melancholia are dressed with a lavish treatment that heightens its severe sadness. Distinctly set amongst the wealthy, every detail from the wardrobe to the setting draws out an extraordinary luxe language that ironically speaks to von Trier’s methodical exercise in approaching the void. The elaborate outfits and set pieces aid in presenting a soft and appealing eye that eventually chills and darkens over time. The use of light, subdued by shadowing, shrouds Justine’s surroundings in a lush, organic palette. The grand orchestral operatic music is moving and almost animated, giving the film an extra level of sting and dramatics. Melancholia’s tone is warm but numbing and cold, but lovely all at once.
Unlike other apocalyptic films that channel the grief and fight against an inevitable end, Melancholia inhabits a more beautiful atmospheric effect. Initially born in jubilant celebration and ending with empty abandon, Melancholia uses its lengthy runtime to gradually change the mood through steady pacing and a transitional attitude. Viewers can actually see the slow wear and tear on Justine as she goes from a beloved bride to a hollow shell in the narrative’s sobering and sour endeavor. Von Trier brilliantly uses this ongoing contrast in look and feeling that circulates throughout Melancholia to ignite a collision in. reception, simultaneously pleasing and perturbing viewers.
Enjoy It While It Lasts
Unlike the cut-and-dry reputation of a universal apocalypse, von Trier embraces a poignant approach in its manifestation. In all of the wedding hubris and melodramatic foreboding, the significance of the end of days lies in Justine’s creeping depression and Claire’s shrinking paranoia. From the gorgeous 8-minute long opening sequence that forecasts the film’s events in stoic slow motion to the rumblings of a bleak, blank aftermath, Melancholia is loaded with von Trier’s subtle artistry in fashioning acute analysis to his scenes. Running the sisters’ emotional and psychological stabilities to the looming presence of annihilation, the film is fluid in symbolism and parallel themes.
The content is evenly enriched by a refined flavor and eloquent commentary on mental health supports his core doomsday rendering. Adding his specific signature of enlightening snare with intent to intrigue, von Trier triumphs in building dread and suspending it throughout the physical and psyche spaces his characters inhabit. Each scene of Melancholia generates hidden planets waiting to emerge upon careful, appreciative viewers who dare to look to the stars for signs of translation and interpretation.
As mass extinction hurtles towards the Earth’s surface, Justine and Claire face the pressures of performance and overwhelming stasis. Melancholia serves as the name of the revelatory planet heading for Earth’s surface, the inner depressive states of its characters, and the saturated emotion of the film as a whole. While one woman struggles to appreciate her newly acquired identity through marriage, the other teems with crumbling affliction. As Justine’s wedding presses on over the course of a tumultuous evening, the emphasis of her family’s flaws, as well as her own, begin to permeate. Traditions, etiquette, rituals and dynamics all contribute to Justine’s discontent and self-destructive behavior. Claire’s existential crisis as mother, wife, and caretaker contribute greatly toward her own anxieties, causing her flounder in anticipation of the collision. As these two stories collide, dependency and affirmation swap roles in another one of von Trier’s clever twists on humanity.
“From the gorgeous 8-minute long opening sequence […] to the rumblings of a bleak, blank aftermath, Melancholia is loaded with von Trier’s subtle artistry in fashioning acute analysis to his scenes.“
Like the rogue planet that threatens to obliterate the planet, Justine and Claire are consumed by their hidden apprehensions. When their internal and external inabilities to fulfill the expectations of others and sustain happiness enters the orbit, the unstoppable end is not too far away. What is most interesting about Melancholia is how this fate and fear is received by these characters. Genre fans who enjoy devouring films that lean into academic application are sure to accept Melancholia as a worthy entry into cinema’s wide range of nihilism. Enhancing the film’s overall meaning, von Trier scripts a nuanced metaphor that breaks through the basic surface of an apocalypse flick to engage a more sophisticated peek through the telescope.
Melancholia is currently streaming on Hulu. While it is a heavily somber affair, the film may offer some source of comfort to those seeking some semblance of true elegance in the end.
Are you a fan of Lars von Trier’s films? What do you think about Melancholia? Do you enjoy analyzing von Trier’s apocalyptic work? Does the material provide you with peace or trepidation? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!