Film Comment: Melancholia (2011)  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , ,

When despair is realism

Lars von Trier, the Danish filmmaker, has recently been in the news for controversial comments surrounding his film Melancholia that resulted in the directors of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival declaring him persona non grata. In 2000 von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, starring Icelandic musician Bjork won the Cannes Festival’s highest prize, the Golden Palm (Palme d’Or). Melancholia had been nominated for the Palme d’Or and won the best actress award for Kirsten Dunst in her role as Justine, the troubled woman whose story is central to the plot.

Melancholia is a simple yet devastating story. Imagine that a beautiful blue planet is hurtling towards the earth at a speed so great we can watch the blue sphere grow ever larger in the sky. Imagine that a dysfunctional family gathers to celebrate the wedding of a daughter who has long struggled with bouts of clinical depression. Imagine that in this world the possibility of hope is limited to the findings of science—which mistakenly has issued assurances that no collision is likely. Imagine how this story will unfold when it is clear that despair is nothing less than the most realistic perspective possible. “The earth is evil,” Justine says. “We don’t need to grieve for it. No one will miss it. Life is only on earth, and not for long.”

It is insufficient to dismiss von Trier here as simply trying to make a provocative movie. It is true that he has not shied away from making provocative films, as Dogville (2003) and Breaking the Waves (1996) prove. Still, I think more is at stake here. From reports I have read von Trier has suffered bouts of serious depression himself and his childhood is something I would wish on no one, leaving him with phobias that haunt him in adulthood. And he is an artist with his finger posed on the pulse of a world echoing with the triumphant voices of those who claim that facing down the abyss of meaninglessness with no hope that anything lies behind death is somehow significantly courageous. On second thought, that is courageous—futile, but courageous. As the film’s tagline puts it, “It will change everything.”

Not everyone should watch this film—it is a dark story, unrelenting in making us face the reality of death in a world without meaning. Unlike so many films that show the moment of apocalypse with a cacophony of violence so extreme we must avert our eyes, von Trier invites us to watch to the end. Planets of breathtaking beauty meet in the immensity of space and dissolve in a flash of brilliant light. And the three characters we have come to care about sit together, eyes closed, hands clasped, facing the inevitable with signs of love that though real are insufficient to change the ending.

Melancholia is worth watching if you are able to watch dark films. Lars von Trier is a master at his craft, and the film is an example of cinema at its best. Von Trier touches on themes with a brutal honesty we dare not evade if we take seriously the things that matter most.

Taken on its own terms, Melancholia should drive Christians to some serious reflection. Yes, thankfully the resurrection provides us with a hope sufficient for even the threat of death and apocalypse. But how do we express our hope so that it does not seem feeble at a time when science boasts that reality can be explained without reference to God or miracles? How is it possible to appeal to the historic fact of Christ’s resurrection in a way that gives it sufficient philosophical substance as well as imaginative power? And what can we point to in the way we live, day by day, that reveals the animating force of hope to radically shape our thinking, feeling and doing?

Melancholia credits:
            Kirsten Dunst (Justine)
            Charlotte Gainsbourg (Claire)
            Kiefer Sutherland (John)
            Cameron Spurr (Leo)
            John Hurt (Dexter)
            Charlotte Rampling (Gaby)
            Stellan Skarsgård (Jack)
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Producers: Peter Garde & others
Cinematography: Manuel Alberto Claro
USA, 2011; 136 minutes
Rated R (graphic nudity, sexual content and language)

This entry was posted at Wednesday, May 09, 2012 and is filed under , , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Wow, this was perfect timing since I just watched this film on Netflix 2 nights ago! Thanks for the review, Denis. It is incredibly dark, and therefore not for everyone. But also beautifully filmed.
I wonder what Lars Von Trier thinks of his still valuing beauty (which he obviously does) in such a cold and meaningless universe (according to him). Why are we attracted to and moved by beautiful bodies - both planetary and human. Is it just chemical reactions in the brain? Obviously science itself can't be trusted, since the experts' predictions proved wrong. If all is meaninglessness then everything is just a snake eating it's own tail. But if that's the way things really are, maybe suicide is the best response after all - as the one character chose.
Well, sorry for rambling on a bit. But I appreciated Von Trier starting this conversation, and I appreciated your response.

May 10, 2012 at 12:07 PM

You raise a good question, and one that I think Christians need to rethink today. When I was in college in the Sixties, to ask how beauty could have significance in a meaningless universe was to make a point that caused real crisis--perhaps the perspective of meaninglessness wasn't possible after all. Today, however, I find people are willing to reply in one of two ways: either this is one of the great mysteries of life (and thus unexplainable) or natural processes have brought us to the stage where we can appreciate proximate beauty (truth, justice, etc), where no absolute is possible. In both cases suicide then becomes untenable as a reasonable choice.

Like you, I deeply appreciate von Trier's willingness to pose such questions so wonderfully, and realize he requires me as a Christian to rethink the "standard Christian answer."
Thanks so much for commenting.

May 10, 2012 at 12:46 PM

This is interesting timing here as well. Not because I watched the film; I don't know if I can. The timing for me is my own melancholia. The phrase "We will be saved by beauty" is intensely important to me. I struggle with the reality of what has been done for us, as is often common, I know it in my head, but sometimes my head and my wounded heart are worlds apart. It is beauty that gives me hope.
I also just quoted Charlotte Bronte yesterday;
‎"As to being happy—I am under scenes and circumstances of excitement—but I suffer acute pain sometimes—mental pain—I mean."
— Charlotte Brontë, from a letter to Ellen Nussey, 9 December 1849
That struck me, because I think happiness is over-rated. And, as maybe this movie is an example, some of the most beautiful things are borne out of pain and suffering.
People who give up on me early on in the game only see that I am a person who does not always put on a happy face, and some circles demand that. But people who are in it for the long haul, they get to see the layers of compassion and love that are borne out of hope that all is not meaningless. Who's the one rambling now? I think my response is just as much inspired by Tim's response as to the post.

May 10, 2012 at 10:16 PM


Like you, I know melancholia personally, have for as long as I can remember, and am grateful to live at a time when there are treatments that do not transform it but that take the edge off. And like you, I agree that happiness is overrated--especially if by "happiness" means noise and chatter and activity and laughter. I like such things in small doses, but am perhaps most happy (I usually don't think in such terms--I prefer to think about whether I am flourishing) with a book in a quiet shady spot in summer with people I love and whom I do not need to impress nearby.

In many ways I came to faith more drawn by the beauty of God and Scripture and art and creation than by its truth, though that was part of it too. And that is what continues to draw me farther in, to use C. S. Lewis' phrase. It is at the heart of my hope as a believers, too.

In Melancholia, Lars von Trier does not find hope in beauty any more than he does in truth (which is presented as doubtful) or love (which is shown to be sadly insufficient) or relationships (which are revealed as horribly dysfunctional or sentimentally small). Often after I see a very good film, like this one, I wish I could meet the director and talk--to say thank you for their hard work and art, and to ask a couple of questions. When I saw Melancholia I did not have that desire, and wondered if maybe it is because I get the sense that von Trier has chosen not to believe, that maybe there is a bit hardness of heart involved.

I pray I am wrong.

May 11, 2012 at 8:46 AM

It was good, but there was alot more they should have done to make it more realistic. For instance, if this were coming to happen a planet that close of that size would dismantle the earth way before it even hit, huge tidal waves, earthquakes, they could've done more is all.

January 16, 2013 at 2:22 PM

You are of course correct.
I took the film to be not an exposition of what this event would be like but an exploration of human life and relationships in the face of knowing the world was about to end. From that perspective, the planet was merely a metaphor for the deeper, bigger issue.

You raise an interesting aesthetic question: how realistic does a film need to be in order to tell a compelling story? The debate continues!


January 16, 2013 at 3:24 PM

Since Death comes to everyone and the universe eventually, I can remember times when the sudden end of everything (with enough time to prepare a 'party' or gathering of friends etc. and hopefully minimal time in physically suffering the event) may actually hold some appeal to some people, as a form of relief from suffering without the thoughts of how to suicide or worrying about 'leaving your loved ones behind'. Finally, there's something really exciting happening. I thought the final scene was such a great and inspiring idea. I have been living with 'life threatening/terminal illness' for so many years now, if I can't get a local railway service put on soon, while I can still walk, this sounds much better than watching the last remaining people that are left in my life, die from cancer and heart attacks.

October 12, 2013 at 1:33 AM

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