We Love… 2011 – Melancholia

Illustration: Adeline Pericart

We laughed, we cried, we sneaked in our own popcorn. 2011 brought with it some memorable trips to the cinema to revel in the joy of film. And so the Film Ireland collection of filmbots look back in love and recall their favourite films of the last year in the latest installment of…

We Love… 2011

Melancholia

(Lars von Trier)

‘… portrays the human experience in a way we can easily recognise …’

Colm O’Brien

Shortly after seeing Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, I was trying to explain the plot to a friend of mine, and it suddenly occurred to me how incredibly disconnected it sounds. There’s these two sisters, see, Justine and Claire, and Justine’s getting married, but she suffers from severe depression, and despite the best efforts of her sister and the groom she can’t hold it together and the relationship collapses, and then in the second half a blue planet called Melancholia comes along and annihilates the Earth and everyone on it.

Of course, the fact that this only seemed odd afterwards should tell you that it’s not as jarring as it might sound. The film opens with an orchestral prelude, a series of slow-motion images set to a piece from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde which establish the mood and (very broadly) the plot arc, culminating with a view of the climactic planetary collision as seen from far outside Earth’s orbit. We know all along how the film is going to end – we’re expecting Melancholia’s appearance from the start. With that established, von Trier is free to spend the film building character, creating a rich and full emotional world for Melancholia to attack.

Title notwithstanding, Melancholia is not an unduly downbeat film. The wedding in the film’s first half is especially vibrant – von Trier has a deft touch with minor characters, with (for instance) Udo Kier’s snotty wedding planner stealing scenes even though he has mere minutes of screen time. John Hurt is perfect as Claire and Justine’s mischievous, irresponsible father, while Charlotte Rampling gives a scorching turn as their embittered mother. Of the major characters, much has been made of Kirsten Dunst’s performance as Justine, and while it is excellent, for me it’s Charlotte Gainsbourg who really shines. Following her terrifically distressing role in von Trier’s Antichrist, she plays Claire with an understated, fluttery nervousness, and carries the bulk of the emotional weight. Her wordless panic in the breathtaking final scene is the film’s single most enduring image.

The unifying thread between the story’s two parts is Justine’s personal melancholia, her depression, which is a figurative annihilating force in her own life just as the planet Melancholia is literally to the entire world. The film’s great strength is that despite the heightened feeling of much of its imagery (especially that incredibly baroque intro), its treatment of depression is utterly, resoundingly unromantic. Just as cold mathematical law brings the two planets into collision, so Justine’s affliction unfeelingly unravels the threads of her life, preventing her from taking the merest pleasure in anything she experiences, allowing her no solid ground on which to build any kind of lasting contentment. But crucially, she’s never presented as a martyr, and there’s no nobility to her struggle. Von Trier, a sufferer himself, gives us a stark depiction the true ugliness of the disease, and is unafraid to show how difficult it can sometimes be to sympathise with a depressed person.

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