ⓘ Melancholia (2011 film)
Melancholia is a 2011 science fiction drama film written and directed by Lars von Trier and starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Kiefer Sutherland, with Alexander Skarsgård, Brady Corbet, Cameron Spurr, Charlotte Rampling, Jesper Christensen, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgård, and Udo Kier in supporting roles. The films story revolves around two sisters, one of whom is preparing to marry just before a rogue planet is about to collide with Earth.
Von Triers initial inspiration for the film came from a depressive episode he suffered. The film is a Danish production by Zentropa, with international co-producers in Sweden, France, Germany and Italy. Filming took place in Sweden. Melancholia prominently features music from the prelude to Richard Wagners opera Tristan und Isolde 1857–1859. It is the second entry in von Triers unofficially titled "Depression Trilogy", preceded by Antichrist and followed by Nymphomaniac.
Melancholia premiered 18 May 2011 at the 64th Cannes Film Festival - where it was critically lauded. Dunst received the festivals Best Actress Award for her performance, which was a common area of praise among critics. Although not without its detractors, many critics and film scholars have considered the film to be a personal masterpiece, and one of the best films of 2011.
The film begins with an introductory sequence involving the main characters and images from space. These virtually still images reveal the key elements of the film: Justine the bride in deep melancholy with birds falling behind her; of a lawn with trees and sundial with two different shadows; Pieter Brueghels The Hunters in the Snow burning; the black horse collapsing in slow motion; Justine as a bride being swept along by a river; her wedding dress tangled in plant matter; and finally Justine and her nephew building their magic cave before Melancholia crashes into Earth.
1.1. Plot Part One: "Justine"
Delayed by their stretch limousines difficulty traversing the narrow winding rural road, newlyweds Justine and Michael arrive two hours late for their own wedding reception at the estate of Justines sister, Claire, and her husband, John. Justine has a dysfunctional family: brother-in-law John appears to resent having to pay for the wedding; father Dexter is hedonistic and selfish to the point of narcissism, while mother Gaby is brutally jaded, her outspokenness leading John to throw her out of the house. No one ever asks what Justine wants, or why she is unhappy, but throughout the dinner she is praised for being beautiful. Claire urges Justine to hide her debilitating melancholy from her new husband Michael. Justine flees the wedding reception in a golf cart. Frustrated by excessive fabric, she tears her dress getting out of the cart. At the eighteenth hole of the golf course on the estate, she looks up at the night sky, squatting to urinate on the hole.
Justines boss, Jack, is ruthless, greedy, and gluttonous. During his wedding speech, hes hustling Justine to meet a work deadline she writes copy. He pushes her throughout the evening to create a tagline to promote a campaign based on a modern facsimile of Bruegels The Land of Cockaigne the mythical land of excess. She later opens an art book, only to find this same painting. Delaying the cutting of the wedding cake, Justine and Gaby independently escape to take baths.
Justines bosss nephew, Tim, is given the chance to exploit the opportunity to get the tagline at all costs in order to promote his career: a task similar to what Justine was previously so successful at. He reluctantly, but doggedly, pursues Justine throughout the wedding reception. She cannot consummate her marriage with her husband and eventually goes out onto a sand trap and has sex with Tim. Unable to get the tagline from Justine, Tim is later fired for his "professional" failure, but Justine also resigns, telling Jack that he is a "despicable, power-hungry little man." After several hours of being alienated from each other, Justine and Michael quietly agree to call off the marriage. Michael departs. Early the following morning, while horseback riding with Claire, Justine notices Antares is no longer visible in the sky.
1.2. Plot Part Two: "Claire"
Later, the reason for Antaress disappearance has become public knowledge: a newly discovered rogue planet called Melancholia, which entered the Solar System from behind the Sun, was blocking the star from view. The planet has now become visible in the sky as it approaches ever closer to Earth. John is excited about the "fly-by" predicted by scientists, while Claire is frightened by alternate predictions of the earth being hit.
In the meantime, Justines depression has grown worse. She is placed in the care of Claire and John. Justine is essentially catatonic and Claire is unable to help her, even to assist her into the bath. In an effort to cheer her up, Claire makes meatloaf. Justine admits that she is so numb that even her favourite meal tastes of ash.
As Justine is forced into waking patterns, her connection to her beloved black horse Abraham becomes remote and frustrating. On two occasions, the horse refuses to cross a bridge over a river. Justine acts brutally towards the horse and eventually whips him mercilessly to the ground.
Meanwhile, Claire is fearful that the end of the world is imminent, despite her husbands assurances. She searches the Internet and finds an article predicting that Melancholia and the Earth will, in fact, collide. Her husband assures her that these anecdotes are written by "prophets of doom" looking for their 15 minutes of fame. Claire tries to relax. The next day, a somewhat-healthier Justine confesses to Claire that she simply "knows" certain things - like the number of beans in the bottle at her wedding reception and that Earth and Melancholia will actually destroy each other. Whats more, Justine says: this is a good thing because the Earth is evil.
That night, Melancholia passes Earth, as predicted by the scientists to great relief. However, the next day Claire realizes when using a circular device made by her son that Melancholia is actually getting bigger and circling back - as predicted by the Internet article. She begins to panic. She looks for John, only to find him dead in the stables he purposefully overdosed on pills Claire was saving. Claire, realizing Melancholias impending arrival, releases Abraham. Later when Justine asks where John is, Claire says that he has ridden into the village with Abraham.
Claire calls the rest of her family together for a completely typical breakfast. Justine, noticing Johns absence, questions Claires intentions. Suddenly, as a result of Melancholias proximity to Earth, a hailstorm starts. A panicked Claire tries to escape the estate with her son, but the cars will not start, and the golf cart shuts down as she attempts to cross the same bridge that Justine had attempted earlier. Returning to the mansion, Claire tries to accept the inevitable. In a private conversation with Justine, Claire suggests that their last act be coming together on the terrace with wine and music. Justine crassly dismisses her idea.
Having noticed that Abraham is wandering around the estate without any sign of his father, Claires son, Leo, is frightened. "Dad said theres nothing to do, nowhere to hide," Leo says, aware of Melancholias closeness. He is reassured by Justine, who says that they can be safe in a "magic cave", something she had promised to build several times throughout the film. They gather tree sticks to build the cave in the form of a teepee without canvas.
The "magic cave" stands in the middle of a field on the golf course. Leo, Justine, and Claire sit in the teepee, holding hands as the final storm begins. Leo believes in the magic cave and closes his eyes. Claire is terrified and cries profusely. Justine watches them both, and accepts her fate calmly and stoically. In the last shot Claire shudders, Leo and Justine sit in meditative posture as Melancholia fills the sky behind the teepee, then a wall of fire passes through the field as the planets collide, killing them as a result of the firestorm. The sounds of the destruction of both planets echo and rumble while the screen fades to black.
2.1. Production Development
The idea for the film originated during a therapy session Lars von Trier attended during treatments for his depression. A therapist had told von Trier that depressive people tend to act more calmly than others under heavy pressure, because they already expect bad things to happen. Von Trier then developed the story not primarily as a disaster film, and without any ambition to portray astrophysics realistically, but as a way to examine the human psyche during a disaster.
The idea of a planetary collision was inspired by websites with theories about such events. Von Trier decided from the outset that it would be clear from the beginning that the world would actually end in the film, so audiences would not be distracted by the suspense of not knowing. The concept of the two sisters as main characters developed via an exchange of letters between von Trier and the Spanish actress Penelope Cruz. Cruz wrote that she would like to work with von Trier, and spoke enthusiastically about the play The Maids by Jean Genet. As von Trier subsequently tried to write a role for the actress, the two maids from the play evolved into the sisters Justine and Claire in Melancholia. Much of the personality of the character Justine was based von Trier himself. The name was inspired by the 1791 novel Justine by the Marquis de Sade.
Melancholia was produced by Denmarks Zentropa, with co-production support from its subsidiary in Germany, Swedens Memfis Film, Frances Slot Machine and Liberator Productions. The production received 7.9 million Danish kroner from the Danish Film Institute, 600.000 euro from Eurimages and 3 million Swedish kronor from the Swedish Film Institute. Additional funding was provided by Film i Vast, DR, Arte France, CNC, Canal+, BIM Italy, Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Sveriges Television and Nordisk Film & TV-Fond. The total budget was 52.5 million Danish kroner.
Cruz was initially expected to play the lead role, but dropped out when the filming schedule of another project was changed. Von Trier then offered the role to Kirsten Dunst, who accepted it. Dunst had been suggested for the role by the American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson in a discussion about the film between him and von Trier.
2.2. Production Filming
Principal photography began 22 July and ended 8 September 2010. Interior scenes were shot at Film i Vasts studios in Trollhattan, Sweden. It was the fourth time Trier made a film in Trollhattan. Exteriors included the area surrounding the Tjoloholm Castle. The film was recorded digitally with Arri Alexa and Phantom cameras. Trier employed his usual directing style with no rehearsals; instead the actors improvised and received instructions between the takes. The camera was initially operated by Trier, and then left to cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro who repeated Triers movements. Claro said about the method: wants to experience the situations the first time. He finds an energy in the scenes, presence, and makes up with the photographic aesthetics." Trier explained that the visual style he aimed at in Melancholia was "a clash between what is romantic and grand and stylized and then some form of reality", which he hoped to achieve through the hand-held camerawork. He feared however that it would tilt too much toward the romantic, because of the setting at the upscale wedding, and the castle, which he called "super kitschy".
2.3. Production Post-production
The prelude to Richard Wagners Tristan und Isolde supplies the main musical theme of the film, and Triers use of an overture-like opening sequence before the first act is a technique closely associated with Wagner. This choice was inspired by a 30-page section of Marcel Prousts In Search of Lost Time, where Proust concludes that Wagners prelude is the greatest work of art of all time. Melancholia uses music more than any film by Trier since The Element of Crime from 1984. In some scenes, the film was edited in the same pace as the music. Trier said: "Its kind of like a music video that way. Its supposed to be vulgar." Trier also pointed out parallels between both the films usage of Wagner and the films editing to the music and the aesthetics of Nazi Germany.
Visual effects were provided by companies in Poland, Germany and Sweden under visual effects supervisor Peter Hjorth. Polands Platige Image, which previously had worked with Trier on Antichrist, created most of the effects seen in the films opening sequence; the earliest instructions were provided by Trier in the summer 2010, after which a team of 19 visual effects artists worked on the project for three months.
In his directors statement, Trier wrote that he had started to regret having made such a polished film, but that he hoped it would contain some flaws which would make it interesting. The director wrote: "I desired to dive headlong into the abyss of German romanticism. But is that not just another way of expressing defeat? Defeat to the lowest of cinematic common denominators? Romance is abused in all sorts of endlessly dull ways in mainstream products."
The premiere took place at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where Melancholia was screened in competition on 18 May. The press conference after the screening gained considerable publicity. The Hollywood Reporter s Scott Roxborough wrote that "Von Trier has never been very P.C. and his Cannes press conferences always play like a dark stand-up routine, but at the Melancholia press conference he took it to another level, tossing a grenade into any sense of public decorum." Trier first joked about working on a hardcore pornographic film that would star Dunst and Gainsbourg. When asked about the relation between the influences of German Romanticism in Melancholia and Triers own German heritage, the director brought up that he had been raised believing his biological father was a Jew, only to learn as an adult that his actual father was a German. He then made jokes about Jews and Nazis, said he understood Adolf Hitler and admired the work of architect Albert Speer, and jokingly announced that he was a Nazi. The Cannes Film Festival issued an official apology for the remarks the same day and clarified that Trier is not a Nazi or an anti-Semite, then declared the director "persona non grata" the following day. This meant he was not allowed to go within 100 meters of the Festival Palace, but he did remain in Cannes and continued to give promotional interviews.
The film was released in Denmark on 26 May 2011 through Nordisk Film. Launched on 57 screens, the film entered the box-office chart as number three. A total of 50.000 tickets were eventually sold in Denmark. It was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland on 30 September, in Germany on 6 October and in Italy on 21 October. Magnolia Pictures acquired the distribution rights for North America and it was released on 11 November, with a pre-theatrical release on 13 October as a rental through such Direct TV vendors as Vudu and Amazon.com. Madman Entertainment bought the rights for Australia and New Zealand.
4.1. Reception Critical response
Melancholia received positive reviews from critics. The film holds a 79% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 197 reviews, with an average rating of 7.39/10. The websites critical consensus states, Melancholia s dramatic tricks are more obvious than they should be, but this is otherwise a showcase for Kirsten Dunsts acting and for Lars von Triers profound, visceral vision of depression and destruction." The film also holds a score of 80 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 40 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews."
Kim Skotte of Politiken wrote that "there are images - many images - in Melancholia which underline that Lars von Trier is a unique film storyteller", and "the choice of material and treatment of it underlines Lars von Triers originality." Skotte also compared it to the directors previous film: "Through its material and look, Melancholia creates rifts, but unlike Antichrist I dont feel that there is a fence pole in the rift which is smashed directly down into the meat. You sit on your seat in the cinema and mildly marveled go along in the end of the world." Berlingske s Ebbe Iversen wrote about the film: "It is big, it is enigmatic, and now and then rather irritating. But it is also a visionary work, which makes a gigantic impression." The critic continued: "From time to time the film moves on the edge of kitsch, but with Justine played by Kirsten Dunst and Claire played by Charlotte Gainsbourg as the leading characters, Melancholia is a bold, uneven, unruly and completely unforgettable film."
Steven Loeb of Southampton Patch wrote, "This film has brought the best out of von Trier, as well as his star. Dunst is so good in this film, playing a character unlike any other she has ever attempted, that she won the award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. Even if the film itself were not the incredible work of art that it is, Dunsts performance alone would be incentive enough to recommend it."
Sukhdev Sandhu wrote from Cannes in The Daily Telegraph that the film "at times comes close to being a tragi-comic opera about the end of the world," and that, "the apocalypse, when it comes, is so beautifully rendered that the film cements the quality of fairy tale that its palatial setting suggests." About the actors performances, Sandhu wrote: "all of them are excellent here, but Dunst is exceptional, so utterly convincing in the lead role - troubled, serene, a fierce savant - that it feels like a career breakthrough. Meanwhile, Gainsbourg, for whom the end of the world must seem positively pastoral after the horrors she went through in Antichrist, locates in Claire a fragility that ensures shes more than a whipping girl for social satire." Sandhu brought up one reservation in the review, in which he gave the film the highest possible rating of five stars: "there is, as always with Von Triers work, a degree of intellectual determinism that can be off-putting; he illustrates rather than truly explore ideas." Peter Bradshaw, writing for The Guardian, called the film "clunky" and "tiresome", judging it to be "conceived with real passion or imagination", and not "well written or convincingly acted in any way at all", and gave it two stars out of a possible five.
4.2. Reception Accolades
Dunst received the Best Actress Award at the closing ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival. The film won three awards at the European Film Awards for Best Film, Best Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, and Best Designer Jette Lehmann.
The US National Society of Film Critics selected Melancholia as the best picture of 2011 and named Kirsten Dunst best actress. The film was also nominated for four Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards: Best Film – International; Best Direction – International for von Trier, Best Screenplay – International also for von Trier, and Best Actress – International for Dunst.
Film Comment magazine listed Melancholia third on its Best Films of 2011 list. The film also received 12 votes - seven from critics and five from directors - in the British Film Institutes 2012 Sight & Sound poll of the greatest movies ever made, making it one of the few films of the 21st century to appear within the top 250. In 2016, the film was named as the 43rd best film of the 21st century, from a poll of 177 film critics from around the world. In 2019, Time listed it as one of the best films of the 2010s decade, while Cahiers du cinema named it the eighth best film of the 2010s. That same year, Vulture named Melancholia the best film of the 2010s.
In 2018, playwright Declan Greene adapted the film into a stage play for Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, Australia. The cast featured Eryn Jean Norvill as Justine, Leeanna Walsman as Claire, Gareth Yuen as Michael, Steve Mouzakis as John, and Maude Davey as Gaby, while child actors Liam Smith and Alexander Artemov shared the role of Leo. In the adaptation, the character of Dexter, Justines father is omitted, while Justines boss, Jack, is combined with John.