Melancholia is a 2011 science fiction drama film written and directed by Lars von Trier, starringKirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland. The narrative revolves around two sisters during and shortly after the wedding party of one of them, while Earth is about to collide with an approaching rogue planet. The film prominently features music from Richard Wagner‘s prelude to his opera Tristan und Isolde.
Trier’s initial inspiration for the film came from a depressive episode he suffered and the insight that depressives remain calm in stressful situations. The film is a Danish production byZentropa, with international co-producers in Sweden, France, Germany and Italy. Filming took place in Sweden.
The film begins with a dream-like introductory sequence involving several of the main characters and images from space. A giant planet is shown threateningly approaching Earth, eventually destroying it in a planetary collision. The film is then divided into two parts.
In part one, called “Justine”, the young couple Justine and Michael are getting married at the castle-like home of Justine’s sister, Claire, and her husband. The glamorous and expensive party is far from successful, as Justine’s divorced parents are openly fighting at the dinner. Justine herself is alienated from her sister, her new husband, her advertising-executive boss and her parents. She drifts away from the party, and becomes increasingly sad and desperate during the night. At several occasions, she looks at a specific star, which seems to shine brighter than normal. Claire’s husband John says it is the star Antares, and later in the film the star disappears. At the end of the party, Michael leaves Justine, implying that their marriage is called off.
In part two, called “Claire”, Justine has become severely depressed. She comes to stay with Claire and John, who live in the castle where the party took place with their son Leo. Justine is unable to carry out normal everyday activities like taking a bath or even eating, but gets better over time. It turns out that the reason for Antares’ disappearance was the rogue planetMelancholia, which had eclipsed the star. Melancholia, a massive blue telluric planet (or super-earth), becomes visible in the sky, approaching Earth. John, who is keen on astronomy, is excited about the planet, and looks forward to the “fly-by” expected by scientists, who have assured the public that Earth and Melancholia will pass by each other without colliding.
Claire is very fearful and believes the end of the world is imminent. She does a search on the Internet and finds a site describing the movements of the planet Melancholia around Earth as a “dance of death” in which the apparent passage of Melancholia initiates a slingshot orbit that will bring the planets into collision soon after. On the night of the fly-by, it seems like John was right, as Melancholia indeed passes by Earth in a near-miss. After the fly-by, background birdsong abruptly ceases, recalling the falling leaves and dead birds glimpsed behind Justine in the opening frames of the film. Horses calm down from an earlier state of agitation.
However, just as the “dance of death” theory predicted, this is a false respite. As Claire suddenly notices after she views the rogue planet through Leo’s makeshift ‘planet viewer’, Melancholia is circling back and will collide with Earth after all. John, who also discovers that the end is near, commits suicide through a pill overdose. His dead body is found by Claire, who decides to conceal it from Leo and Justine. She talks to her sister Justine, who is unperturbed by the impending doom. Justine says she knows that life does not exist elsewhere in the universe. Claire becomes increasingly fraught, trying futilely to act in response to the oncoming destruction and to protect Leo from the inevitable. In contrast, Justine has become calm and silent, seemingly accepting the forthcoming apocalypse. Their relationship has become inverted, with Claire now dependent on Justine for emotional and psychological support.
Justine tries to comfort Leo (who seems to help her dealing with the depression) by building a protective “magic cave”, a symbolic shelter made out of wooden sticks. Justine, Claire and Leo enter the shelter as the planet approaches. Claire is agitated and fearful, while Justine and Leo remain calm and hold hands. Melancholia then collides with Earth, destroying it.
- Kirsten Dunst as Justine, a young woman with a promising career and a seemingly perfect life. She experiences depression and becomes more cynical during the second half of the film, but also visibly stronger in response to the impending events.
- Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire, sister of Justine, mother of Leo and wife of John. As a parent who cannot protect her son from the apocalypse, Claire becomes increasingly fearful and distraught as Melancholia makes its final approach.
- Kiefer Sutherland as John, father of Leo and husband of Claire, who appears to have a very optimistic and logical view about the planet Melancholia. When that is revealed as illusory, he cannot deal with it and leaves his wife and son alone at the end.
- Alexander Skarsgård as Michael, the newly-wed husband of Justine, who leaves her on their wedding night. Alexander Skarsgård is the son of Stellan Skarsgård, whose character (Jack) is Michael’s best man and Justine’s boss.
- Cameron Spurr as Leo, the young son of Claire and John, who seems to help Justine throughout her depression. She returns his affection and comforts him during the second half of the film, holding his hand during the apocalypse.
- Charlotte Rampling as Gaby, the bitter and cynical ex-wife of Dexter, and mother of Justine and Claire.
- John Hurt as Dexter, the fun-loving father of Justine and Claire, and ex-husband of Gaby.
- Jesper Christensen as Little Father, the house butler.
- Stellan Skarsgård as Jack, the self-centered and manipulative boss of Justine.
- Brady Corbet as Tim, a young trainee for Jack, who follows Justine around on her wedding night. Tim and Justine have a brief sexual encounter during the first half of the film.
- Udo Kier as The Wedding Planner, who, as a comic relief, is disappointed by Justine for not living up to his expectations as a bride, and refuses to look at her during the reception.
The idea for the film originated during a therapy session Lars von Trier attended during treatments for his depression. A therapist had told Trier that depressive people tend to act more calmly than others under heavy pressure, because they already expect bad things to happen. Trier then developed the story not primarily as a disaster film, and without any ambition to portrayastrophysics 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. Trier decided from the outset that it would be clear from the beginning that the world actually will end in the film, so the audience would not be distracted by the suspense of not knowing the resolution. The concept of the two sisters as main characters developed via a letter exchange between Trier and the Spanish actress Penélope Cruz. Cruz wrote that she would like to work with Trier, and spoke enthusiastically about the playThe Maids by Jean Genet. As 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 on Trier himself. The name was inspired by the novel Justine by Marquis de Sade.
Melancholia was produced by Denmark’s Zentropa, with co-production support from its subsidiary in Germany, Sweden’s Memfis Film, France’s Slot Machine and Liberator Productions and Italy’s Pappagallo Films. 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 Väst, 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 attached to play the lead role, but dropped out when the filming schedule of another project was changed. 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 Trier.
Principal photography began 22 July and ended 8 September 2010. Interior scenes were shot at Film i Väst’s studios in Trollhättan, Sweden. It was the fourth time Trier made a film in Trollhättan.Exteriors included the area surrounding the Tjolöholm 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 Trier’s movements. Claro said about the method: “[Trier] 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”.
The prelude to Richard Wagner‘s Tristan und Isolde supplies the main musical theme of the film. This choice was inspired by a 30-page section of Marcel Proust‘s In Search of Lost Time, where Proust concludes that Wagner’s 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: “It’s kind of like a music video that way. It’s supposed to be vulgar.” Trier also pointed out parallels between both Wagner and editing to the music and the aesthetics of Nazi Germany.
Visual effects were provided by companies in Poland, Germany and Sweden under special effects supervisor Peter Hjorth. Poland’s Platige Image, which previously had worked with Trier onAntichrist, created most of the effects seen in the film’s opening sequence; the earliest instructions were provided by Trier in the summer 2010, after which a team of 19 graphic artists worked on the project for three months.
Soon before the film’s premiere, Trier published a “director’s statement”, where he 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 the 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 which would star Dunst and Gainsbourg. When he was asked about the relation between the influences of German Romanticism in Melancholia and Trier’s own German heritage, the director brought up the fact 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 gentile. 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 antisemite, then declared the director “persona non grata” the following day. In practice this meant that he was not allowed to go within 100 meters from the Festival Palace. He did however stay 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 will be 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 will release it on 11 November, with a pre-theatrical release on 13 October as a rental through such Direct TV vendors as Vudu andAmazon.com. Madman Entertainment bought the rights for Australia and New Zealand.
The film has received mostly positive 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 Trier’s originality.” Skotte also compared it to the director’s previous film: “Through its material and look,Melancholia creates rifts, but unlike Antichrist I don’t 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 Kirsten Dunst as Justine and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire in front, Melancholiais 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, Dunst’s 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 acting performances, Sandhu wrote: “All of them are excellent here, but Dunst is exceptional, so utterly convincing in the lead role – trouble, 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 she’s 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 Trier’s 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[out] 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.
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