Melancholia: Kirsten Dunst, Lars von Trier, and the End of the World

Melancholia: Kirsten Dunst, Lars von Trier, and the End of the World

MELANCHOLIA There must be some Toros in the atmosphere.

For the second time this season, filmgoers are getting sucked into the black hole of a pretty young woman's emotional problems. First came Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene, starring Elizabeth Olsen as a young woman hobbled by post-traumatic stress disorder after fleeing an abusive cult. Now comes Lars von Trier's Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst as a young woman in the grips of an unspecified mental illness, which causes her to swing between sociopathic aggression and near-paralysis. Martha was a small, careful, rigorously life-size gem about the weird stasis that can follow trauma; Melancholia is an operatic explosion that connects one woman's sickness with the literal annihilation of the earth.

In some ways, it feels like Lars von Trier has been hungry to wipe out humanity from the beginning. Breaking the Waves (1996) tracked a woman of childlike innocence who whores herself to death for the man she loves. Dancer in the Dark (2000) concerned a woman of childlike innocence who's struggling to save her child and winds up executed by the state. In both films, the female protagonists seemed designed to elicit maximum sympathy. (In addition to her childlike innocence, Dancer's lead character was nearly blind and played by internationally beloved art-pop pixie Björk.)

Compared with von Trier's previous tortured angels, Melancholia's female lead is repellent. In the film's first half, she lazily wreaks malevolent havoc at her own million-dollar wedding; in the second, she's all but comatose, moved only by a vague horniness for the end of the world. In both halves, Kirsten Dunst comports herself well, seemingly surprising even herself with her initial bursts of malevolence before sinking into a deep, tangibly aching funk. But the extremes of her behavior cast her character as something both more and less than human—a symbol, which is much harder to feel for, and much easier to disengage from, than a person.

Similar if less-pronounced types fill out the cast, with Charlotte Gainsbourg as our villainous heroine's long-suffering sister, Kiefer Sutherland as Gainsbourg's fatally romantic amateur-astronomer husband, and Charlotte Rampling as the sisters' spiritually troubled mother. Gone are all Dogme 95–ish austerity measures, as von Trier brings his nihilistic fairy tale to life with gorgeously composed shots and all sorts of previously forbidden cinema magic. Despite the formal break between the film's halves, Melancholia casts a cumulative spell that swept me along in slowly growing dread while keeping me strangely disengaged emotionally. No doubt this is by design—when von Trier wants to gut us, he does it. (See Björk dangling from a noose.) Instead, we're trapped in the numbness that devours our heroine—a formally perfect trick that nevertheless limits the film's impact. It's a film you watch, rather than feel, but it's an incredible thing to see. recommended

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Comments (17) RSS

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"an unspecified mental illness"
"she lazily wreaks malevolent havoc at her own million-dollar wedding"

what a supremely ignorant read of depression
Posted by You're An Idiot on November 16, 2011 at 3:27 PM · Report this
David Schmader 2
Relax. It wasn't a read of depression, it was a read of a character's behavior in a movie. (Have you seen the film? It would appear she is bipolar, but they never explicitly say so, thus "unspecified.")
Posted by David Schmader on November 16, 2011 at 4:09 PM · Report this
Yeah, I saw this as a film about depression, not about a woman who's "malevolent" or dealing with some mysterious mental illness beyond anyone's guess. It's pretty clearly depression.
Posted by Amanda on November 16, 2011 at 5:10 PM · Report this
David Schmader 4
I didn't say mysterious. I said unspecified. And sometimes acting out during a depression can be malevolent.
Posted by David Schmader on November 16, 2011 at 5:40 PM · Report this
Well written, David. I've been looking forward to seeing this movie and your review bumped it up on my list. And thanks for getting the review before Mudede did.
Posted by meso on November 16, 2011 at 5:47 PM · Report this
David Schmader 6
5: Thanks! I bet you will like it. And 1 and 3: What's funny is that I specifically decided against diagnosing the character, because to do so seemed presumptuous. Instead I described the behavior that Von Trier presented me, which clearly looked like a severe version of what we used to call manic depression, but I wasn't going to diagnose her if the filmmaker didn't.
Posted by David Schmader on November 16, 2011 at 6:21 PM · Report this
@6 -- Films show rather than tell, and the audience is expected to understand what's being shown without getting hit over the head by exposition. The director's already publically discussed making a film exploring how depressed people cope with crisis compared to "happy, normal" people. If you want to resist describing the main character as depressed for whatever reason, that's fine. But calling anyone else presumptuous for recognizing that the film deals with depression is just silly.
Posted by Amanda on November 16, 2011 at 7:30 PM · Report this
David Schmader 8
Calling anyone else presumptuous for recognizing that the film deals with depression is just silly.

Agreed. That's not what I'm doing. I actually wish I would've changed "unspecified mental illness" to "unspecified depression," because OF COURSE SHE WAS DEPRESSED. I just didn't feel comfortable slapping the label "bipolar" on her, in part because her affliction was so mythic.
Posted by David Schmader on November 16, 2011 at 8:03 PM · Report this
Manically Depressed Pixie Girl!
Posted by chrisk on November 17, 2011 at 7:54 AM · Report this
yes, please.
Posted by discoapocalypse on November 18, 2011 at 6:30 PM · Report this
Gee, I was so bored with the roving camera & jump-cut edits in the first half hour that I didn't bother to care about the bride's mental state by the time details started appear. I guess Von Trear is not my cup of tea.
Posted by Hunh?! on November 19, 2011 at 2:49 PM · Report this
He speaks of the destruction of social ties: the mother is hate, father inconsistent, the marriage dissolves of itself, the brother commits suicide, his sister is afraid of death, only the child has the right to hope .. (google translation). Lars settle accounts with humanity ..
Posted by on November 22, 2011 at 12:53 AM · Report this
You're all missing the point of this movie which is either:
A. Kirsten Dunst is a Mayan Princess leading the ‘End of the World’ scenario that many Westerns are poo-pooing.
2. This a much better way for the end of days than the biblical apocalypse with fire, brimstone and Kirk Cameron yellin’ “told you so, mo-fos!”
Posted by on the one on November 22, 2011 at 10:29 AM · Report this
Jason Baxter 14
Well played photo caption
Posted by Jason Baxter on November 22, 2011 at 11:01 AM · Report this
I haven't actually seen this movie, but, um...aren't GOP-backed corporations already creating The End of the World?
Posted by auntie grizelda on November 22, 2011 at 8:25 PM · Report this
It kind of bothered me that Justine (Kirsten Dunst) had an American accent, while her sister, nephew, mother and father all had English accents. Does Kirsten Dunst just not do a good English accent? Did they have to jettison it during filming? Small pet peeve, but it bothered me all the same.
Posted by UNPAID COMMENTER on December 5, 2011 at 12:12 PM · Report this
Lola, Missing Iowa City 17
This finally came to our little student-run theater in Iowa City, and I was dreading it, because I HATE LARS VON TRIER!! That said, this was the most stunning film I have ever seen in my life. I feel a little bad for even talking after I've seen it. Must be seen in a theater. If you stream it, it will be worthless.
Posted by Lola, Missing Iowa City on January 21, 2012 at 12:04 PM · Report this

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