|Directed by||Lars von Trier|
|Written by||Lars von Trier|
|Cinematography||Manuel Alberto Claro|
|Edited by||Molly Malene Stensgaard|
(c. US$9.4 million (2010))
|Box office||$21.8 million|
Melancholia is a 2011 science fiction drama art 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 film's story revolves around two sisters, one of whom is preparing to marry just before a rogue planet is about to collide with Earth.
Von Trier's 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 Denmark, Sweden, France, and Germany. Filming took place in Sweden. Melancholia prominently features music from the prelude to Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde (1857–1859). It is the second entry in von Trier's 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 festival's Best Actress Award for her performance, which was a common area of praise among critics. Although it has detractors, many critics and film scholars have considered the film to be a personal masterpiece; it has since been featured in multiple listings of the best films of 2011, the best films of the 2010s, and the best films of the 21st century.
The film begins with an introductory sequence involving the main characters and images from space, set to the prelude of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. These sixteen slow motion shots symbolically reveal key elements of the film: Justine in deep melancholy with birds falling behind her; the estate lawn and a sundial with everything casting two shadows; Pieter Brueghel's The Hunters in the Snow burning; Melancholia covering Antares; Claire carrying Leo through the golf course as her feet sink into the ground; a black horse collapsing under an aurora; Justine standing among clouds of insects emerging from the ground; Justine, Leo and Claire under a sky with Melancholia, the Moon and the Sun visible; Melancholia passing by Earth; electric currents coming off of utility poles and Justine’s fingers; Justine in her wedding attire trudging through a dark stringy material; Melancholia coming back towards Earth; a burning tree outside of a window; an unconscious or dead Justine, again in her wedding attire, floating in water; Leo looking at the sky in shock as he and Justine gather and shave branches in the forest; and lastly Earth colliding with Melancholia.
Delayed by their stretch limousine's difficulty traversing the narrow winding rural road, newlyweds Justine and Michael arrive two hours late for their own wedding reception at the estate of Justine's sister, Claire, and her husband, John. Upon their arrival, Justine takes note of a brightly shining red star in the sky. John explains it is the star Antares, in the constellation Scorpius.
Justine has a dysfunctional family: brother-in-law John constantly complains about having to pay for the wedding despite being very well-off; father Dexter is hedonistic and selfish to the point of narcissism, while mother Gaby is brutally jaded, openly declaring her hatred of marriages during her wedding speech. 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 finds several excuses to flee the wedding reception and wander the estate by herself. At one point, while the guests stand around waiting for the cutting of the cake, Justine and Gaby independently escape to take baths. Michael is pressured to give a speech at one point, but it is very dispassionate and vapid. He attempts to consummate his marriage with Justine, despite her being clearly non-receptive, even ignoring her at one point when she asks if they can simply sit together for a while, causing her to flee in frustration. Claire tells Justine she is "lying to everyone", while John aggressively reminds Justine how much the wedding cost and tells her she "better be God damn happy".
Justine's boss, Jack, is ruthless and greedy. During his wedding speech, he's hustling Justine to meet a work deadline. He pushes her throughout the evening to create a tagline to promote a new campaign. Her boss's 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, pressuring her for the tagline.
Eventually, Justine 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. Finally reaching a breaking point, Justine resigns by telling Jack that he is a "despicable, power-hungry little man", and storming off. After several hours of being alienated from each other, Justine and Michael quietly agree to call off the marriage. Michael departs, leaving a severely depressed Justine isolated at the estate, with Claire and John furious at her. While storming back into the estate, a wedding planner tells Claire the total number of beans in a jar for a lottery that was held during the event.
Early the following morning, while horseback riding with Claire, Justine notices Antares is no longer visible in the sky.
Later, the reason for Antares's disappearance has become public knowledge: a newly discovered rogue planet called Melancholia, which entered the Solar System from a point 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 Earth being hit and destroyed.
In the meantime, Justine's depression has grown worse. She can barely muster the mental strength to get inside a cab to arrive to Claire's and John's estate, and is essentially catatonic upon arrival. Claire takes her sister under her care. One day, while horseback riding, Justine finally notices Melancholia in the sky, visible to the naked eye.
Upon seeing Melancholia in person, Claire becomes withdrawn and fearful, afraid that the end of the world is imminent, despite her husband's assurances. She searches the Internet and finds an article predicting that Earth's gravitational pull will draw Melancholia back towards it after its "fly-by", ultimately leading to the Earth's obliteration. Her husband assures her that these anecdotes are written by "prophets of doom". Claire tries to relax, to little effect; meanwhile, Justine unexpectedly shows signs of improvement. She begins to bathe and eat meals on a regular schedule again. The day of the predicted "fly-by", Justine tells Claire that the Earth is evil, and that they don't need to grieve for it. Claire dismisses her sister's claims, but is unsettled when Justine unexpectedly tells her the correct number of the bean lottery from the wedding, as proof of her clairvoyance. Justine then tells Claire, "Life is only on Earth. And not for long." That night, Melancholia passes very close to Earth, but ultimately begins to recede in the night sky, to Claire's great relief.
The next morning, John has become visibly nervous, not breaking away from his telescope. When John vanishes after Claire naps, Claire observes Melancholia through the astronomical equipment and realizes it is actually getting bigger and circling back towards the Earth, as predicted by the Internet article. Horrified, she looks for John, only to find him dead in the stables (he purposefully overdosed on pills Claire was saving). Claire releases their horse, Abraham, and when Justine asks where John is, Claire says that he has ridden into the village.
Claire calls the rest of her family together for a completely typical breakfast, but shortly after, this attempt to maintain normalcy falters as she once again checks Melancholia's closeness. Seeing that it has nearly doubled in size, Claire realizes the Earth is doomed and descends into a panic. In a moment of desperation, she attempts to flee 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, Claire's son, Leo, is frightened. "Dad said there's nothing to do, nowhere to hide," Leo says, aware of Melancholia's closeness. He is reassured by Justine, who uses his innocence in order to soothe him, saying that they can be safe in a "magic cave". Justine cries to herself as Leo embraces her. They gather branches and 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 Melancholia draws near, strong winds rake the area as the atmospheres of the two planets begin to violently combine. 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, Leo and Justine sit in meditative posture as Melancholia fills the sky on its final approach, its surface becoming closer and closer with each passing second. Claire breaks away from their handhold and despairs alone. Melancholia collides with the Earth, sending a wall of fire thundering through the golf course, vaporizing the trio and cutting the screen to black. The sound of the collision of both planets echoes and rumbles, its volume gradually quietening into total silence.
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.
"In a James Bond movie we expect the hero to survive. It can get exciting nonetheless. And some things may be thrilling precisely because we know what's going to happen, but not how they will happen. In Melancholia it's interesting to see how the characters we follow react as the planet approaches Earth."
Trier on his decision to reveal the ending in the beginning of the film
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 Penélope 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 on von Trier himself. The name was inspired by the 1791 novel Justine by the 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. 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 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.
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: "[von 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, and Trier's 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 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 the film's usage of Wagner and the film's 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. Poland's Platige Image, which previously had worked with Trier on Antichrist, 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 visual effects artists worked on the project for three months.
In his director's 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 Trier's 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.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 80% of 206 critic reviews are positive, and the average rating is 7.5/10. The website's critical consensus states, "Melancholia's dramatic tricks are more obvious than they should be, but this is otherwise a showcase for Kirsten Dunst's acting and for Lars von Trier's profound, visceral vision of depression and destruction." According to Metacritic, the film received "generally favorable reviews", based on an average score of 80/100 from 40 critics. A 2017 data analysis of Metacritic reviews by Gizmodo UK found the film to be the most critically divisive film of recent years.
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 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, 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 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 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, stated "Windup merchant Lars von Trier is back with a film about the end of the world – but it's not to be taken entirely seriously", and gave it three stars out of a possible five.
In 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, an Atlantic culture writer found "the perspective of a catastrophe-minded person thrust into a state of actual catastrophe finds perhaps no better creative expression" than in the film. BBC Culture stated that "arguably no film has been more profoundly compassionate in its depiction of a mental crisis".
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 Institute's 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 cinéma 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, Justine's father is omitted, while Justine's boss, Jack, is combined with John.
Han vil opleve situationerne første gang. Han finder en energi i scenerne, nærvær, og gør op med fotoæstetikken.
Der er billeder – mange billeder – i 'Melancholia', som understreger, at Lars von Trier er en unik filmfortæller." "Valget af stof og behandlingen af det understreger Lars von Triers originalitet." "I kraft af sit stof og sit look sætter 'Melancholia' skel, men i modsætning til 'Antichrist' føler jeg ikke, der i skellet er en hegnspæl, der bliver banket direkte ned i kødet. Man sidder på sin række i biografen og følger mildt forundret med i verdens undergang.
Den er stor, den er gådefuld, og nu og da er den temmelig irriterende. Men den er også et visionært værk, som gør et gigantisk indtryk." "Undertiden bevæger filmen sig på kanten af kitsch, men med Kirsten Dunst som Justine og Charlotte Gainsbourg som Claire i spidsen er "Melancholia" en dristig, ujævn, uregerlig og helt uforglemmelig film.
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