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Melancholia, a review

‘Melancholia’, dictionary description… “a mental condition and especially a manic-depressive condition characterized by extreme depression, bodily complaints, and often hallucinations and delusions”.

Smash ceremony to pieces. Hype, ego, pomp, sensationalism, formality, persona, ceremony… Blow it to smithereens and what is left? A whole new way of looking at the world around us, whether real or imaginary, an altered perspective. Well, we’ve all seen that Lars von Trier is a fan of smashing ceremonies. He does it in public frequently and it is often the main action that takes place in his films. In his latest work, MELANCHOLIA (2011), the character Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) does just that. Due to a bout of inevitable all-consuming melancholia, she ruins her own wedding and turns what should have been a clean beautiful once-in-a-lifetime event into a chaotic night of living hell. But despite the blitzed wedding and the crashing of her world, the high concept here is not the ruined ceremony nor the many disappointed family and guests.

What matters here most is the mood of Justine, the piercing heavy gloppy and chthonic goop that drags our poor heroine to the ground, that inexplicable, impossible to avoid bilious black dark cloud that takes down whomever it possess with great invincible force. I am talking of course of ‘Melancholia’. Many just understand this word as a mood, as a passing fleeting moment of discontent. But others experience it differently. Others live with melancholia as an affliction, a hereditary disease that makes them chronically depressed, bipolar or even as a type of schizophrenia. Without a doubt, it is a serious psychological condition and only those who have it can truly understand.

I recently saw the film for the first time in Sarajevo at the SFF after an introduction to the film by actress Charlotte Rampling who praised the film as ‘Trier’s greatest work yet’. I had anticipated this film for a long time but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. When I walked out of this film all I could do was find a quiet place as quickly as possible so I could contemplate what had hit me. My head was throbbing and I was struck by one of the most intense works of art I have seen. My friends and I looked for a calm lounge/bar and immediately I ordered a glass of Primitivo and pondered.

In the film, two sisters - Justine and Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) - experience a stifling severe melancholia. Their negative melancholic mother (played by Charlotte Rampling) passed it onto them and Claire will undoubtedly pass it onto her son, Leo. The sisters both live as victims of this mental disease, each experiencing it in completely different ways. Justine experiences it more on a muddy earthly level while Claire on a more saturnine planetary one, but each suffers greatly from this devastating disorder.

One of my friends kept repeating to me that the first story 'Justine' he liked while the second, 'Claire', he didn't like because he didn’t 'buy it'. And I immediately realized it wasn't that he didn't ‘buy it’, but that he just didn't get it. While the first part is about Justine experiencing melancholia on an earthly level, the second is about Claire experiencing the same emotion on a more metaphysical level. Justine feels herself being pulled down to the earth by black bile that makes each step forward in her life almost impossible to take. She tries and tries to step forward but the thick muddy earth and her consuming depression suck all will to live out of her. And this causes her to smash everything. Of course she doesn’t kill everything out of want but out of an intense melancholic disposition, a humor that keeps her depressed even in moments that should be her happiest. Claire, on the other hand, experiences the emotion of melancholy differently, which is not a literal story to believe or not believe, buy or not buy. For Claire, her melancholia is like Saturn approaching earth, a heavy magic spell that is like planets colliding and closing in on her, suffocating her, killing her. She hallucinates that a planet (like Saturn) is approaching too close to earth and to her world (the advancing melancholic mood) and if it hits too close it will kill them all. Is this literal? I think not. We are dealing with a household of melancholia illnesses (Justine, Claire and now Claire’s son Leo) and because it is a disorder they will never be able to escape it.

What is melancholia? It’s a dark feeling that once it sets in it rides its course to the bitter end. No reasoning can quell it and no light can diminish its darkness. Melancholia knows no ceremony, it fails to perform as expected under all circumstance except to reveal itself. And like a cancer it spreads throughout the body and the mind killing everything else in its wake. If melancholy were described as a planet approaching it would come at full throbbing speed to its target, sometimes receding and then rushing in until it has collided. Does everyone experience such melancholy? No. This is a special condition. Only those who know her can understand or those who have come into contact and loved others that do. It is a sickness and though a feeling and psychological, it holds powers that possess its host with dark destructive nature, a will for the death of all things and to lie furthest away from the sun and light as possible. Who can forget one of the greatest melancholic characters of all time? - Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet, the "Melancholy Dane." Come to think of it, what is it with Danes and Melancholy anyway? lol.

All I can say is this film defies description. It is a work of artistic precision and within it holds a perfect balance- of allegory and truth, reality and the surreal, reason and madness- which left me utterly speechless. MELANCHOLIA is by far one of the greatest films I have ever seen and will for me be regarded as one of the most important films of all time. How brave to make a film about a mood and to make that feeling the main nemesis? How genius to make the main subject of a film something that is only felt and experienced which proves only communicable through art? Again, I am at a loss for words. I will leave you with a few images which might lead you in some kind of direction of this unique masterpiece film, but the only thing you can do to make your own surmise is to see it and experience MELANCHOLIA for yourself.

written by Vanessa McMahon, August 05, 2011 

’Melancholia’ premiered in May 2011 at the Cannes Film Festival. The press conference for the film received international attention when Lars von Trier made questionable comments about Hitler sympathizing with the Nazis and he was later named ‘persona non grata’ by the festival. Actress Kirsten Dunst won a Best Actress award for her stellar performance as Justine.

below some images of 'melancholia'. 

Albrecht Durer's 'Melancholia I'

John Everett Millais's 'Ophelia'

photos of Charlotte Rampling at SFF 2011 by Vanessa McMahon 

photos of Melancholia premier at Cannes 2011, by VM


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