February 2nd, 2012 / 2:33 pm

Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia: Homage Without Artistry

Not this time.

In the opening extreme slow-motion shots (the only appetizing thing in the Melancholia, though these brief scenes seem to be leftovers of his style in Antichrist), Lars Von Trier pays homage to no less than four masters: Ingmar Bergman (the close-up of Kirsten Dunst), Alan Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (the giant hedge garden, with tree shadows this time), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (the slow planetary movements to classical music), all of Andrei Tarkovsky, but specifically Solaris (the Breughel painting) and The Mirror (objects falling in slow-motion, a fire seen through a window)the end of the world scenario while people bob and weave around an opulent country house is right out of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. Von Trier’s whole opening sequence mirrors the opening to his Antichrist (using Handel’s music instead of Wagner) which scintillatingly displayed intercourse and the death of a child. One can only hope that Von Trier will go beyond homage and create something compelling, but it is not to be.

What follows is an empty work. Whereas Von Trier’s brand of nihilism has worked before (Dogville and The Five Obstructions are last decade’s best examples), here the brisk “fuck you’s” of the mother of the bride at the wedding have no resonance, nor do the bloviating comments of the boss of the bride. His asking her to come up with a tag-line for an ad displaying naked women during her wedding (she doesn’t) is quite ludicrous as is the entire set-up with a “mysterious” man he hires to follow her around for a while in order to get the tag-line. If this is a critique of America (and the film is explicitly set in America) it is shallow, crude, unconvincing, and not even worthy of our semi-spineless country.

The sloppy hand-held camera work Von Trier has employed before to great effect (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark) is only off-putting here because what the camera films is Von Trier’s own hackneyed solipsism, which has mostly successfully been fought by his being in touch with his unconscious (a place of no ego and a place where I’d argue his best scenarios and images come from), until now. It feels like Von Trier’s conception of the film was inhibited by the subject matter—his thinking that the end of the world might be compelling enough to carry a film is a grave misjudgment. It’s fine to have depressive characters (many of the most compelling in movies and books are) but they have to be artful and interesting in their melancholy (see Bergman and John Hawkes). If a character can’t seem to communicate why he or she is depressed to other characters (Dunst’s attempts to her parents consist of “I have to talk to you,” and to her husband “I need some time”) or the audience through facial expression and if a director can’t create a compelling mise-en-scene to swaddle this, the audience loses. In Persona, Bergman created a character (the actress played by Liv Ullman) who utters one word in the entire film, yet Bergman’s cinematography, editing, sound, and Ullman’s amazing face generate one of the most compelling studies of melancholy.

In Antichrist, the two main characters were given enough space (in terms of images and the screenplay*) to counter their mordant and morbid tendencies. The images worked with the actors to create something dynamic, whereas in Melancholia, because Von Trier has nothing to say (being afraid of the end of the world qualifies as that—the question “Why is one afraid of the end of the world?” is not asked), neither do the characters and by extension, the actors, who are often wooden and don’t seem to know why they are acting the way they are, specifically newcomers to the Von Trier stable, Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland.

Late in the film the Charlotte Gainsbourg character asks her now unwed sister to have a glass of wine on their veranda before the end of the world. Dunst simply answers that she thinks her idea is a piece of shit and walks away. The Gainsbourg character retorts that she hates her sister. This of course would be at least a little powerful if one cared about the characters, but the film’s vapidness precludes that and it makes any attempt at human feeling false, with Von Trier coming off like a floundering, churlish auteur who needs to again make art that communicates, and pays homage to, his own psychosis.**

**The news that Melancholia has won the most prestigious US critical prize (in my opinion), Best Film from the National Society of Film Critics, only sours this bitter film experience. Melancholia joins past winners like Blow-Up, Persona, Blue Velvet, as well as Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves

GREG GERKE’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Denver QuarterlyQuarterly West, Mississippi Review, Rain Taxi, Brooklyn Rail, The Review of Contemporary Fiction and others. There’s Something Wrong with Sven, a book of short fiction has been published by Blaze Vox Books.

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  1. Jeremy Bushnell

      I could not agree more.  I’m a long-time Von Trier lover but this one just left me totally flat.  

  2. herocious

      Melancholia didn’t do it for me either. I mean, the opening sequence seems to have done something for me, I think I remember a horse, yes, I remember a horse, and the horse seemed full of power, but then the movie started and I turned into a pancake.

  3. lorian long

      i don’t know. i said ‘this is terrible’ about 40 minutes into the film, but then ‘part 2’ started and something happened to me. like maybe gainsbourg’s fear of the planet tapped into some childish anxiety i’ve always had about natural disasters, infinity, space, things that are completely out of our control, and i really, really started to like it. von trier’s patient dreadfulness nailed it. or maybe it was because dunst finally shut the fuck up and gainsbourg took over the show. 

  4. Phillip Rex Huddleston


  5. Phillip Huddleston


  6. Lee

      I’ve actively hated all LVT films. Melancholia I saw twice and loved. For me, it was infinitely better than Breaking the Waves. But I suppose I know nada about “film.”

  7. Nick Mamatas

      I thought it was fantastic. The whole film spins on Dunst’s growling, “You think I’m afraid of the end of the world?!” The OP utterly missed the point.

  8. M. Kitchell

      And, praytell, what was the “point” that the OP “utterly missed” ?

  9. M. Kitchell

      Melancholia was such a terrible piece of shit.  Of course, I haven’t fully enjoyed anything LvT’s done since Zentropa, so I’m not sure why I keep subjecting myself to his ego.  

  10. herocious

      yes those ideas – infinity, space, all things uncontrollable – are great to mull, and they were the one thing I liked about the movie (those and the horse), but I feel those ideas are so great to mull that any reference to them will do it for me on some level. this movie just didn’t go anywhere beyond that level, it just put me there.

  11. lorian long

      but i liked just being ‘put there’ i liked soaking in it. there was no way out for the motherfuckers. i also liked gainsbourg’s slightly sweet naivete, again, her ‘childish’ fear of the planet and sutherland’s patronizing ‘i’m a scientist/MAN’ attitutde twrds all of it, and then the way he just swallows all the sleeping pills she specifically bought to kill her child so that he didn’t feel any pain when the world ended, like, god, what a gutless move, DAD. something about gainsbourg’s desperate attempt to die in a ‘nice’ or ‘polite’ way was totally heartbreaking and the way she’d look at her son hours before the planet set them all on fire and just dry-heave with sadness and frustration got me feeling it’.

  12. O

      Nick Mamatas is right. All of you have severely misread the movie, which is surprising, because it’s not even that hard to read in the first place. The movie is not about “being afraid of the end of the world.” The movie is about not caring that the world is about to end. The movie is about suicide. It’s a movie about solipsism, not a solipsistic movie. People constantly misread Von Trier. That’s why he’ll always have the last laugh. Because it’s the critics who bloviate, and their misinformed opinions about him will eventually float away, like farts in the wind.

  13. Craig Ronald Marchinkoski

      i loved melancholia.
      john hurt’s the shit.
      regarding the tag-line bit: i suggest re-reading king lear. looking at cordelia’s “nothing” response to her father’s request (1.1.86). the actual tag-line for the film: it will change everything. (also compare kiefer’s character to edmund.) instead of simply seeing the film or lear through the lens of nihilism or existentialism or agnosticism, also try a buddhist reading. specifically the concept of dana. or not.
      i found the film humorous. the limo sequence. the father and his betties and his spoons. the pissing on the golf course. i found the film beautiful. kirsten dunst’s breasts. the estate. gainsbourg’s sweater/trouser combos. the destruction (the fertilization). i found the film sad. the husband’s inability to get laid. the left picture of the orchard (justine’s refusal to play the judeo-christian game of sin and repent.)
      i fully got into the relationship between the sisters. 
      i will admit, i found the acting a bit forced the time i saw it high on grass. but not high, i let the acting slide.
      but overall, i’m convinced it’s great. 

  14. M. Kitchell


  15. Nick Mamatas

      When I’m curious as to the point of a film, I go see it. I recommend you do the same.

  16. Nick Mamatas

      Given that the movie involves a gigantic planet named MELANCHOLIA (also the name of the movie) heading inexplicably toward Earth and destroying everything and yeah, neither the OP nor the commenters agreeing with the OP manage to articulate anything about some fairly obvious symbolism for good or ill…well, yeah. you didn’t get it.

  17. M. Kitchell

      I don’t inherently agree with the OP other than the fact that I also thought the movie was a terrible piece of shit, but I do think the idea is that the “symbolism” is so blatantly & retardedly obvious that it’s not even worth mentioning.

  18. Pouting Bear

      Brilliant (the review, not the film) <3

  19. lorian long


  20. postitbreakup

      i thought it was pretty incredible, although i guess i’m predisposed to enjoy art about depression

      i’ve never understood why something being nihilistic is automatic grounds to dislike it (not saying that’s what the OP’s argument is exactly, I just hear this charge levied against von Trier a lot)

      i don’t get why LVT is supposedly more egocentric than any other writer-director out there, either

      it was beautiful and haunting and i loved it

  21. Don

      I loved the wedding dinner party scenes, but the movie gave me motion sickness.

  22. Anonymous

      “the film’s vapidness…makes any attempt at human feeling false, with Von Trier coming off like a floundering, churlish auteur who needs to again make art that communicates, and pays homage to, his own psychosis”

      I don’t think that the question “what the fuck does it all matter?” is really “vapid.” I think you are confusing the film’s cynical perspective on mankind and the film’s subject, which could seen seen as mankind’s ephemerality. I also hate to break it to you, but this “psychosis” isn’t exclusively von Trier’s, it’s been around for awhile, it’s called existentialism. Also, how great a film is doesn’t directly correspond to how much you “get into” its characters.

  23. Greg Gerke

      Thanks to everyone for their comments.

      The first asterisk has a note to it, that somehow got cut off above, here it is:

      problems were very clear in Antichrist—not
      that they have to be spelled out, but perhaps that’s what Von Trier needs. A
      child dying while its parents are having sex is a problem. A mother abusing a
      child is a problem. When the Defoe character finds this out, he is angry. But
      the Gainsbourg character is also angry that he treats her like a piece of
      garbage. Things are clear, it helps to digest what follows in that film because
      there is a context. In Melancholia,
      there is no context. A woman is getting married, but she isn’t defined
      implicitly or explicitly—she only appears. Dunst’s acting or the cinematography
      contributes nothing to imbue this blank slate.

      To helloyou,

      Of course, that question isn’t vapid–it’s the environment the filmmaker presents around that question. Films to me are medley of things–mostly mise-en-scene. And what Von Trier produces is, to me, weak and uninteresting. To me, the film’s subject and it’s perspective are mismatched. With such a subject, one must have an interesting technique to back it up, otherwise it fails. Because of that failure, for me, any perspective is instantly negated, i.e. I don’t trust the filmmaker. Also, when I talk about Von Trier’s psychosis, I’m talking about his psychosis. Whether or not other people share it isn’t so relevant to me. Everyone is afraid of something – agreed – now, what are you going to do with that? are you just going to state that or are you going to dramatize it?

  24. Brad Johnson

      Gleefully running ahead screaming “intentional fallacy intentional fallacy,” I decided that the film was clearly a fuck you to response to Malick’s “Tree of Life.” I do not love or hate ToL as much as some, but am convinced most things of any worth at all worthy most of apocalyptic annihilation.

      Which is to say, I liked “Melancholia.” I liked it quite a bit, even. I loved that the two parts are such imperfect mirrors of one another, whereupon the melancholia within is suddenly in full view. Destructive either way, really. I loved the empty gesture of the final scene–Dunst’s formal declaration, in effect, that if we are to go through with empty gestures, let me be as absent a fantasy as possible (the wine & the balcony be damned). I loved that I could enjoy Gainsbourg very fine performance, without having to cover my ears, as I did when watching “Antichrist,” when she took to screeching like a beast bent on emasculation.

  25. postitbreakup

      i’ve thought about it more and wonder if you’re a lot more likely to enjoy this film if you have experienced clinical depression, and a lot more likely to hate it if you’re loathe to depression, like you and Dennis Cooper are. cuz i can’t otherwise why two intelligent cinephiles with taste usually better than mine wouldn’t like this film unless it’s just distaste for the “fuck everything it’s all horrible” attitude, and not really the movie itself

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  27. Alice Sirk

      With this statement: ”
      It’s fine to have depressive characters (many of the most compelling in movies and books are) but they have to be artful and interesting in their melancholy (see Bergman and John Hawkes)”, I became convinced that the absolute nature of the depression depicted in this film was lost on you.  

      Yes, the symbolism is heavy handed: Justine’s mental state feels like the end of the world even as it is, the collision of the two planets speaks to the irreparable damage done to the family.  Yes, Justine is one of the most frustrating characters I’ve ever seen depicted on screen.  Yet, I find that the depths of her lows, that absolute lack of control over her emotions is actually what makes her an interesting, sympathetic character and also one of the most realistic portrayals of a severely depressed human being.  There’s nothing artful in real melancholy, but we find ways of making it seem beautiful, of idealizing it.  That’s what this movie was to me. I found that I felt for Justine and her family at the same time that I was infuriated by her.  She is paralyzed within herself and held captive (like Von Trier himself) by something that can’t be properly exorcised. The planetary elements, on Von Trier’s part, are a way of externalizing her black hole-like gravitational pull.  She disrupts everything, she is magnetic, she is beautiful to look at at while simultaneously operating as a harbinger of doom.