Movie Review: Melancholia- Von Trier’s Reflection on Human Depression and Existential Nothingness in the Face of the Apocalypse is Uninviting, Languid, and Pretentious

Filmmaking as an art, or how it is with any form of art, can be surprisingly divisive when confronted with the unusual, the unconventional, and the extreme. But sometimes the sole motivation of some filmmakers, and all artists, is to put art as a form of personal expression to the sidelines in order to be replaced by radical and alienating imagery as well as cynical and gritty themes for their sake alone. One such artist (a loose term, yet appropriate at times) is the Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier whose works have sought to push comfort boundaries intentionally, from the graphic sexually violent imagery in Antichrist and The Element of Crime to the stretching of protagonist mental or physical states such as in Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark. With a Von Trier film there is always an expectation that the film in question will challenge any reserved sensibilities that you might possess, which is at once a compliment to Von Trier as a unique filmmaker but is also a detriment to grabbing audiences in sharing your vision when the film is equally alienating in presentation, theme, and style. Von Trier’s latest piece entitled Melancholia is contemplation on the apocalypse focusing on two sisters, in two parts, facing impending doom in drastically different and telling ways. The style throughout Melancholia is reminiscent of the Dogma 95 era or the experimental independent era started by John Cassavetes where clarity of image or clean technical achievements is replaced with a flatter tone and cinema vérité camera movement. This is, of course, juxtaposed with an enticingly beautiful opening where a series of mesmerizing yet odd images flash before the screen to a resounding score. It’s such a displaced segment that you long for the beginnings lack of dialogue and focus of stunning visuals the more you get delve in to the unsympathetic and disparagingly alienating character focused plot that is Melancholia.

To give Von Trier the benefit of the doubt that he is an artist of personal expression, it seems he has chosen to focus on the destruction of earth in Melancholia to reveal his own pessimistic view of the human race. “The Earth is evil,” states Kirstin Dunst with a tonally complimentary delivery of the film’s heavy and emotionless style. There is no reflection on a potential meaning of life, but rather the nihilistic approach that alone we are and alone we stand. This wouldn’t necessarily be an unapproachable or estranging topic if it wasn’t handled in such an exasperatingly languid pacing. The film, while robust with an extreme pessimistic concept, dwindles as the uninteresting and bland characters fill the screen with meaningless interaction after meaningless interaction. It can be argued that Von Trier has purposely made his film so inaccessible and truly uninteresting in its presentation of characters to drill home his point that if the world happened to end it would just end all the trivial relationships and nothingness that we experience in our lives. He uses this film to denounce tradition and mock the fear of death as though they are irrational inconveniences to experiencing a true form of purely rational apathy. But that flies in the face of actual human experience making Melancholia a truly alien experience, never convincing an audience that its cynicism is admirable or even relevant. This is the idea of taking extreme positions for the sake of extreme positions, something Von Trier practices constantly as evidenced in his personal interactions with the media. There are moments of visual brilliance that are unfortunately overshadowed by the languorous pace and the completely negative script that includes a plethora of contemptuous characters. If Kirsten Dunst’s (who unfortunately is no Emily Watson or Nicole Kidman) presentation of the character Justine is the tonal expression of the film than we can truly say that even though she might bring home the film‘s theme of loneliness and apathy to light, it isn’t necessarily a position we’re invited to share or even could recognize as a convincing narrative.

Compliments are always bestowed upon Von Trier and his pretentious followers who swear he can do no wrong. This attitude is stemmed from being awestruck by someone who defies film conventions from the technical to the emotional for its sake alone. It seems Von Trier has an increasingly condescending attitude towards those who can’t see or understand his contempt for the boundaries or those who feel he should at least try and speak with his audience, rather than speak to his audience. Not all of his films are emotionless arduous journeys but Melancholia must certainly be described as that. This is a film for dedicated Von Trier fans or those who view something slightly different as a form of genius when it’s rather just a form of playing the devil’s advocate to positions that most people don’t take. His uniqueness should be complimented and there are true moments of inspiration, especially his opening montage of surreal and subjective apocalyptic imagery. But Melancholia as an inviting film or one that possesses the ability to drive home a particular theme falls short through its flat tone, stone-like acting, and languid pacing. While there is no hope that Von Trier will ever adopt the regular conventions of storytelling there is hope that he could return to experimenting with a tighter film length (Europa), a more inviting and sympathetic protagonist (Breaking the Waves), and a unique presentation rather than the tired and slow cinema vérité style (sets of Dogville, style of Elements of Crime).

Grade: C+

Note: This movie comes out this weekend- 11/11/11

2 Responses to “Movie Review: Melancholia- Von Trier’s Reflection on Human Depression and Existential Nothingness in the Face of the Apocalypse is Uninviting, Languid, and Pretentious”
  1. You can certainly see your skills within the work you write. The arena hopes for even more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they believe. All the time go after your heart.

  2. Em Anne says:

    As a person who suffers from PTSD, depression, dissociation etc., I found the movie to be an expression of what it feels like during those times when you are ‘not feeling well’, so to speak. And also I saw quite clearly the dynamics of the ‘identified patient’, and how the family unconsciously both creates one and works to keep the status quo.

    If you’re interested you might check it out. I myself was an ‘identified patient’ in my family, in which there was sexual abuse. I could so completely relate to that sense of being disconnected from everyone and everything, from life itself.

    I understand that Von Trier suffers from depression. I’m not surprised.

    The images of beauty in the film, astounding beauty, match my experiences of great joy at beauty in nature, in the world etc. I sometimes wonder if it is due to the nature of how the brain deals with trauma etc. that at times those experiences feel extremely intense. And I did appreciate that the one child in the movie was always treated with respect and care, by everyone. That is not a small thing.

    And in the end, it was about how the facade of one sister being ‘sick’ and the other ‘strong’ fell away. They were both injured from being part of their family.

    I liked the movie because I felt it expressed what it is like to live with depression etc. Probably not the best thing to watch though, during those times when myself, or anyone else, is at a low point. But still, it really spoke both for and to me. A relief to see the truth of it portrayed.

    At times it really does feel as though it would be a relief for the ‘world to end’. That is the symbolism of the film to me. I don’t see it as nihilist-just as an expression of what is.

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