Cannes 2011 Review: Lars von Trier's Apocalypse Film 'Melancholia'
by Alex Billington
May 18, 2011
The apocalypse is coming and Lars von Trier just seems depressed. The controversial Danish director is back in Cannes again, following Antichrist from a few years ago (I was there for that infamous screening) to premiere his latest movie, Melancholia. As one might expect with von Trier, the film has some truly breathtaking visuals, especially the opening sequence and the closing few minutes, but in-between that, there's not much to it. He starts with a big idea, then just lets it slowly trickle out for 130 minutes, ending at the moment everyone is expecting, but without having said much throughout. Sadly, it was underwhelming.
"To me it's not so much a film about the end of the world, it's a film about a state of mind," von Trier said at the press conference following the screening. Melancholia is about a rogue planet that's been hiding behind the sun that is now on a collision course with Earth. But the real story in the film that we get to see focuses on two sisters: Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, and Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Each has their own characteristics - Justine is depressed, Claire is anxious. Von Trier wraps a smaller story around these two characters all the while the planet-collision apocalypse is coming (we do get to see it). The first half is about Justine's wedding and how she's always sad, which ends up bringing chaos and ruin to what was supposed to be her happiest day. Claire's story is about her anxiety when she realizes the planet will hit.
As always when seeing movies in Cannes that address metaphysical ideas, it's tough only having a quick interpretation after the screening. Similar to Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, this film deals with big ideas about life (on Earth) and our death, while focusing on a much more contained storyline and specific characters. Unfortunately, I found the storyline in Melancholia to be without much meaning, whereas in the 48 hours since seeing Tree of Life, I've already been thinking about how every moment plays into the bigger concept and visuals in that film. It's just not the same here and while the journey we're taken on with von Trier is by no means boring, it doesn't seem like it has that much to say about our death, or the apocalypse.
These are obviously just my own thoughts on the film and I'm sure many others will find more meaning in Melancholia. However, I also think some moviegoers may attempt to find meaning where there is none. It may be because depression and anxiety permeate the film and anyone who has lived with those problems knows that there is only darkness and nothingness that comes from those states of mind. The only meaning I can find in the oddly comical, then very sad, wedding storyline was simply von Trier trying to establish Dunst's character so that by the time the end finally did come, we knew why she was acting so calm and, well, melancholic about all of it. At that point, though, I no longer cared anymore about what had happened.
By no means did I hate Melancholia, and I found the opening and closing moments so beautiful that I could honestly watch those scenes over and over and still be mesmerized, but the story in-between was ultimately forgettable. I must also make mention of the score, as the piece of music he used (consistently throughout) was awe-inspiring on its own, and I can't wait to listen to that music on repeat while contemplating my own life and existence. Additionally, the performances were all great (as was expected again) and even Kirsten Dunst is finally awards worthy in her edgy role. The story may be forgettable, but the visuals certainly not.
Alex's Cannes Rating: 7 out of 10