Melancholia Review [Cannes 2011]

James Powell

Reviewed by:
On May 19, 2011
Last modified:December 4, 2013


Melancholia is absolutely absorbing in a glutton for punishment kind of way. Dunst gives her best performance yet and the score is fantastic.

Melancholia Review [Cannes]

Despite a lot of the hype surrounding this film, apart from the trailer, I had read or seen very little relating to it. On the face of it I was expecting an Armageddon type film with perhaps a small amount of supernatural elements thrown in. The reality is an emotional dissection, where we are introduced to the mental state of Melancholia.

Melancholia follows the story of two sisters, Justine and Claire, played by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. What first starts as a romantic and truly picturesque picture of a newly married couple on their way to their evening party, slowly turns sour as Justine’s inner demons and troubled soul takes hold. With this she becomes continually less enthused about the wedding itself, her husband, and the extravagance of the whole occasion.  She becomes lethargic, and totally lacking of energy. The initial portion of the film shows how Justine is unable embrace happiness even on her wedding day, and how it affects the others around her.

The film then shifts focus to after the wedding and its subsequent fallout, to the fact that there is a due to be a planetary passing by on Earth by a previously hidden planet called Melancholia. Claire is petrified that the scientists, including her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), have got their calculations wrong and the planet is actually due to collide with Earth. Although the second part of the film is intended to focus more of the perspective of Claire, Justine is still very much the influential force throughout the film. As things transpire we see that the scientists have indeed got it wrong. I would not worry too much about this being a spoiler, as the very first couple of minutes of the film show Melancholia crashing into Earth.

What the film is about is not the destruction of Earth, nor does it have an overlying planetary apocalyptic theme as such. What Lars Von Trier wants is to show us a character which is almost an onscreen version of himself. Justine’s state of melancholia differs from depression in the regard that, instead of experiencing a state of hopelessness with an introverted negativity, she wants her pessimism to be reflected in real life events so that she can feel vindicated and bring everyone else down with her. She cannot be content in normality and happiness, and so does anything to destroy any signs of it around her.

Indeed during the first half of the film, Justine only seems happy when things aren’t going to according to plan and that this is causing an inconvenience to others. In the second half, she states to Claire that there is no other life in the universe apart from on Earth, and that life on Earth is evil. This goes further to Von Trier’s view that life is pointless, we are all going to die, the world will inevitably end so what is the point in being happy or even trying.

This is in contradiction to Claire’s lifestyle where she puts her family first and tries her best to make herself and others happy. At the end we are urged to believe that, out of the two, Justine’s way of thinking is the actually the right way; the world ended, there was nothing anyone could do to stop it, so what is the point?

There will be much said already about Dunst’s already infamous nude scenes within the film, but they work to show that Justine is truly unable to function in normality or in return for kindness. Later on we see that she truly is basking in the devastation that is about to unfold. The scenes are done tastefully, and work effectively with the feeling of the character and mood of the film at the particular points. Like many of the films at Cannes this year, the music score in Melancholia fits perfectly. At the end, the volume deserves to be turned up loud. It is hard to not be overcome with the tragedy and musical accompaniment.

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance as Claire was relatively good, but the stars of the film were most definitely Dunst and Sutherland. Sutherland is a given, however Dunst manages to give off an exceptional vibe of negative energy. The character was written to be devoid of nearly every emotion and she pulls it off brilliantly.

It would probably have to go up top as her best performance, and sets the bench mark for any future roles (I am still breathing a sigh of relief that we don’t have to see her return as Mary Jane anymore!) The only real bad performance was by Cameron Spurr who plays Claire’s son. I don’t want to be overly critical of such a young actor, but most lines appear forced and at times cringe worthy.

Melancholia is not an uplifting film, and it does not give a positive outlook in any way. It is a grim and dark exploration of Justine’s (as well as Von Trier’s) perspective on the world we live in. I found it absolutely fascinating, and whilst as a character I could not relate to Justine in anyway or find her in the least bit likeable, getting into her head and watching how her actions and behaviour affect and influence those of people around her was as intriguing as anything I have seen in a long time. For this alone I recommend this film, your emotional state will take a battering that few films achieve in giving.

Melancholia Review [Cannes]

Melancholia is absolutely absorbing in a glutton for punishment kind of way. Dunst gives her best performance yet and the score is fantastic.