‘Melancholia’ Is Depressing. Surprise!

(Films discussed in this post: Melancholia, Another Earth.)

Believe it or not, Melancholia is the second 2011 drama about a young, hot woman preoccupied with a fictional planet.

And no.

Neither of them is Pluto.

The first is Another Earth. It was co-written by and stars Brit Marling, who was the Sundance darling last winter (she had two films in competition). As in Melancholia, human drama takes center stage rather than science or logic; much of the movie could take place without “Earth 2” even coming into the story. It’s the tale of a young woman with a promising future who makes a deadly mistake — drunk driving — wiping out a mother and child, leaving the bereft husband and father (William Mapother) behind.

After serving time for her crime, Rhoda abandons her plans to attend MIT, becomes a janitor instead. She can’t shake an urge to talk to John, but when she approaches him, she can’t tell him who she is. She can’t admit to being the reason his loved ones are dead. So, naturally, she does what any rational person would do in this situation — she offers to clean his house. For free.

And, okay. While this is an unlikely unfolding of events, it works. We buy it, even as it becomes increasingly uncomfortable — Rhoda and John grow closer and he still doesn’t know. We feel for Rhoda, but we imagine ourselves in John’s position and become utterly creeped out. Imagine learning that your new maid also wiped out your entire family… Awkward!

By now, you’re probably wondering what the hell a second version of Earth has to do with anything, and that’s where the film stands out from other weepy Sundance dramas. There’s a contest: whoever writes the best essay about why they want to visit Earth 2 wins a trip to do exactly that. Since Rhoda’s accident happened the night Earth 2 was discovered, while she was looking up at the sky in wonder, now she thinks there’s a chance that on that planet, there’s another version of her. A version that didn’t kill anybody.

And John wonders — on Earth 2, is there a chance his family is all still alive?

Due to budgetary limits, there aren’t a whole lot of sci-fi elements in Another Earth. (A few extra scenes had to be cut because of hokey special effects.) But there’s just enough. Another Earth contains one chilling scene, in which we watch a scientist make “first contact” with a person on Earth 2 — a person who just happens to be her very self, in the exact same job and location on another planet. It’s kind of a trip, in the best way possible.

Beyond that, we get very few hard answers about what’s going on with that other Earth. And that’s fine. The drama between Rhoda and John is perfectly compelling, even if our minds wander at times to try and piece together a larger, more original story. The final scene is a total mindfuck that raises many questions and answers others. Not many little Sundance movies get sequels, but if ever an indie drama called for one, it’s Another Earth.

Melancholia, on the other hand, may be the least likely candidate in cinema history for a sequel. The opening scenes tell us that the planet Melancholia will indeed collide with the Earth and destroy it entirely. Another scene suggests that there is no other kind of life anywhere in the universe. Nothing. So Melancholia Too! won’t be hitting theaters any time soon. It would literally be about nothing.

Now, if you’re familiar with Lars von Trier’s other works (highly recommended: Breaking The Waves, Dancer In The Dark, and Dogville), you at least kind of know what you’re in for. A young woman will be very upset, and terrible things will happen to her. Melancholia pushes that formula to the ultimate extreme in both ways: Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) is not only unhappy, she is depressed to the point of not being able to walk at one point. And what happens to her? Well, a giant planet crashes into Earth and kills her and her family, along with every single other living organism in the universe.

Popcorn?

Here’s the problem with Melancholia — it’s hard find even an ounce of sympathy for Justine. I don’t know if we’re supposed to. The film opens on her wedding day and, initially, she appears happy enough. But then we learn this is all a cover, and she’s been miserable for most (if not all) of her life. We aren’t told how and why, except by meeting her bitchy mother and flaky dad and the rest of her friends and family, most of whom seem like pretty terrible people. In von Trier’s other films, his protagonists are victims to an almost unbelievable extent — we wonder, how could it possibly get any worse for these poor women? It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but at least we’re rooting for them to get the hell out of the horrendous situations von Trier places them in. (He’s rumored to torment his actresses in a mirroring fashion.)

I felt a few shreds of pity for Justine as Melancholia begin, but before the end of the first half, I had none. Fortunately the film’s second half focuses on a more sympathetic character — Justine’s sister Claire, who may not exactly be warm and loveable but at least doesn’t fuck a stranger at her own wedding. It’s also primarily this half of the film that deals with Melancholia and all it’s implications — and then, yes, that ending. The final shot of Melancholia will blow you away.

Literally.

There are things to admire — Dunst’s performance, despite the fact that she inhabits a character who is too one-note to ultimately carry this movie. Other performances are strong, too, even if there’s no one you’ll actually miss once the entire planet is destroyed. The science here is pretty faulty — but von Trier knows that. He named the planet Melancholia, for Christ’s sake! And claims that it was hidden behind the sun! It is an obvious metaphor for the looming depression that is eating up Justine, destroying what should be the happiest day of her life (and every other day, too). Is von Trier suggesting that there’s a Melancholia lurking inside us all, ready to pop out from behind our sunny happiness at any moment? The film’s title couldn’t possibly be any subtle; I guess calling the film/planet Boo Hoo just didn’t have the same ring to it.

So then. What might have been a great movie is ultimately undone by shallow characters. Some of the dialogue and character beats are too blunt to really work. The film takes place entirely in one location, which works well for the claustrophobic mood of the second half as the offending planet hurtles closer. Since we only get glimpses of internet reactions and never see a TV news report, we know very little about how the rest of the world is dealing with Melancholia. And so many characters (best amongst them, True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgard as Justine’s would-be husband) that appear in the first half are never brought back — not in and of itself a problem, but it kinda makes you wonder why certain plot elements were there in the first place.

I mean, I get it. To highlight Justine’s depression, we show her at what should be her high point. A wedding! And in a film about the end of life on Earth, why not first see one of our most sacred rituals, where we bring all the people in our lives together?

But: meh. The film begins beautifully and intriguingly, and I was mostly gripped by the film’s second half. Many of the visuals are sublime. And you gotta give the filmmaker behind it all this: he’s committed. When Lars von Trier decides to do the end of the world, he really means it. Day After Tomorrow this isn’t.

(Watch out for wolves!)

So I don’t know if I’d recommend Melancholia. If you’re an adventurous filmgoer and you feel like an artsy apocalypse, maybe. Or if you’re just in a terrible mood. There’s much to admire, and it mostly held me while I was watching it — but this is one bleak movie. I don’t ordinarily mind bleak, but here I did, a little. I skipped von Trier’s last couple efforts, thanks to poor reviews — Antichrist is supposed to be particularly hard to watch. And it kinda makes me wonder.

Melancholia is not just melancholy. It is a miserable, hopeless film — exactly as he intended. But will Lars von Trier ever go back to making movies that are only just really depressing?

Another Earth: See it and encourage your double on Earth 2 to see it as well.

Melancholia: Beautiful, flawed, and challenging. But if you skip it, it’s not the end of the world…

3 thoughts on “‘Melancholia’ Is Depressing. Surprise!

  1. It moves on a little too long for me and the first hour really dragged on but Dunst’s performance was amazing and the last hour had me gripped the whole time. Good review.

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