Just Watch It: Melancholia

Sometimes when people get depressed and they give into a little drama and hyperbole, they will often say that their world is ending. As it turns out, Lars Von Trier’s spectacularly beautiful 2011 film Melancholia is a remarkable meditation on depression AND the end of the world.

Melancholia follows the story of the manic depressive Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) as she marries the dashing and well-meaning John (Alexander Skarsgard) in a lavish ceremony at her sister’s private mansion. Over the course of her wedding day, Justine’s mental state declines and the evening ends up being somewhat of a disaster.


A bad wedding reception is a pretty small disaster, of course, compared to the literal end of the world class disaster of a rogue planet (named Melancholia) that is on a course that could cause it to crash into Earth. As Justine’s straight-laced sister and uptight brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) try to get her back on track, the ominous-yet-beautiful blue planet gets larger and larger in the sky.

Von Trier’s movie eschews all the standard end of the world movie cliches: the panicked masses, the crying newsreaders, the plucky love story about holding on against the odds. Justine’s family is rich enough that they have their own private estate and so the film’s second arc plays out in near isolation. In fact, the only way you know that something is amiss is that as Melancholia approaches, the butler opts not to come to work.


The film has a great cast and wonderful performances, anchored by Dunst (I had a hard time typing that, but it’s true). At its outset, Justine is absolutely radiant and over time we have to watch her unravel little by little as her stability falters. And as a viewer, you find yourself caring about what happens to them, but then catch yourself wondering, “Wow, I hope she’s okay, but I guess that doesn’t really matter, because THE WORLD IS ABOUT TO END!”

And that right there is the crux of Melancholia. It posits that all our human hand-wringing — our loves, despairs, intrigues – our whole lives are pointless and finite. This Captain Bringdown philosophy is in complete opposition to the other “big question” film of 2011: Terrance Mallick’s The Tree of Life. The two of which form a wonderful duo for compare-contrast discussions. Both films are stunningly beautiful and address “the point” of human existence. And where Mallick finds a humanistic and ultimately optimistic answer, Von Trier finds nothing but ashes and dust. If you haven’t watched either of these films, I suggest you get a good bottle of bourbon and do a mind-stretching double feature.


After viewing, I find it amazing and appalling that Melancholia was completely ignored by the Academy Awards last year (the film itself, the actors, the production). Melancholia was as ambitious as any film I’ve seen and I thought it was a tremendous achievement. I might like it even more than The Tree of Life, which I loved. But maybe that’s just because I’m feeling a little depressed today.

28 thoughts on “Just Watch It: Melancholia

  1. Oh my goodness, Steve!! I saw the title and had to read this FAST! I suppose I should give it another chance? It’s been advertised all over the various websites I hit, and I finally fell for the advertising and tried to watch it. The pre-movie credits were so slow … I was miserable. And then I had to wait for the chauffeur to maneuver the car? I stopped the movie. I couldn’t take any more. So, perhaps I should fast forward and give it another try?

  2. Oh! Oh! Thank you for reminding me about this! I read about this movie months ago and then forgot I wanted to see it. I’m feelin’ the dark stuff lately. And hooray that it’s on Netflix streaming!

    Also, just to copy you completely, I’ve taken your advice and now Tree of Life is at the top of our DVD queue.

      • So we watched The Tree of Life last night… and I know this will mark me as an unfeeling, unartistic soul, but it didn’t really do much for me. Mostly we made fun of it. I pretended to be David Attenborough for the 30 minutes or so of Planet Earth-ishness that was injected early on into the film.

        The music, though, I loved. Especially this.

  3. I tried to watch Tree of Life, but quit after the first half hour. If that’s the uplifting half of this duet, I think I’ll pass completely on Melancholia. No offense. I carry that stuff around all day.

  4. This has been in my queue since I read about it before it was released! I will get to it one of these days. It has to be coming soon…

    I would NEVER have gone to the theatre to see it since he can kiss my arse. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/lars-von-trier-takes-back-238649

    Woody Allen, too: I refuse to add to his box office gains–OH! And dick-head Mel Gibson. That doesn’t mean they aren’t fabulous directors. They’re complete fucking assholes who should be put on an island to live happily ever after with each other.

  5. this sits in my XBMC without a watched checkmark. I guess I just haven’t been in the mood for it yet. Tried tree of life this weekend and last about 15 minutes before losing conciousness.

    • Budd — it’s definitely a “mood” movie. We had it for several weeks before finding the “right” night for it. It’s more approachable than Tree of Life in that it’s much more linear storytelling. And no dinosaurs.

  6. I hesitated to watch this movie because it sounded so depressing. Reading your review however has changed my mind. I don’t mind end-of-the-world type scenarios: I’ve joked with friends about how, since the world is supposed to end on 12/21/12, nothing matters anymore. I haven’t always liked movies about neurotic or depressed people, but it all depends on how well they fit into the story and the context of the film. The Tree of Life never engaged me, and after the first hour all I could think about was how much I wanted a pizza with mushrooms, olives, and roasted garlic on top. I ended up shutting off the DVD and going out. For pizza. It was delicious. It added nothing to my concept of the meaning of life, but still.

    • HG — now I want a pizza.

      It’s interesting because this movie is relentless with it’s “nothing matters” message. There are no “Hollywood” cliches to make it more palatable to the masses. It’s not perfect, but I respect films and filmmakers that have a vision and go for it. Too little of that these days.

  7. ah, heck.. i was happily scanning your review and looking forward to the film (its in my netflix queue) till I got to The Tree of Life. I hated that film sooooooooo much. So very very much… and that was with watching it mostly in fast forward, looking (in vain) for a part I might like. Maybe I shouldn’t see Melancholia.

    • leendadll — Melancholia is more straightforward in its storytelling than Tree of Life and might strike a different chord with you as a viewer. If anything, at least you’ll have diminished expectations… :)

  8. I am torn now….the premise of the movie does not appeal to me, but I have always trusted your judgement – mmm…choices choices !

  9. Pingback: Melancholia | Be, Proof, Do, and Exist

    • Thanks Vinnieh — I thought it was a remarkable film, very unlike most of what you see so much of these days. We were just talking about it with friends last night, in fact.

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