Melancholia: Rethinking a Movie

Thinking that I would soon have to trade in my DVR and thus lose all my recorded movies I decided to watch one that I had recorded more than three years ago but hadn’t seen: Melancholia (2011) by the Danish writer-director Lars von Trier. As I survey von Trier’s oeuvre, I see that I haven’t seen much of it, but I believe I did see Europa (1991), and perhaps even in the theatre. In America, Europa is known as Zentropa, which happens to be the name of von Trier’s film company.

Melancholia may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It operates on (at least) two levels. The first level is that of the “art film.” The second, which I think more Americans will appreciate, is more of a straight drama. But the art film takes precedence, as the film starts out with an actual overture where we see very static images set to the Act I Prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

After the overture we see a white stretch limousine trying to negotiate a tight turn in what looks to be a forest. In the limo are two newlyweds still in their ceremonial finery. We’re left to conclude that the limo never got around the bend, because our newlyweds are next seen walking up the drive to the posh golf resort hosting their wedding reception. The bride’s sister informs them they’re two hours late.

If the rapturous “music of the spheres” overture bores you, you might just like the wedding reception, which is peopled with several stellar stars including Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, and the recently deceased Sir John Hurt. Hurt and Rampling play the divorced parents of the bride, and when the alienated two are asked to deliver speeches there’s a bit of ugly rancor.

Melancholia has some beautiful camera work, such as when the wedding party ventures out on the manicured lawn at night to release small hot-air balloons, which seem to be made of paper. They’re a lovely sight against the night sky as they float off; one balloon catches fire. The entire movie takes place at the lovely Tjolöholm Castle in Sweden, which serves as the movie’s golf resort.

In the middle of the reception dinner, the bride excuses herself, but instead of going to the powder room, she goes outside. And what do we hear but the opening strains from Tristan, which we’ll hear from time to time throughout the movie. The bride takes a golf cart out across the links, then stops, and squats on a green to urinate. While relieving herself she looks up at the night sky with wonder, all to Wagner. (I myself prefer to micturate to Mahler.)

When the bride returns to her reception, it moves on to the cake cutting and the dancing. But as the evening rolls on, we begin to suspect that the bride is quite disturbed, perhaps even clinically depressed. We also learn that she is not by any means “marriage material,” as she commits an unforgiveable act that ends her marriage on her wedding night.

Melancholia is divided into two parts, each named for a sister. Part I is named for Justine, the bride, and Part II is named for Justine’s sister Claire, who is married to the owner of the resort, where they live with their young son. Part I is all about the disastrous wedding reception, and Part II concerns an intervening world event of incalculable importance. If you haven’t seen the film and are interested in doing so, then you might want to stop reading now.


The shattering world event of Part II is the advent of Melancholia, a new planet that is on its merry way to rendezvous with Earth, hopefully in a “fly-by.” But the Internet is abuzz with stories that Melancholia will crash into our little planet. Early in Part II, the dysfunctional, depressed Justine comes to live with her sister, and upon arriving she seems to be good for nothing but sleep. Part II is about how Justine, Claire, and Claire’s husband John, deal with the prospect of total loss.

Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is taking the possibility of imminent doom rather calmly compared to her sister, to whom she offers little comfort. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is the more sympathetic sister. Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) tries to assure her that the planet will indeed fly by them.

Part II raises very interesting “metaphysical” issues. Justine is bleakness itself and is resigned to the End of World. She tells Claire that life on Earth is evil, and that no one will miss us. You wonder whether Justine loves anything on Earth. Unlike her sister, Claire is tormented by the prospect of losing everything. Perhaps that’s because she has a child. Claire seems to love the Earth and her life on it, life on Earth is good, and so she suffers. The contrast between the two sisters in how they face The End of the World is, or should be, the focal point of the movie: do you love life or not? (I wish I had screened Melancholia back in 2014 so that I could have included it in “The End of the World and Other Entertainments.”)


But what’s the point of joining these two stories? Except for sharing some of the characters, Part I and II seem unrelated. I could see splitting them apart to make separate movies. That would mean adding a new second half to Part I and adding a new first half to Part II. Part I, the wedding reception, is excellent as it is, and a new second half could be developed in any number of directions. For instance, von Trier could follow the story of the groom. Part I is fecund with possibility for a terrific second half that doesn’t lead to the destruction of the planet. Making Part II into a separate movie, however, might be more difficult than Part I.

It’s doubtful that Mr. von Trier would be up for splitting his movie in two, but Melancholia could still be salvaged as a single movie. I like this movie, and I think I know how to fix it. Here are some ideas:

In Part II Justine tells Claire that she “knows things.” As evidence, she tells Claire how many beans were in the bottle in the wedding reception contest, which Claire knows is correct as the caterer told her the number. Justine also thinks she “knows” that life exists nowhere but on Earth, which would make the enormity of the approaching planet more so. Is Justine omniscient or what? Also, at the very end of Part I Justine looks up into the sky and says: “The red star is missing from Scorpio and Antares isn’t there.” But it’s daytime; can she see stars in daylight; is she superhuman? Such elements distract from the real story. Cut them.

Another thing to cut is the “art film” stuff, such as when Justine goes out to look at a night sky that has two orbs, the Moon and Melancholia. She does this lying on the ground naked as a blue jay, all while Wagner blazes away. The scene is a distraction and doesn’t further the story. Although we’re all grateful to see Ms. Dunst in the altogether, the scene needs cutting.

And something needs to be done about the overture. If von Trier simply must have his overture, then he might think about using different images. You see, Tristan is about love and longing, but the visuals he uses in the overture make it ponderous, rather than rapturous. Tristan’s Act I Prelude has always seemed a special, singular piece of music to me; serious opera lovers might resent its appropriation to accompany the End of the World. The quickest, easiest, and perhaps best fix for the overture is to simply cut it.

These cuts, I think, will strengthen the film, and perhaps even get it a second run. That means more money. Lars baby, we can fix this flick. Call me.

Jon N. Hall of Ultracon Opinion is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. 

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