• There may not be a better opening eight-minutes in cinema history than the way auteur, and enfant terrible, Lars von Trier starts his 2011 masterpiece Melancholia. The film begins with a slow-motion montage of cinematic paintings accompanied by Wagner’s excerpts from Tristan und Isolde. Included in the montage are the Last Year at Marienbad-like lawn with sundial shot, the three characters with the moon, sun, and melancholia, the shots of Earth and melancholia in space, Kirsten Dunst laying in the water in her dress, the falling black horse… simply sublime cinema art. These aren’t just jaw-dropping random images—they are all connected to the narrative.
  • This opening reminds me of the chapter breaks by von Trier and Danish artist Per Kirkeby in Breaking the Waves– except here von Trier piles up the cinematic paintings all at once in a long silent, immaculate prologue.

there may not be an opening eight minutes in cinema more beautiful than this

a Last Year at Marienbad-like lawn and frame

every cinematic painting rendered by von Trier is connected to either Justine’s psyche, foreshadowing events about to take place (she says herself she has powers), or are paintings earmarked by Justine in the books in the library

yet another stunner here- they are rapid fire during the prologue

  • The shots in the opening are either foreshadowing events that are about to happen- or connected to a series of paintings that Dunst’s Justine’s character earmarks in the library. One is Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow (1565)- that painting is also in Tarkovsky’s Solaris and von Trier adores Tarkovsky.

from von Trier’s prologue as well– this could be from either Mirror or Tarkovsky’s apocalyptical The Sacrifice and that epic conclusion

The shot of Dunst in the stream with the bouquet is from John Everett Millais’ 1852 painting “Ophelia.”

  • It is a von Trier film, so he breaks it up into chapters, even if there are only two. Part one is Justine (played by Dunst who won best Actress at Cannes) and part two is Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

one of the few sequences (another magnificent frame) after the prologue, where von Trier breaks from his Dogme 95 aesthetic

  • The two sections (each lasting roughly an hour) that come after the prologue, are shot in von Trier’s trademark Dogme 95 style: handheld shaky camera, short takes, tight closeups. It is hard to view the opening wedding and not think of the opening wedding of Breaking the Waves (1996) or hear the hateful, acidic dialogue and speeches (Charlotte Rampling’s “I don’t believe in marriage”) and drama and not think of another great Dogme 95 film- 1998’s Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg). The prologue really allows von Trier to cheat, to give the film some of the greatest images of the year (and the decade) and yet stay true to his normal, rigid (I mean he created and signed a manifesto with vows) aesthetics.
  • Justine is not a victim and sacrificial lamb like Breaking the Waves’ Bess or Bjork’’s Selma in Dancer in the Dark. It doesn’t appear von Trier is after sympathy for her here. She suffers being bipolar (this is probably a gross oversimplification here from me)—and on her wedding night is abandoned by everyone close to her: her husband, mother, father and sister. The planet is in many ways a metaphor for her illness (as she has ominous looks to the heavens)—and she seems to gain strength from it (bathing in the glow of the planet nude on a rock in a gorgeous frame just after Gainsbourg’s stroll at the 85 min mark).

Gainsbourg’s Claire here tracking Dunst’s Justine as she bathes in the glow of melancholia on the rocks

the Swedish castle where the entire film is shot is such a great character in the film- complete with the way von Trier lights the golf course and lawn at night (tough to watch people making love in the sand trap at night and not think of Antonioni’s La Notte).

  • Melancholia will be forever paired with Kubrick’s 2001, and then films from 2011 like Malick’s similarly ambitious Tree of Life and Bela Tarr’s own apocalyptic vision The Turin Horse.
  • “the earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it”
  • The film also has the glowing 0-star review badge of honor from Rex Reed—certainly a sign it is cinematically ambitious
  • A masterpiece