- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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
You made my day by doing this. Melancholia indeed a big masterpiece. The opening montage is breathtaking. I love it’s narrative (although it feels like a non narrative film) .
I have to say it’s actually more beautiful than breaking the waves (which itself had some really beautiful shots) .
You didn’t talk a lot about dunst’s performance, it’s a silent tour de force definitely the best of 2011(male or female).
I must say this film has gotten stronger since the initial viewing, I sometimes think about that brilliant opening, it’s so un-von Trier that it caught me off guard the first time and might’ve caused me to drop the film a little lower than it should’ve been, but it’s a great work of art. It is indeed a masterpiece (raised from MS/MP), but I feel like it needs a second viewing to elevate the film’s first chapter in my opinion (it’s good but not as much as the second one) and for me to catch some more of the formal elements like Dunst’s decline into depression and indifference that missed me the first time around, and I can’t put it above Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark or Dogville (in that order) until I see it again.
@zane – I think it’s definitely stronger than Dogville.
I have genuinely never seen another film quite like this one and I imagine that will become progressively more and more difficult as I progress in my film appreciation journey. It is one of the bitter sweet aspects of being a film fan really, the more interesting work you view the harder it becomes (in theory anyways) to find something truly original. This is one of the reasons why it is so exciting discovering a young and talented auteur like Ari Aster, Safdie brothers, Trey Edward Shults, or Gan Bi. Luckily for me I still have many many great auteurs to explore.
Caught a 2nd viewing, my 1st was just a few days ago ha. It was so strange yet fascinating that I had to check it out again. I could not help but think of Bergman watching this; not the visuals but the story. The family drama, depressed characters, heavy religious under tones, long stretches of silence, and characters seemingly pondering heavy issues.
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