Melancholia (2011) opens up with a beautifully crafted prologue featuring some stunning abstract imagery, soundtracked by Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. This use of orchestral music is reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which featured music by Richard Strauss; a composer who was greatly influenced by Wagner. The links between these musical choices could be interpreted as a playful homage to the sci-fi genre.
One of the most interesting things about Melancholia is that although to all intents and purposes it is a science fiction film, it features very few of the codes and conventions we associate with the sci-fi genre. Given director Lars von Trier’s background, this is perhaps unsurprising. Von Trier was one of the founders of the Danish Dogme 95 movement and although Melancholia isn’t a Dogme movie – and doesn’t claim to be – it’s worth noting the 8th rule from the Dogme 95 Vow of Chastity: “Genre movies are not acceptable.”
Of course, this is quite a paradoxical rule. If all Dogme films fulfil these ten criteria, then does Dogme itself not become a genre? Anyway, this is by the by. What’s interesting here is that arguably Melancholia isn’t a genre film.
Miriam Allen deFord (1971, foreword) described science fiction as dealing “with improbable possibilities.” With my limited astrological expertise, I would hazard a guess that it’s improbable, yet not impossible, that another planet could collide with Earth, as is the film’s premise. However, despite fulfilling deFord’s sci-fi criterion, Melancholia may not appeal to those who like their archetypical science fiction blockbusters. You won’t find any big city panic, heroes saving the day or extra-terrestrial beings in this film…
In recent times, according to Neal (2000, p. 101), science fiction has “tended to merge into the horror and action-adventure traditions” and as alluded to above, there’s very little horror or action-adventure present in Melancholia. This links in well with the verisimilitude of science fiction on the whole. As Grant (2012, p. 179) concluded in his analysis of Todorov, “regimes of verisimilitude vary from genre to genre. As such, these regimes entail rules, norms, and laws.” With science fiction, I’d propose that the rules, norms and laws are far more flexible than in genres which are less open to invention and make believe.
Discussing genre is never easy. Lots of films can be a number of genres and even Dogme films, which purported to be genre-less, can in fact be categorised into familiar genres. Italian For Beginners (2000), for example, is undoubtedly a rom-com. A. Williams (1984, quoted in Neale, 2000, p. 20) surmised that, “perhaps the biggest problem with genre or genre criticism in the field of cinema is the word genre… For the phrase ‘genre films’, referring to a general category, we can frequently, though not always substitute ‘film narrative’.” The film narrative of Melancholia is less science-fiction and more focussed on the interwoven personal turmoils of the two main characters.
Following the prologue, Melancholia is split into two parts: Part One: “Justine” and Part Two: “Claire”. Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) are two sisters who “find their already strained relationship challenged as a mysterious new planet threatens to collide with Earth.” (IMDB, 2011)
Part One focuses on Justine’s wedding and to be perfectly honest, I found it almost unwatchably awkward at times. Yes, it’s magnificently shot and is very pleasing on the eye – the Swedish castle setting is spectacular – but the dysfunctional family interactions and the downright unlikeable characters (most notably Justine and Claire’s mother, played by Charlotte Rampling) don’t make for the easiest viewing.
The awkwardness begins with Justine and her new husband Michael (played by Alexander Skarsgard) arriving late to their own wedding reception, which has been organised by Claire’s husband John (played by Kiefer Sutherland.) The film is almost entirely made up of shaky handheld camera shots, which when combined with some fast paced editing results in the viewer feeling particularly uncomfortable and unsettled. This works well to symbolise and reflect Justine’s own discomfort and mental instability. Furthermore, the planet Melancholia’s name acts as a perfect metaphor for Justine’s inability to be happy and her constant battle with depression. She is essentially the personification of melancholy.
John doesn’t appear to comprehend just how serious Justine’s depression is and seems to lack a basic understanding of depression as an illness. At one point during the wedding reception, he says to Justine, “you’d better be goddamn happy.” “Yes, I should be. I really should be,” she replies. John’s lack of sympathy, empathy and understanding continues throughout the film.
One of the key scenes in part one is when Justine runs away from Michael when they’re about to consummate their marriage. However much she loves him, she seems unable to truly trust him and even trust herself. After rejecting Michael, Justine goes for a walk around the nearby golf course and ends up having completely passionless and emotionless sex with a young co-worker.
“What did you expect?” says Justine to Michael when he tells her that things could’ve been very different. Michael then leaves the wedding reception without her.
Part Two sees a very depressed Justine staying with Claire, John and their son Leo. As part two goes on, and more importantly as the planet Melancholia gets closer to Earth, we see the moods of Justine and Claire change. Claire gets more and more scared, whereas the closer they get to (potentially) the end of the world, the more at ease and content Justine seems to be.
One of Melancholia’s most striking scenes occurs when Justine lies naked next to a river, staring intently at Melancholia. If you contrast this with her reluctance to become intimate with Michael in part one, it suggests that the only thing that can put her at ease and make her comfortable is the prospect of the end of the world. Claire, on the other hand, is beginning to act more and more erratically and is becoming increasingly on edge. Justine offers up some not-so-comforting words of consolation: “Life is only on Earth. And not for long.”
I won’t spoil the end of the film by giving it all away, but needless to say, it’s stunningly shot and very von Trier.
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