Two sisters find their already strained relationship challenged as a mysterious new planet threatens to collide with the Earth.
Year 1, Day 344
BEFORE: This is a film I’ve been waiting to watch for a long time. Not because I’m particularly excited to watch it, but to see what it’s actually about. Melancholia is a film by Lars von Trier and is one a friend of mine started to watch, then gave up. Much like he did with Mullholland Drive, he told me to watch it and explain. About ten minutes in, I didn’t see anything necessarily bad about the film (not spectacular, just a mysterious opening) but we moved onto other things. Today I’m determined to finish Melancholia and see if it is a boring film or if that mystery leads into something great.
AFTER: I’m going to compare Melancholia to two other works: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The comparisons aren’t of quality and how one is better than another, but are meant to provide a frame of reference if you happen to be more familiar with those works than Melancholia. Long story short though: it’s a good film with a great vision and lots of spectacular imagery but it can be hard to understand and follow along.
The first roughly ten minutes that I mentioned above is a prologue and much like Romeo and Juliet details what is about to happen. It shows Justine’s (Kirsten Dunst) eventual depression, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) fighting for her family’s lives, and the destruction of Earth when it collides with the looming planet Melancholia. Now unlike the classic tragedy, the prologue in Melancholia is much more abstract. Many things - like falling bodies, strands of light being emitted from people and objects, roots that hold Justine back, and people just staring out into space - make little to no sense. It requires you to think but you can only guess as to what they might mean. Without knowing anything about the film - the characters, their story, what’s happening - it’s just a compilation of images. Pretty images, but abstract and confusing ones.
This prologue along with the rest of the story is what I’d like to compare to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Many probably know that 2001 takes place in chunks, beginning with “The Dawn of Man” which features apes going about their lives with no dialogue and ending with “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” which also has no dialogue and is accompanied by psychedelic visuals. In the middle there’s a more “normal” film with talking and a plot you can follow along with. Melancholia is very similar. After the prologue, you begin to follow two characters: Justine and her sister Claire. Separated into two parts, the first focuses on Justine at her wedding and the second focuses on Claire and the approaching planet. Here, things are relatively easy to follow and is more like a normal film rather than an experimental one.
So far I’ve really just been describing the film and explaining how everything is set up, but what did I think about it. For me, it’s a question of whether you like art for art’s sake or art for entertainment’s sake. I don’t mind going to museums and looking at a variety of paintings, sculptures, and other installations. Some art is magnificent and a joy to look at. But I don’t really appreciate art for what it is. To spend any decent amount of time looking at a painting to analyze its different parts, the method that went into creating it, what the painting means thematically and in a historical context, is something I find extremely boring. Melancholia is analogous to fine art. It’s a film that looks amazing visually and has an interesting story that’s enjoyable in parts, but it feels as if it needs to be analyzed to appreciate fully.
Don’t get me wrong, I found myself engrossed in several moments of Melancholia where these characters had my complete attention. Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) journey in the limo, the toasts at the wedding reception, and little Leo (Cameron Spurr) wanting to build his cave are some examples of these great moments. But many of the other parts, the visually impressive parts, went over my head. To really appreciate this film you need to analyze it. And it’s not that I don’t care enough to want to put in effort to do that. Analyzing and thinking are two different things. Analyzing is like a homework assignment, something required. Thinking on the other hand is voluntary. Melancholia makes you think a lot and had me thinking about what everything means. But that is as far as I could go. For some, this may be a great film that means and says a lot. For me it was a great way to let my mind wander and go for a ride, but it’s not something you can sit down and watch on a whim.
RATING: 3 out of 5