No Escape from “Melancholia”

By Elizabeth Lee '16
Film Columnist

Perhaps it’s the finally-darkening Southern California skies or the daunting season of finals and endless papers looming ahead, but I’ve decided that it is, at last, time to talk about “Melancholia.” The name alone is quite formidable, but the lyrical way the word rolls off the tongue is enough to draw you in and make you fall under its spell, for better or worse.
The 2011 film, written and directed by Lars von Trier, stars Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg as sisters Justine and Claire in the dark, yet strangely beautiful, world that is a manifestation of both Justine’s and the director’s own experience with depression. There is a story, but it’s not exactly the main focus of the film. It follows the impending threat of Melancholia, a little blue planet making its way towards Earth, as the characters are forced to helplessly count down the days until total extinction.
What makes the film so compelling is in how Von Trier’s apocalypse is unlike any other.  There is no ounce of hopeful optimism or even a frantic attempt to check off items on a bucket list. There is utter calmness in the inevitability of both the movie’s destructive forces—Melancholia on Earth and Justine’s deep and poisonous depression on everyone around her, especially her sister. It is made clear from the opening that there is no escaping either, focusing the attention away from the excitement of a “will they or won’t they survive” plotline to a hypnotically serene darkness as we simply observe the destruction unfold.
The film is actually a much more sensory experience than anything else. Despite the utterly heavy dreariness of the story, you can’t help but be drawn in by the overall feeling of it.  It’s incredibly immersive on the big screen, on which I was lucky enough to have been able to see it. And once the film ended, there was a deafening silence as everyone in the audience remained still in the dark room for a full five minutes, processing what they’d just seen and taking the much needed time to pull themselves out of the world of the movie.  I was alarmed, and yet not entirely surprised, to realize that my mother, who rarely feels she has the time or patience to see anything more than once, went back to the theatre not once but twice more to reenter the “Melancholia” experience.
The visuals, especially those of the introductory sequence, though they later become in a sense realized during the main course of the film, are mesmerizing.  Much like the David Michalek “Figure Studies” currently on display at the Pomona College Museum of Art, they move slowly, to the extent that at first glance you can’t really tell that they are even moving. Still, they move enough that you can’t help but become completely focused on them. All of a sudden a simple image becomes captivatingly beautiful and unreal. A stunning bride, determined to move forward while suspended at an angle, rips free of the suffocating tendrils that coil desperately around her limbs. A daunting yet stunning blue planet edges ever nearer to ours. Meanwhile, a score that moves fluidly from ambient music to the grandiose theme of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” overcomes all external sound and somehow becomes an almost physical sensation.  
It is a film unlike many others—all at once dark and beautiful, both terrifyingly serene and irresistible, and simultaneously real and unreal.  The “Melancholia” experience is completely immersive if also strangely abstract, as you realize the true meaning of the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On.”  While I don’t recommend watching it three times in a row, once is definitely worthwhile.
“Melancholia” is available on Netflix Instant Streaming.