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Courtesy of Zentropa Entertainment

February 26, 2020

A Kiss of Death in Lars von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’

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The opening scene of Melancholia is one of the most captivating, psychedelic montages I’ve ever seen. It is carefully constructed with Easter eggs of all sorts that appear one by one as the film progresses. Among the most eye-catching are a beautiful dark horse, a mother clutching her son sinking into the mud of a golf course and a child whittling a stick into a spear. Behind this chaos is a beautifully somber orchestral melody, one that returns time and time again during the darkest parts of the movie. This combination serves as a perfectly serene, albeit unsettling, introduction as the key elements of this complex story.

Director von Trier’s 2011 genre-bending, experimental film takes the viewer on a voyage into the deepest, darkest corners of both Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her sister Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) minds. By separating his film into two distinct parts named for each sister, von Trier’s dissection of each character’s motivations and insecurities are able to truly shine. Leering on in the distance, however, is the impending doom of Melancholia, a newly discovered planet threatening to crash into, and in effect destroy, Earth.

Dunst’s performance is unparalleled the entire movie, and her raw movements, expressions and silence say more than any words could. Perhaps her beautiful gown and makeup may have swayed me to sympathize with her cherub-like characterization, but her dehumanization in the second hour was immaculate.

Claire remained, unfortunately, somewhat borish and undeveloped even when the spotlight shone on her. In moments where it seemed appropriate for her to react and adapt to her surrounding characters or environment, more often than not I found her performance lacking in passion. Whether or not this was intentional I don’t know; however, I can honestly say I found Claire using every other character as a crutch throughout the film.

Speaking in broader terms, the progression of the storyline had a beautiful arc to it. What started off as a plea for the destigmatization of mental illness turned into a much more philosophical, perfectly fantastical mixture of beauty and terror. The setting creates a unique and unconventional warzone. The beautifully trimmed estate showcases a sort of symmetry between the two planets and the two sisters.

At the same time, though, each moonlit nighttime stroll taken is as eerie and suspenseful as the constant half-smile plastered on Justine’s face. It is a testament to society’s stigmatization of mental illness, one that made me wince every time someone angrily suggested Justine simply “be happy” or “smile more.”

By the last few minutes of the film, it is Justine’s young nephew, Leo (Cameron Spurr), who smiles as the two sisters and him enjoy their final moments on Earth. It was a tasteful apocalyptic feature that did not follow many of the conventional end-of-the-world clichés.

Stephanie Tan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at st626@cornell.edu.