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Melancholia (15): The Movie Review

Rachel Winterbottom goes to the ends of the Earth to be spellbound

Published on October 3rd 2011.

Melancholia (15): The Movie Review

‘MELANCHOLIA’ (noun): 1. a severe depression; a feeling of deep sadness. 2. a rogue planet, hurtling towards earth.

There is no Bruce Willis-type willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. No faint sliver of hope.

In an opening led by the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, an orchestral score almost claustrophobic in its intensity, Danish writer and director Lars von Trier’s end of the world is captivatingly beautiful. His apocalyptic film opens at the close; revealing the world’s complete destruction as it’s consumed by the planet ‘Melancholia’.

Melancholia is a film in two parts depicting the final days in the lives of two sisters. Part one is all about Justine (Kirsten Dunst). In the idyllic setting of her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) and sister Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) castle, Justine and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård, True Blood) celebrate their wedding in lavish style.

Unfortunately, despite Claire’s machinations, it isn’t long before the cracks start to show in the family’s veneer. A spat between Justine’s separated parents (the brilliant John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling) during the speeches suggests a bitter and twisted history, and is one trigger of many for Justine’s spiralling depression.

Throughout the evening, Justine’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. Her naïve husband and frustrated brother-in-law had both hoped that an opulent wedding would somehow cure her. Instead, the happiest day of her life only serves as a stark reminder of her condition, sending her deeper within herself.

Part two is Claire’s story. Post-wedding, the long-suffering Claire takes care of her now severely depressed sibling. With an optimistic husband, young son and an impassive sister, Claire is alone in her concern about the newly discovered planet, Melancholia, heading towards earth. Scientists predict it will be a ‘fly-by’, and bypass earth, but Claire is not so sure and becomes increasingly fraught.

Talking to her depressed sister doesn’t help. Justine is only really at peace when she’s bathing naked in the additional light of the incoming planet. Alone in their castle, Claire and her family exist in an insular world, the landscaped gardens acting as the perfect viewing platform as they wait to see whether they will survive Melancholia.

It’s a credit to von Trier’s deft hand that the parallels between Justine’s crushing psychological despair and her sister Claire’s physical, breathless reaction to the atmosphere-leeching planet Melancholia, are clear whilst subtly underplayed. This may be sci-fi, but von Trier has a very firm grasp on the family drama that’s at the heart of Melancholia.

This is a deeply personal film and von Trier isn’t willing to allow his audience even the briefest respite from watching the disintegrating family. His handheld cameras maintain a sense of invasive intimacy throughout, refusing to leave his characters alone, not even to show news coverage of the looming disaster.


Dunst is incredible as Justine. Winning the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actress Award, despite the controversy generated by von Trier’s Nazi comments in a press conference, attests to her phenomenal performance. The fact that Justine has depression is never spelt out, and it doesn’t need to be. Her heavy, cloying illness has more presence in the film than the impending apocalypse. Dunst’s Justine is at times callous, often frustrating and undeniably selfish, but, ultimately, she is heartbreaking as she waits to feel something, anything, genuine.

To create the austere isolation of the second part, von Trier sacrifices characters that dominated in the first, such as the underused Rampling as the sisters’ emotionally remote mother. However, Gainsbourg’s unwavering performance more than fills the space left by the departed cast. A von Trier alumni, having played one of the leads in his other love letter to depression, the sexually graphic and ultra-violent Antichrist (2009), Gainsbourg helps ensure the sisters’ role reversal is believable as Claire slips from the stoic sister to the one losing control.

It’s safe to say this is not an uplifting film. There is no Bruce Willis-type willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. No faint sliver of hope.

Von Trier is adamant you know from the start that there will be no survivors. It’s this knowledge that hangs over the film, lending an additional dull edge of despair to every scene, and one that you can’t help but feel Justine would feel gratified you’re sharing with her. Affecting, unsettling and ethereally beautiful, Melancholia has a suffocating hold over its audience and doesn’t let go until the inevitable, breathtaking, end.

Rating: 7.5/10

Melancholia is at the Cornerhouse until Thursday 13 October. The Cornerhouse is at 70 Oxford Street, Manchester, M1 5NH.  

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