On the night of her wedding, Justine is struggling to be happy even though it should be the happiest day of her life. It was an extravagant wedding paid for by her sister and brother-in-law who are trying to keep the bride and all the guests in-line. Meanwhile, Melancholia, a blue planet, is hurtling towards the Earth. Claire, Justine’s sister, is struggling to maintain composure with fear of the impending disaster.
Melancholia is a 2011 drama film written and directed by Lars von Trier, starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård, and Kiefer Sutherland. The narrative revolves around two sisters during and shortly after one’s wedding, while an approaching rogue planet is about to collide with Earth. The film prominently features music from the prelude to Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (1857–59).
Von Trier’s initial inspiration for the film came from a depressive episode he suffered and the insight that depressed people remain calm in stressful situations. The film is a Danish production by Zentropa, with international co-producers in Sweden, France, and Germany. Filming took place in Sweden.
The film premiered 18 May 2011 at the 64th Cannes Film Festival. Dunst received the festival’s Best Actress Award for her performance.
Shortly before the film’s premiere, Trier published a “director’s statement”, where he wrote that he had started to regret having made such a polished film, but that he hoped it would contain some flaws which would make it interesting. The director wrote: “I desired to dive headlong into the abyss of German romanticism…. But is that not just another way of expressing defeat? Defeat to the lowest of cinematic common denominators? Romance is abused in all sorts of endlessly dull ways in mainstream products.”
The premiere took place at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where Melancholia was screened in competition on 18 May. The press conference after the screening gained considerable publicity. The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Roxborough wrote that “Von Trier has never been very P.C. and his Cannes press conferences always play like a dark stand-up routine, but at the Melancholia press conference he took it to another level, tossing a grenade into any sense of public decorum.” Trier first joked about working on a hardcore pornographic film that would star Dunst and Gainsbourg. When asked about the relation between the influences of German Romanticism in Melancholia and Trier’s own German heritage, the director brought up that he had been raised believing his biological father was a Jew, only to learn as an adult that his actual father was a German gentile. He then made jokes about Jews and Nazis, said he understood Adolf Hitler and admired the work of architect Albert Speer, and jokingly announced that he was a Nazi. The Cannes Film Festival issued an official apology for the remarks the same day and clarified that Trier is not a Nazi or an anti-Semite, then declared the director “persona non grata” the following day. This meant he was not allowed to go within 100 meters of the Festival Palace, but he did remain in Cannes and continued to give promotional interviews.
The film was released in Denmark on 26 May 2011 through Nordisk Film. Launched on 57 screens, the film entered the box-office chart as number three. A total of 50,000 tickets were eventually sold in Denmark. It was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland on 30 September, in Germany on 6 October and in Italy on 21 October. Magnolia Pictures acquired the distribution rights for North America and it was released on 11 November, with a pre-theatrical release on 13 October as a rental through such Direct TV vendors as Vudu and Amazon.com. Madman Entertainment bought the rights for Australia and New Zealand.
Kim Skotte of Politiken wrote that “there are images – many images – in Melancholia which underline that Lars von Trier is a unique film storyteller”, and “the choice of material and treatment of it underlines Lars von Trier’s originality.” Skotte also compared it to the director’s previous film: “Through its material and look, Melancholia creates rifts, but unlike Antichrist I don’t feel that there is a fence pole in the rift which is smashed directly down into the meat. You sit on your seat in the cinema and mildly marveled go along in the end of the world.” Berlingske’s Ebbe Iversen wrote about the film: “It is big, it is enigmatic, and now and then rather irritating. But it is also a visionary work, which makes a gigantic impression.” The critic continued: “From time to time the film moves on the edge of kitsch, but with Justine played by Kirsten Dunst and Claire played by Charlotte Gainsbourg as the leading characters, Melancholia is a bold, uneven, unruly and completely unforgettable film.”
Steven Loeb of Southampton Patch wrote, “This film has brought the best out of von Trier, as well as his star. Dunst is so good in this film, playing a character unlike any other she has ever attempted, that she won the award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. Even if the film itself were not the incredible work of art that it is, Dunst’s performance alone would be incentive enough to recommend it.”
Sukhdev Sandhu wrote from Cannes in The Daily Telegraph that the film “at times comes close to being a tragi-comic opera about the end of the world,” and that, “the apocalypse, when it comes, is so beautifully rendered that the film cements the quality of fairy tale that its palatial setting suggests.” About the acting performances, Sandhu wrote: “all of them are excellent here, but Dunst is exceptional, so utterly convincing in the lead role – trouble, serene, a fierce savant – that it feels like a career breakthrough. Meanwhile, Gainsbourg, for whom the end of the world must seem positively pastoral after the horrors she went through in Antichrist, locates in Claire a fragility that ensures she’s more than a whipping girl for social satire.” Sandhu brought up one reservation in the review, in which he gave the film the highest possible rating of five stars: “there is, as always with Von Trier’s work, a degree of intellectual determinism that can be off-putting; he illustrates rather than truly explore ideas.” Peter Bradshaw, writing for The Guardian, called the film “clunky” and “tiresome”, judging it to be “conceived with[out] real passion or imagination”, and not “well written or convincingly acted in any way at all”, and gave it two stars out of a possible five.