Quarantine Watchlist: Melancholia
Melancholia is a movie about a bunch of people, trapped in an isolated location, waiting for the world to end around them. It came out in 2011, but it’s never felt more relevant than it does right now.
I’ve been watching a lot of movies over the course of this pandemic, and it’s consistently surprised me how often this turns out to be the case. So many movies have gained this extra dimension in light of the recent pandemic; I’m not just talking about the obvious examples, such as Contagion, but movies where you’d never expect to find an accidental pandemic parable.
Melancholia is one such movie. Over the course of this unofficial series, I’m hoping to highlight some movies, that I’ve watched while in quarantine, and thought they had some interesting connections to the pandemic, whether thematic, or within the very plot. I’m starting here, because Melancholia was the first movie where this happened. I watched this way back at the start of lockdown, and it was the first time during quarantine where I remember thinking, “Alright, that’s kind of weird,” and then later on going, “Oh my god, this is downright prophetic.”
There’s very little about the start of this film that suggested to me that that’s where it would end up (the whole reason I watched it in the first place was that its director, Lars von Trier, was a guy whose work I’d been meaning to check out for a while at the time). The setup is this; a wedding is taking place in an ornate Scottish castle between Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), the latter of whom doesn’t realize that the former is severely depressed.
Together they go through the wedding from Hell, with everyone apparently determined not to acknowledge the fact that no one actually seems like they want to be there, least of all the bride and groom. They arrive at the reception together, and then they seem to spend the rest of the evening deliberately trying to avoid each other. One wonders what it would’ve looked like if they actually managed to get to their vows.
It’s a hell of a stressful watch, and this is before anything’s even really happened. Melancholia pulls a neat trick here, where it’s only in the second half that the world actually starts ending, but you get the unmistakable sense watching the first half that things are already headed towards total annihilation.
That’s not me incidentally ruining the twist; Melancholia is one of those weird films, like Sunset Boulevard or Pan’s Labyrinth, that essentially begins with an enormous plot spoiler right in its first moments. Before we’ve even gotten to the wedding, von Trier has already basically let us in on where this movie will end up. Impressively, it doesn’t dull the impact of the film’s final moments at all.
Melancholia is a film entirely about hopelessness in the face of impending doom, whether that doom is a lifetime of unhappily wedded life that seems to loom endlessly ahead of you, or the slightly more literal impending doom of a planet that’s about to crash into your face. Different methods, but the film is very clever about how it goes about doing that, and in the end, it basically amounts to the same thing. Metaphorically.
And, you know, call me basic, but I actually dug the literal metaphor at the heart of this film. The very, very literal metaphor. The idea basically is that Justine’s depression is so strong that it isn’t just bringing melancholia upon the whole wedding reception, but also bringing everyone down and destabilizing the family dynamics past the point of no return; she’s literally bringing Melancholia, this giant planet, upon the whole world, and everybody on it. Basically, she’s somehow so depressed, that she has literally conjured up the end of the world.
Lars von Trier, to his credit, actually manages to make that idea work, and more impressively, he’s able to do so with minimal “look at me, world, look at how zany and provoking I can be! Oh, just what am I gonna say next?!” type posturing. Anyone who knows anything about von Trier knows that he’s almost a compulsive provocateur, and that sentiment can be seen in a lot of his films. Since Melancholia, I have seen a couple more, and a lot of them do end up feeling like troll jobs.
This one doesn’t, though, and frankly it’s better for it. It feels like, for a brief two hours, the childish provocateur who managed to get himself kicked out of Cannes managed to act like a grownup long enough to make art of legit substance. Melancholia isn’t for everyone, but for what it is, it’s honest. It’s a movie made by a guy who actually does understand what it’s like to have depression, and has the technical prowess behind the camera to be able to convey that understanding in a way that’s thrillingly cinematic.
And speaking as someone who’s been stuck inside for the past several months, watching the world slowly inch closer and closer into irrevocable insanity and hopelessness, yeah, this film captures that too. No, a planet’s not hurtling towards us (at least, so far as I know), but that feeling of impending doom is one I think a lot of us are very familiar with. That feeling can be found in this film, in spades.
Article By: Sam Stashower