Melancholia (2011 film)

This article is about the 2011 film. For other uses, see Melancholia (disambiguation).

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Lars von Trier
Produced by
  • Meta Louise Foldager
  • Louise Vesth
Written by Lars von Trier
Cinematography Manuel Alberto Claro
Edited by Molly Malene Stensgaard
Distributed by
Release dates
  • 18 May 2011 (2011-05-18) (Cannes)
  • 26 May 2011 (2011-05-26)
Running time
135 minutes[1]
  • Denmark
  • Sweden
  • France
  • Germany[2]
Language English
  • 52.5 million kr
  • (c. USD$9.4 million (Aug 2010))
Box office $15.9 million[3]

Melancholia is a 2011 science-fiction drama-psychological thriller film written and directed by Lars von Trier and starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgård, Cameron Spurr, and Kiefer Sutherland. The film's story revolves around two sisters, one of whom is preparing to marry, as a rogue planet is about to collide with Earth. Von Trier's initial inspiration for the film came from a depressive episode he suffered and the insight that depressed people have a tendency to remain peaceful during catastrophic events. The film is a Danish production by Zentropa, with international co-producers in Sweden, France, and Germany. Filming took place in Sweden.

Melancholia prominently features music from the prelude to Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde (1857–59). It is the second entry in von Trier's unofficially titled "Depression Trilogy", preceded by Antichrist and followed by Nymphomaniac.[4]

Melancholia premiered 18 May 2011 at the 64th Cannes Film Festival–where it was critically lauded. Dunst received the festival's Best Actress Award for her performance, which was a common area of praise among critics. Although not without its detractors, many critics and film scholars have considered the film to be a masterpiece.[5]


The film begins with an introductory sequence involving the main characters and images from space and introducing many of the film's visual leitmotifs.[6] These are motifs of virtually still images revealing the key elements of the film: Justine the bride in deep melancholy with birds falling behind her; of a lawn with trees and sundial with two different shadows; Pieter Breughel's Hunters in the Snow (often used as interpretation of an idealised nostalgia) burning; the nonexistent 19th hole, and the Black Horse collapsing catastrophically in slow motion; Justine as a bride being swept along by a river; and her being held back by her wedding dress; and finally Justine and her nephew building their magic cave before the Earth crashes into Melancholia.[7]

Part One: "Justine"

The Act "Justine" is of an ideal and perfect wedding that sweeps bride Justine along and which challenges Justine's fragile world.

This act begins with a clumsy, oversized limousine struggling (and failing) to negotiate a curve in the road.

Newlyweds Justine and Michael arrive two hours late to their own reception at the family estate, where Justine's sister, Claire, and her husband, John, reside. Justine happens to notice a particularly bright red star in the twilight sky, which John identifies as Antares, a red supergiant approximately 550 light-years from Earth.

Justine's brother-in-law, John, exhibits sacrifice (cost of the wedding) and social conformity. The lodge manager, Little Father, shows repression. Her dad, Dexter, is hedonistic, narcissistic and selfish, and therefore unable to connect at a meaningful level with Justine. Her mother, Gaby, is brutally and pathologically honest which makes her persona non grata and gets her thrown out of the wedding. However, Claire urges Justine to hide her debilitating melancholy from her bland, naive, but well-meaning and doting new husband, Michael. After Claire’s request that Justine repress herself for her marriage, Justine escapes the wedding reception despite being held back by her wedding dress, which tears. She then goes to the golf course and whilst watching Melancholia's approach to Earth, squats and urinates on the 18th hole.

Justine's boss, Jack, is ruthless, greedy and gluttonous. During the most personal part of the wedding speech, he is hustling her to meet a work deadline (she is a copywriter) on the night of her wedding. He casually pushes her throughout the evening to create a tag line to promote a vacuous and spiritually empty campaign based on a modern facsimile of Bruegel’s The Land of Cockaigne (mythical land of excess). She later opens a book at this picture. During the critical part of the wedding, cake cutting, Justine and Gaby independently escape to have baths.

Justine's boss's nephew, Tim, is given the chance to exploit the opportunity to get the tag line at all costs to promote his career, a task similar to what Justine was previously so successful at. He reluctantly, but doggedly pursues Justine throughout the wedding reception. She cannot consummate her wedding with her dull but earnest husband and goes out on a sand trap and has sex with Tim, her boss’s nephew, a professional kindred spirit. He is later fired for his failure, and Justine, recognising her complicity, aggressively resigns. Tim later suggests that they form a business together; Justine declines curtly. Her husband departs. Early the following morning, while horseback riding with Claire, Justine notices Antares is no longer visible in the sky.

Part Two: "Claire"

Act 2 "Claire" deals with Justine's relationship with her sister, Claire. It also follows Justine’s mental decay and reawakening as the inevitable Melancholia collision approaches. This contrasts with the exact opposite reaction of "rational" Claire.

John explains that the reason for Antares' disappearance was because the newly discovered planet Melancholia was blocking the star from view. Melancholia, a rogue planet gas giant that entered the Solar System from behind the Sun, becomes visible in the sky as it approaches ever closer to Earth. John is excited about the planet and looks forward to the "fly-by" predicted by scientists.

Melancholia's first approach and final collision with Earth, as described (and shown briefly in a similar diagram) in the film

During Justine's deepest, almost catatonic depression, her sister is unable to cleanse her in the bath. Justine is so numb that even her favourite dish offered and made specially for her by Claire tastes of ash.

Before the reception, Justine proudly claims to be the only one to ride the Black Horse; her brother-in-law, John, under his breath says that the horse is also loyal to him. As Justine decays, her connection to the Black Horse becomes more remote and frustrated. On two occasions, the horse refuses to cross a bridge over a river to the non-existent 19th hole. As Justine disintegrates, she gets more brutal with her frustration with the horse’s refusal, finally mercilessly whipping it to the ground.

Claire becomes very fearful that the end of the world is imminent, in spite of her husband's reassurances that everyone will be safe. She searches the Internet and finds an article predicting that the movements of Melancholia around the Earth will bring the two planets into a full-on collision soon afterward. Justine tells her sister that she has the ability to predict with certainty events such as the number of beans in a bottle and that she is confident that Melancholia will meet with Earth, this being a good thing as life itself is evil. As the end is becoming more certain, Little Father disappears. On the night of the fly-by, it seems that Melancholia will merely pass very near without striking the Earth. The next day, however, Claire realizes that Melancholia is circling back and will collide with Earth after all.

The certainty that Melancholia is making its terminal rotation back to Earth is at odds with John's certainty of a safe fly-by. On realising his fallibility, John fatally poisons himself in the Black Horse’s stable. Claire, on finding John dead, releases the horse. Justine has a bath, stating that she is now all clean.

Claire tries to escape the golf course but the golf cart shuts down on the same bridge, frustrating her. She returns to the lodge as the world begins its demise. Faced with the impending collision, Claire becomes distraught and suggests getting together on the terrace with wine and music. In response, a surprisingly calm yet angry Justine dismisses her idea.

Her young nephew, being scared, is reassured by Justine who says that they can be safe in a magic cave, something she has promised several times to make. This contrasts with her earlier statement during her dark melancholy that there is “nowhere to hide”.

The three sit in the magic cave (a wood tepee). Justine is stoic and strong as the world beautifully comes to a catastrophic end, at one with Melancholia.


Lead actresses Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg during the film's presentation at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.



The idea for the film originated during a therapy session Lars von Trier attended during treatments for his depression. A therapist had told von Trier that depressive people tend to act more calmly than others under heavy pressure, because they already expect bad things to happen. Von Trier then developed the story not primarily as a disaster film, and without any ambition to portray astrophysics realistically, but as a way to examine the human psyche during a disaster.[8][9]

"In a James Bond movie we expect the hero to survive. It can get exciting nonetheless. And some things may be thrilling precisely because we know what's going to happen, but not how they will happen. In Melancholia it's interesting to see how the characters we follow react as the planet approaches Earth."

Trier on his decision to reveal the ending in the beginning of the film[10]

The idea of a planetary collision was inspired by websites with theories about such events. Von Trier decided from the outset that it would be clear from the beginning that the world would actually end in the film, so audiences would not be distracted by the suspense of not knowing. The concept of the two sisters as main characters developed via an exchange of letters between von Trier and the Spanish actress Penélope Cruz. Cruz wrote that she would like to work with von Trier, and spoke enthusiastically about the play The Maids by Jean Genet. As von Trier subsequently tried to write a role for the actress, the two maids from the play evolved into the sisters Justine and Claire in Melancholia. Much of the personality of the character Justine was based on von Trier himself.[10] The name was inspired by the 1791 novel Justine by Marquis de Sade.[11]

Melancholia was produced by Denmark's Zentropa, with co-production support from its subsidiary in Germany, Sweden's Memfis Film, France's Slot Machine and Liberator Productions.[12] The production received 7.9 million Danish kroner from the Danish Film Institute, 600,000 euro from Eurimages and 3 million Swedish kronor from the Swedish Film Institute.[13][14] Additional funding was provided by Film i Väst, DR, Arte France, CNC, Canal+, BIM Italy, Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Sveriges Television and Nordisk Film & TV-Fond.[12] The total budget was 52.5 million Danish kroner.[15]

Cruz was initially expected to play the lead role, but dropped out when the filming schedule of another project was changed. Von Trier then offered the role to Kirsten Dunst, who accepted it. Dunst had been suggested for the role by the American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson in a discussion about the film between him and von Trier.[10][11]


Tjolöholm Castle in Halland, Sweden, where exterior scenes were filmed, viewed at sunset.

Principal photography began 22 July and ended 8 September 2010. Interior scenes were shot at Film i Väst's studios in Trollhättan, Sweden. It was the fourth time Trier made a film in Trollhättan.[16] Exteriors included the area surrounding the Tjolöholm Castle.[17] The film was recorded digitally with Arri Alexa and Phantom cameras.[18] Trier employed his usual directing style with no rehearsals; instead the actors improvised and received instructions between the takes.[16] The camera was initially operated by Trier, and then left to cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro who repeated Trier's movements. Claro said about the method: "[von Trier] wants to experience the situations the first time. He finds an energy in the scenes, presence, and makes up with the photographic aesthetics."[15] Trier explained that the visual style he aimed at in Melancholia was "a clash between what is romantic and grand and stylized and then some form of reality", which he hoped to achieve through the hand-held camerawork.[10] He feared however that it would tilt too much toward the romantic, because of the setting at the upscale wedding, and the castle, which he called "super kitschy".[10][17]


The prelude to Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde supplies the main musical theme of the film, and Trier's use of an overture-like opening sequence before the first act is a technique closely associated with Wagner. This choice was inspired by a 30-page section of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, where Proust concludes that Wagner's prelude is the greatest work of art of all time. Melancholia uses music more than any film by Trier since The Element of Crime from 1984. In some scenes, the film was edited in the same pace as the music. Trier said: "It's kind of like a music video that way. It's supposed to be vulgar."[8] Trier also pointed out parallels between both the film's usage of Wagner and the film's editing to the music and the aesthetics of Nazi Germany.[8]

Visual effects were provided by companies in Poland, Germany and Sweden under visual effects supervisor Peter Hjorth. Poland's Platige Image, which previously had worked with Trier on Antichrist, created most of the effects seen in the film's opening sequence; the earliest instructions were provided by Trier in the summer 2010, after which a team of 19 visual effects artists worked on the project for three months.[19]

During Nymphomaniac, a monologue by the title character about loneliness is edited to shots of the universe from Melancholia.


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."[20]

The premiere took place at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where Melancholia was screened in competition on 18 May.[21] 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."[22] Trier first joked about working on a hardcore pornographic film that would star Dunst and Gainsbourg.[23] 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.[22][24] 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.[25][26] 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.[27]

The film was released in Denmark on 26 May 2011 through Nordisk Film.[12] Launched on 57 screens, the film entered the box-office chart as number three.[28] A total of 50,000 tickets were eventually sold in Denmark.[29] It was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland on 30 September, in Germany on 6 October and in Italy on 21 October.[30] 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[30][31] Madman Entertainment bought the rights for Australia and New Zealand.[32]


Critical response

Melancholia received positive reviews from critics. The film holds a 79% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 184 reviews, with an average rating of 7.4/10, and the consensus: "Melancholia's dramatic tricks are more obvious than they should be, but this is otherwise a showcase for Kirsten Dunst's acting and for Lars von Trier's profound, visceral vision of depression and destruction."[33] The film also holds a score of 80 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 40 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews."[34]

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."[35] 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."[36]

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."[37]

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 actors' 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."[38] 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.[39]


Dunst received the Best Actress Award at the closing ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival.[40] The film won three awards at the European Film Awards for Best Film, Best Cinematographer (Manuel Alberto Claro), and Best Designer (Jette Lehmann).[41]

The US National Society of Film Critics selected Melancholia as the best picture of 2011 and named Kirsten Dunst best actress.[42] The film was also nominated for four Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards: Best Film – International; Best Direction – International for von Trier, Best Screenplay – International also for von Trier, and Best Actress – International for Dunst.[43]

Film Comment magazine listed Melancholia third on its Best Films of 2011 list.[44] The film also received 12 votes – seven from critics and five from directors – in the British Film Institute's 2012 Sight & Sound poll of the greatest movies ever made, making it one of the few films of the 21st century to appear within the top 250.[5]

See also


  1. "MELANCHOLIA (15)". British Board of Film Classification. 2011-06-17. Retrieved 2013-06-03.
  2. Debruge, Peter (18 May 2011). "Melancholia". Variety.
  3. "Melancholia". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
  4. Knight, Chris (20 March 2014). "Nymphomaniac, Volumes I and II, reviewed: Lars von Trier's sexually graphic pairing will titillate, but fails to satisfy". National Post. Retrieved 15 August 2014.
  5. 1 2 "Melancholia (2011)". British Film Institute. July 7, 2015.
  6. Dargis, Manohla (30 December 2011). "This Is How the End Begins". New York Times. Retrieved 2 January 2012.
  7. Video on YouTube
  8. 1 2 3 Juul Carlsen, Per (May 2011). Neimann, Susanna, ed. "The Only Redeeming Factor is the World Ending". FILM. Danish Film Institute (72): 5–8. ISSN 1399-2813. Retrieved 18 May 2011.
  9. "Second Look: Melancholia". 2012-05-14. Retrieved 2012-05-16.
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 Thorsen, Nils (2011). "Longing for the End of All" (PDF). English press kit Melancholia. TrustNordisk. Retrieved 18 May 2011.
  11. 1 2 Feinstein, Howard (20 May 2011). "Lars von Trier: 'I will never do a press conference again.'". indieWire. SnagFilms. Retrieved 21 May 2011.
  12. 1 2 3 "Melancholia". Danish Films. Danish Film Institute. Retrieved 5 August 2010.
  13. Fil-Jensen, Lars (22 June 2010). "Støtte til Caroline Mathildes år og Melancholia". (in Danish). Danish Film Institute. Retrieved 19 July 2010.
  14. Roger, Susanne (22 June 2010). "Dramerna dominerar produktionsstöden i juni". Filmnyheterna (in Swedish). Swedish Film Institute. Retrieved 21 December 2010.
  15. 1 2 Monggaard, Christian (27 July 2010). "Absurd teater med en film i hovedrollen". Dagbladet Information (in Danish). Retrieved 31 July 2010. Han vil opleve situationerne første gang. Han finder en energi i scenerne, nærvær, og gør op med fotoæstetikken.
  16. 1 2 Pham, Annika (28 July 2010). "Von Trier's Melancholia Kicks In". Cineuropa. Retrieved 23 April 2011.
  17. 1 2 Lumholdt, Jan (19 May 2011). "'I hope I'll say something provocative'". Svenska Dagbladet. Retrieved 21 May 2011.
  18. "Technical info". Zentropa. Retrieved 4 May 2011.
  19. Staff writer (10 May 2011). "Special effects for 'Melancholia'". Platige Image Community. Retrieved 8 June 2011.
  20. Trier, Lars von (13 April 2011). "Director's statement- Melancholia" (PDF). English press kit. TrustNordisk. Retrieved 8 June 2011.
  21. "Horaires 2011" (PDF). (in French). Cannes Film Festival. Retrieved 12 May 2011.
  22. 1 2 Roxborough, Scott (18 May 2011). "Lars von Trier Admits to Being a Nazi, Understanding Hitler (Cannes 2011)". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 18 May 2011.
  23. Trier subsequently announced production of the film Nymphomaniac, which would contain hardcore sequences and would, indeed, co-star Gainsbourg.
  24. Higgins, Charlotte (18 May 2011). "Lars von Trier provokes Cannes with 'I'm a Nazi' comments". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 May 2011.
  25. Staff writer (18 May 2011). "Cannes Film Festival Condemns Lars von Trier's Nazi Comments". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 18 May 2011.
  26. Shoard, Catherine (19 May 2011). "Cannes film festival bans Lars von Trier". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  27. Roxborough, Scott (21 May 2011). "Lars von Trier Accepts Ban; Says if Hitler 'Made a Great Film,' Cannes Should Select It (Cannes 2011)". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 4 August 2011.
  28. "Denmark Box Office: May 27–29, 2011". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 8 June 2011.
  29. Ritzau (22 July 2011). "Boykot af Lars von Trier-film er udeblevet". Berlingske Tidende (in Danish). Retrieved 5 August 2011.
  30. 1 2 Jack, Ian (26 September 2011). "At The Cinema: Melancholia". More Intelligent Life. Economist Group. Retrieved 27 September 2011.
  31. Lodderhose, Diana (13 February 2011). "Magnolia takes 'Melancholia'". Variety. Retrieved 13 February 2011.
  32. Foreman, Liza (17 May 2011). "Melancholia close to selling out". Cineuropa. Retrieved 18 May 2011.
  33. "Melancholia". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved March 12, 2016.
  34. "Melancholia". Metacritic. Retrieved March 12, 2016.
  35. Skotte, Kim (19 May 2011). "Dom: Trier har skabt et æstetisk originalt overflødighedshorn". Politiken (in Danish). Retrieved 26 May 2011. Der er billeder – mange billeder – i 'Melancholia', som understreger, at Lars von Trier er en unik filmfortæller." "Valget af stof og behandlingen af det understreger Lars von Triers originalitet." "I kraft af sit stof og sit look sætter ’Melancholia’ skel, men i modsætning til 'Antichrist' føler jeg ikke, der i skellet er en hegnspæl, der bliver banket direkte ned i kødet. Man sidder på sin række i biografen og følger mildt forundret med i verdens undergang.
  36. Iversen, Ebbe (18 May 2011). "Ebbe Iversen: Triers nye film er mægtig og mærkelig". Berlingske (in Danish). Retrieved 26 May 2011. Den er stor, den er gådefuld, og nu og da er den temmelig irriterende. Men den er også et visionært værk, som gør et gigantisk indtryk." "Undertiden bevæger filmen sig på kanten af kitsch, men med Kirsten Dunst som Justine og Charlotte Gainsbourg som Claire i spidsen er "Melancholia" en dristig, ujævn, uregerlig og helt uforglemmelig film.
  37. Loeb, Steven (15 October 2011). "Review: 'Melancholia' One of 2011's Best Films". Southampton Patch. Retrieved 16 October 2011.
  38. Sandhu, Sukhdev (18 May 2011). "Cannes 2011: Melancholia, review". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 18 May 2011.
  39. Bradshaw, Peter (18 May 2011). "Cannes 2011 review: Melancholia". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 May 2011.
  40. Chang, Justin (22 May 2011). "'Tree of Life' wins Palme d'Or". Variety. Retrieved 22 May 2011.
  41. Vary, Adam B (3 December 2011). "'Melancholia' wins top prize at European Film Awards". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 4 December 2011.
  42. "US critics reward Lars Von Trier film Melancholia". BBC. 8 January 2012.
  43. "AACTA Awards winners and nominees" (PDF). Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA). 31 January 2012. Retrieved 4 February 2012.
  44. "Film Comment's End Of Year Critics' Poll 2011". Film Comment. January–February 2012.
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