Category Archives: Melancholia

Best performances by a non-actor/inanimate object

This “best of” list is by no means an original idea. I first came across a similar such superlative in the NYTimes Magazine around Oscar season.  It seemed like a fun diversion from my usual “close-reading” reviews, and as I have been short on time for creative dabbling, it is ideal for a time-efficient blurb-type post. Most of these films, I believe, were release in the past year.

If any readers out there have any more suggestions, don’t be shy! This is an ongoing list.

Hokay, here we go!

1. The hot-pink script credits in “Drive.”

The obvious route to take here would have been The Driver’s (Ryan Gosling) notorious scorpion jacket. But the neon-pink  opening credits that come across the screen over the shot of the L.A. highways sets the tone for this inscrutable movie. “Drive” is either making fun of itself or boldly inhabiting a dated early 1990’s genre of undercover cop fair such as “Point Break” or “Miami Vice.” It is a clever move to begin “Drive” in such a fashion because from this moment on, because as we are gaping at the hot-pink script, we are wondering just how seriously we are supposed to take this movie. And, when/if we do start taking it seriously, we are either being skillfully manipulated or realizing that “Drive” actually may be, in all of its super-stylized, silent hero-without-a-name glory, a serious movie. The beauty of this is you can watch it both ways and it still works. It’s not perfect, but it works.

2. The planet measurement device in “Melancholia”

It’s been named “the doom-o-meter” and “mortal coil” by Michael Vazquez of The Huffington Post. I like to call it “the downward spiral.” A rudimentary device crudely fashioned out of wire by a young boy, this apparatus is repeatedly utilized towards the end of the movie and is at firs the source of comfort, and inevitably, dread. It’s method of use is to hold the circular coils to the sky so that it frames the planet Melancholia, thus revealing it’s distance from the planet Earth by its size in relation to the tiny coil. The doom-o-meter spends most of its screen time clutched in the spindly, tense fingers of Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who anxiously peers through the mortal coils only to see that Melancholia is looming larger, and getting closer and closer….

3. Sigmund Freud’s cane in “A Dangerous Method”

“Fascinating,” proclaims a sardonic Mr. Freud (Viggo Mortensen) through a mouthful of cigar as he observes a young female patient of emerge from a “therapeutic” bath. In this scene at a psychiatric hospital and in virtually every scene in the movie, Freud is clutching his faithful cane–and (he would be the first to admit), his penis. In one later scene, after the defiant Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) liberates himself from Freud’s overbearing patrimony, Freud becomes ill and collapses. His cane can no longer steady him and he flings it through the air, almost comically, leaving Freud prone on the floor. The father–and the phallus–have been castrated.

4. Lisbeth’s Salander’s t-shirt in David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”


5. The shelter door  in “Take Shelter”

At the climax of this haunting film from director Jeff Nichols, Curtis (Michael Shannon), his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter, who is deaf, are sequestered in the storm shelter during a tornado. Curtis has been suffering from terribly lucid visions/hallucinations (the difference is the crux of the film) of an apocalyptic storm, which is his reason for building the shelter. After the duration of the storm, Samantha is more than ready to emerge from their subterranean refuge; the paranoid Curtis refuses, believing the storm–or something much worse–is still raging above. Throughout the film, Curtis’ visions and paranoia make him a frightening and fallacious figure–whenever he is on screen, he is the subject of uncertainty, of dread–the lines between delusion/dream/reality  are always  blurred. The shelter door represents this boundary between what is real and imagined, sane and insane. The moment when Curtis refuses to unlock the shelter door, he is at his most terrifying–the suffocating fear that he has stifled inside is ready to explode, and this  fear makes him so unpredictable that it is entirely possible for him to do a number of things–including trap himself along with his wife and daughter in this shelter for the remainder of their lives. What lies outside that shelter door  is the moment of truth as to whether or not Curtis is some kind of a portentous soothsayer or a paranoid schizophrenic. The claustrophobia of the shelter–a sealed, impassable portal–combined with the trepidation of what may lie beyond it made this scene unbearable to watch.

6. The shattered windshield in “A Separation”

 Sin–the act of sinning, of absolving one of sin, and the self-sacrifice of bearing the burden of a loved one’s sin– is one of many profound themes in this devastating Iranian domestic drama. Hojjat, unhinged, unemployed and hot-tempered, beats himself in the head repeatedly on various occasions to punish himself for his sins. It is implied that he used to beat his wife but has since reformed, and now takes the sin out on himself. When we see a crack the size of a human head in the windshield of the car belonging to the family with which he and his wife are in a heated dispute (a dispute which is the crux of the film), it brings self-flagellation to a new and frightening realm. As the family–husband, wife and teenage girl–make the tense drive home, the wind hisses through the cracks in the windshield. When a windshield is shattered, the cracks form web-like designs which disperse to form  multiple tiny spider webs, each representing the fragmented psyches of a different character in this film and how they are interconnected.



Thank You, Ms. Dargis

Here is a link to a fascinating analysis of the first scenes of Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” by NYTimes film critic, Manohla Dargis. In quite an impressive feat of research and close-reading, Ms. Dargis manages to uncover allusions ranging from Hamlet to the riderless horse in John F. Kennedy’s funeral. Thank you, Ms. Dargis, for reminding us that insightful and imaginative film writing still thrives.


“Melancholia” is Lars von Trier’s intelligent, melodramatic, achingly beautiful and wickedly funny new film. It tells the story of Justine (a transcendent Kirsten Dunst), a severe depressive, and her doting and practical sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine’s depression takes the corporeal shape of a planet called Melancholia, which is on a steady collision course with Earth. In the film’s stunning prologue, Mr. von Trier tactfully relieves the audience of any suspense concerning Earth’s fate, allowing the tone to shift from an end-of-the-world thriller to a character and relationship study. “Melancholia” uses the premise of an apocalypse to expose the frays in familial bonds—specifically, the intricate dynamic between two sisters. Justine and Claire’s bond is both affectionate and cruel, supportive and insensitive.

The film is divided into two parts named after each of the sisters.  Although part one is named after Justine, the “melancholic” sister, this section of the film proves to be the most humorously absurd. Mr. von Trier is—gasp—having a bit of fun as we follow Justine through the grand charade of her wedding celebration. He has reined in all of his pals from films past to play members of the wedding party, including Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt as Justine’s backbiting parents, and Udo Kier the prim and fretful wedding planner. And despite Justine’s deep sadness during what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life, Ms. Dunst is luminous. Instead of portraying Justine as incessantly bleak, Dunst’s performance during this half the film is almost sphinxlike in its spontaneity. She does not skulk around in her wedding dress (although she does, at one point, gracefully urinate in it beneath the moonlight), but rather ventures in and out of the festivities like an elusive specter. And because von Trier has revealed the fate of these characters in the first ten minutes, the audience can empathize with Justine as she views her wedding with a growing sense of dread and indifference.

Part two is named for Claire, Justine’s pragmatic but anxious older sister. Although Claire grows weary and frustrated with Justine’s erratic behavior, she understands her sister’s illness and knows how to take care of her. Claire’s relationship with Justine becomes increasingly complicated in the film’s second half, as she grapples with her own growing anxiety over the path of Melancholia while simultaneously caring for Justine, who has become incapacitated by her depression. In contrast to the darkly sumptuous aesthetic of part one, with an alluring Justine  wreaking havoc in a wedding dress, part two is more subdued and more painful to watch. Justine has lost her enigmatic glow, and von Trier, who has long suffered from depression himself, depicts her descent with alarming candor. It has been suggested that Mr. von Trier uses female characters in his films to represent his own struggles with depression. If  “Antichrist” was considered by many to be too vicious and misogynistic, his rendering of Justine’s anguish in “Melancholia” is as upsetting as it is compassionate.

But part two is named “Claire” for a reason. As Melancholia becomes more of a threat, (the planet and the illness) Claire becomes fraught with worry that the end is near, and the sisters’ reactions to the planet begin to diverge.  Justine begins to emerge from her depression and becomes more lucid, but is callous towards Claire’s distress. Justine feels a kinship with Melancholia; she embraces the planet as an actual representation and justification for her chronic illness. Yet, just as Claire strove to comfort Justine during her lowest points, Justine’s coldness turns into an intense stoicism, and eventually, into her own display of compassion, especially towards Claire’s son, Leo.

In “Melancholia,” the end of the world is not rendered with mass hysteria or with an overblown sequence of natural disasters, but rather with understated beauty. Bugs creep up from the soil, hail the color of pure white flower buds falls from the sky, all as Melancholia—massively exquisite in itself—looms closer and closer overhead. Despite its morbid theme, bone-rattling soundtrack straight from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and the fact that it’s a Lars von Trier film, the tone of “Melancholia” is almost soothing. Mr. von Trier proposes that the end of the world, like his film, may just be a thing of beauty.