“The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it.” — Lars von Trier’s Melancholia

I find it dangerously stupid to dismiss a work of art as pretentious. I don’t think half the people using the word really knows what it means, but that doesn’t stop them from seeing something they don’t understand and immediately labeling it as the unfortunate result of the artists pomposity. It is, of course, simply shorthand for: I don’t get it and anyone else who pretends to get it must be putting on airs. Calling a piece of art pretentious shuts off thought and discussion and puts any of its defenders on notice: defend this art at your own peril, you elitist phony.

That being said, I have to say I found Lars von Trier’s Melancholia hopelessly pretentious. By my own standard, of course, I am dangerously stupid… but von Trier often brings out the best and the worst in me. This one brought out the worst.

 

Dunst and Skarsgard at the wedding from Hell

For his latest Lars takes us to a vaguely American (but maybe European) wedding. The bride, Justine (Kristen Dunst), is going through the motions of happiness for her new husband (played by the dashingly handsome Alexander Skarsgård). She’s also feigning happiness for her sister Claire and brother-in-law who have planned an excruciatingly intricate festivities schedule. But Justine just can’t shake the blues and, it is intimated, she has been struggling with depression for years. At every turn, she puts on the smiling face, but it’s only half a smile. We can feel the emptiness a little deeper. And it doesn’t help that the events go on and on. I couldn’t help but wonder why Claire would plan such a taxing reception for a woman she knows struggles with eating breakfast, let alone major displays of happiness.

I was pretty much with Melancholia through all this, but von Trier doesn’t have anywhere to take his characters. The second half shifts to Claire (in a wonderful performance by Charlotte Gainsbourgh) and her fears of a giant blue plant just found to have been hiding behind the sun. Will it collide with our planet? No one is certain despite assurances from the scientific community that it won’t, but the anxiety throws her into fits of panic. Justine, however, takes it in stride, finally being the calming element in their relationship.

 

Hey, is that a new star in the sky??

So what are we meant to take away from this? Depression prepares you for the end of the world? Von Trier seems to think that those who have grappled with depression operate on a higher level of consciousness, as if being calm in the face of death means anything except you aren’t panicking. Who’s to say that panicking at the prospect of the end of the world isn’t the right reaction. (As if there is a right reaction to something like that.) All I see is someone who thinks the worst is going to happen having her expectations confirmed and in the face of it, accepts it with calmness. What’s revelatory about that?

I was left with a nagging feeling of pointlessness. He never gives us a chance to connect with Justine or glimpse some truth about her condition those of us who haven’t had clinical depression wouldn’t already known. To be fair, there is probably no harder subject to make a thoughtful film about than depression. Heck, there aren’t a lot of thoughtful books about it. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is often mistaken for profound and is, unfortunately, still circulated on high school reading lists. But Plath, like Von Trier, offers no real insight into depression. We simply plod through page after page of melancholy. The only truly insightful book I’ve ever read about depression is The Trick Is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway, but that’s about the heavy lifting of surviving depression, not the self-indulgent wallowing of Plath and von Trier. By the end of this picture I suspected that von Trier was just trying to make himself feel better about his own depression. Not a bad goal, I guess, but he couldn’t have made something more constructive, thoughtful, insightful?

Other things I enjoyed in the picture are Kristen Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Dunst does what she can with the thin material and contributes a depth to her character that isn’t on the page, but it isn’t enough to salvage this material that plods along on von Trier’s rigid course. I think Gainsbourg really steals the show from Dunst’s flashier performance (if I can use that term for the role of a severely depressed woman). She carefully constructed her refined, maintained, and organized character, only to slowly unravel her in the face of impending doom. It is, however, too neatly schematic for my taste to have Justine unravel at her wedding with Claire trying to help her through it in the first part, while the sisters trade places in the second. It’s this sort of lazy screenwriting that often gets mistaken for profundity.

 

Charlotte Gainsbourgh isn't so cool with the end of the world

I still think von Trier is a very good, close to great director. Von Trier teases us with some stunning imagery, only to let us down with a vapid narrative. I will never forget the stunning opening sequence of Antichrist, only to slowly realize that that was the best the movie was going to offer. Likewise, Melancholia has some giddy and provoking dream-like (or nightmarish) visuals in the opening sequence, but the rest of the picture fizzles out. Maybe von Trier should stick to making classical music videos.

I have ruffled anyone’s feathers too much by labeling the picture pretentious, I would be curious to hear what you found worthwhile in the movie.

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23 Comments

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23 responses to ““The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it.” — Lars von Trier’s Melancholia

  1. Jon

    “I find it dangerously stupid to dismiss a work of art as pretentious. I don’t think half the people using the word really knows what it means, but that doesn’t stop them from seeing something they don’t understand and immediately labeling it as the unfortunate result of the artists pomposity. It is, of course, simply shorthand for: I don’t get it and anyone else who pretends to get it must be putting on airs. Calling a piece of art pretentious shuts off thought and discussion and puts any of its defenders on notice: defend this art at your own peril, you elitist phony.”

    Pretentious- “Characterized by assumption of dignity or importance”.

    I have used pretentious to discuss something and I definitely know what it means. However my main distinction is whether said “pretentious” film is doing something new, or a rehash of something already done before. I think Antonioni’s films are rather pretentious. It’s my opinion. They’re also rather brilliant, especially L’Avventura, and his best Red Desert, are pretentious. But they do new things with that pretense. However, for example, Blow-Up is both pretentious and redundant. Therefore the worst of all is the redundancy coupled with pretense.

    I have not seen Melancholia yet, so cannot add more to the argument. Your opinion is your opinion for sure and you have a right to it. I guess my main focus is on the pretentious argument. Can we not agree that something can be pretentious and brilliant at the same time? Take The Tree of Life. It is filled with the assumption of dignity and importance. But it’s brilliant just the same and does not feel completely redundant with Mallick’s previous films. Just my take. Wonder how others feel about “pretense”?

    • My argument is not that we should never use the word, just that people often throw it around when they don’t have anything else to say. I just wanted to preface the usage of a word I generally hate to see used.

      However, I disagree that something can be both pretentious and brilliant. The definition you cite minimizes the “assumption” aspect. Merriam-Webster: 1a.) making usually unjustified or excessive claims 1b.) expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature.

      So, by this definition, if a movie is doing something new and brilliant, it cannot be pretentious. The Tree of Life is a great example. I think it is important and brilliant, not unjustifiably pretending to be so. Melancholia, on the other hand, is.

      • Jon

        I still disagree. Whatever definition you choose to align with, there is still the debate there between determining justification and just plain excessiveness. Your definitions you site leave open 3 things in part 1b. Affected, unwarranted or exaggerated. There’s a difference between unwarranted and exaggerated. A huge difference. That’s the debate. Things can be pretentious and unwarranted. Or things can be pretentious and just plain exaggerated. Can we not agree there is a difference here? There’s also a huge difference between unjustified claims and excessive claims. Again huge difference IMO.

        Furthermore, there can be something that is pretentious and completely unjustified that I deem brilliant, or flat out stupid. Depends.

  2. Pingback: Melancholia, Marriage and the End of the World « The Schleicher Spin

  3. I agree with Jon that the word “pretentious” does not innately carry a negative connotation and though often is used to dismiss something, can occasionally be coupled with brilliance. I think this Von Trier work is both pretentious and brilliant (as is Malick’s entire oeuvre). You can not tell me that Malick did not approach The Tree of Life with a great sense of pretense…but also purpose…and artistry…and openness to allow the work to be impressionistic (again, done with great pretense and assumption) so that it could be open to more interpretations other than just his own.

    But I also agree with you Jason – that we should stop using the word! LMAO

    But, like, whoa…wow…whoa…hold on….like whoa….I must say that you are dead wrong in your assessment of this Von Trier work. But, I love it also when you play the contrarian…so well done, sir. Here were my two cents in case you missed it:

    http://theschleicherspin.com/2011/10/10/melancholia-marriage-and-the-end-of-the-world/

    • I think you and Jon are just flat out wrong about the word. The dictionary definition might leave some wiggle room, but everyday usage doesn’t. And that it is derived from the same Latin word that “pretend” is derived from says something as well. If an artist’s work is pretentious, he is bestowing meaning on it that isn’t there. If a piece of art has profound meaning, I wouldn’t call it pretentious. So, yes, I can tell you Malick did not approach The Tree of Life with pretense. He actually had something moving and meaningful to say.

      I really wish I hadn’t used the word. Now I look like a jackass. You even used it in your pingback to describe my position on your site. And this has convinced me to never use the word again.

      I have to admit I did miss your review of Melancholia, mostly because I hadn’t seen it when you posted it. I’m frankly shocked that you liked it so much. (Best of the year? Really?) You call Justine von Trier’s “most complex and alluring character ever conjured.” Where was the complexity? Or the allure for that matter? That’s what I was railing against in my review. I never could connect with her because von Trier never gives us anything insightful to latch on to. As I said, if the whole message is depression prepares you for the end of the world, well, that’s about as useful as time travel etiquette we learned from Southland Tales.

      And I didn’t realize I was taking a “contradictory approach” to the film. I really try not to look at critics’ responses to a film before I see it. (Imagine my surprise to the largely positive reviews.) So all I’m doing is documenting my reaction. I wish I had connected to it the way you did, but von Trier didn’t take it anywhere worthwhile.

      • Jon

        Yes I do agree with you that the everyday usage comes into play here, but that doesn’t make it correct to assume that’s the way we should use the word. If someone wants to use the word, let them use it! They need to describe themselves though and elaborate on it.
        “If an artist’s work is pretentious, he is bestowing meaning on it that isn’t there. If a piece of art has profound meaning, I wouldn’t call it pretentious.”

        See I disagree with this statement and it gets back to your original definition you cited. It’s not just bestowing meaning on it that isn’t there. It can be exaggerated meaning. It’s in your definition you cited. Exaggerated meaning is difference than absence of meaning. The presence of profound meaning does not preclude it from being pretentious. If said profound meaning is exaggerated or excessive (again in the definition), it’s still pretentious. It’s just up to me whether said pretentiousness is brilliant or not.

        • “There’s also a huge difference between unjustified claims and excessive claims.”

          Well, there can be a difference, but it isn’t by much. If you tell me something is exaggerated OR unjustified, I would never think that it could be brilliant. Brilliant pieces of art just can’t be those things. They are endowed with meaning and worth that something like Melancholia simply lacks, but pretends to have. Though I can see why you would think this. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is one of the greatest works of art in the world, as is the Taj Mahal, the Statue of David, etc. etc. Any of these things can be classified as exaggerated, though one would never classify them as pretentious. (Or if they do they have a view of art warped from my understanding.) Just take a look at any online dictionary and check their synonyms. You won’t find anything positive there.

          I certainly respect you and your opinion and, while I still disagree with you, this is a debate that really misses the point about whether a movie is good or not. I knew — even with all the caveats I laid out — that I shouldn’t use that time bomb of a word. I’ve learned my lesson. I promise I’ll never use the word again. Cross my heart.

        • Jon

          Haha! Jason we’ll have to agree to disagree then which is no biggie. I was finding holes in the argument and I think we’ve proved here that there is more than one interpretation here. I do agree though that the word pretentious can be rather loaded. It needs to be explained or not used. One other thing though, I wasn’t trying to say that everything that’s exaggerated is pretentious. Nor is every pretentious thing brilliant. It is rare I would pair that up. I just leave open the option. Art cannot be pinned down into this or that for me. There’s lots of gray for me.

  4. Jason – LMAO at your Southland Tales reference! I still can’t get that damn movie out of my head thanks to you!

    It’s a shame you didn’t see more here in Melancholia. It’s interesting though you use the word “pretend” in your definition of pretentious – as that is exactly what I thought the whole film was about!!!!!!! PRETENDING! I know my gushing review is a bit long-winded – but if you get to the end and digest it, I think I make my point pretty clearly concerning what “meaning” I thought there was in it – and it’s so much more than just a treatise on depression – it’s a testament to the artistic mind and the power of cinema. But – you say to-may-toe while I say toe-matt-o…you say pretentious while I say let’s pretend…and apparently you would like to throw some tomatoes at Von Trier here 🙂 And that’s fine – I always like to present the other side when linking up to collections of reviews regarding films worth talking about….and this is one worth talking about for sure.

    • The movie is about the artistic mind and and the power of cinema? Hm, ok. Missed those things. One thing I will say about your review is it is really well written and argued. I enjoyed it much more than the actual picture.

      “I always like to present the other side when linking up to collections of reviews regarding films worth talking about….and this is one worth talking about for sure.”

      Well, thanks David. That’s appreciated especially since you disagree with me so strongly. Your evenhanded sentiments are exactly what make you so good at this. Me? I discard and ignore disagreeable opinions faster than I can read them. It’s what would make me such a great dictator.

  5. I’ve got nothing to say about this movie, but just wanted to comment to say I’ve been glad to see new posts from you!

  6. It moves on a little too long for me and the first hour really dragged on but Dunst’s performance was amazing and the last hour had me gripped the whole time. Good review.

    • Thanks CMrok, I appreciate you stopping by and commenting. I agree that Dunst is very good, but it’s funny because I had the opposite reaction about the structure of the movie. I enjoyed the first half and hated the second. However, a friend of mine had the same response to it as you. She hated the first half, loved the second. I guess my response to the film is just all off compared to other people.

  7. Well, Jason it is a great piece and a bold and audacious one, but that won’t stop me from saying this is a wholly sumblime and artistically towering film that for all sorts of reasons ranks as one of my favorite films of 2011. I’d say it will place #2 behind only THE TREE OF LIFE, a film it does share some striking similarities with.

    Still, fair enough, and I loved reading through this spirited comment section as well.

    • Well, I knew you admire this movie though I didn’t connect to it the way you, and it seems most people, did. I am glad to hear that you won’t place this ahead of Tree of Life, which still ranks as the best movie I’ve seen this year. However, I don’t see the striking similarities. One depicts the end of the world and the other the beginning. One had and point and the other didn’t.

      But I always appreciate your comments. I think we agree more often than disagree, but isn’t disagreeing more fun sometimes?

  8. Pingback: Gounod’s ‘Faust’, Coriolanus, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Wind and March of the Wooden Soldiers on Monday Morning Diary (December 12) « Wonders in the Dark

  9. Pat

    Jason,
    I loved “Melancholia” myself, but found this:
    “I couldn’t help but wonder why Claire would plan such a taxing reception for a woman she knows struggles with eating breakfast, let alone major displays of happiness.”
    to be right on the money!
    It has to be the longest wedding reception in film history. Like you, I also thought Gainsbourg was wonderful, and feel she isn’t getting near enough attention, having the more thankless of the the two leading roles.
    As for feather-ruffling, I saw “Melancholia” in an auditorium full of people who actively and vociferously hated it – your review here is comparatively mild. And a great read.

    • It was like one o’clock in the morning and she had another event planned in the garden. I would have left to take a bath too.

      I don’t think we should stop praising Gainsbourg. Dunst might be remembered award time, but she won’t unless people keep reminding people about her great work here. You are right; she has the thankless role, but it’s the more difficult of the two. I think Dunst is great, but Gainsbourgh had to accomplish something much richer and she did it extremely well.

      I appreciate your kind words about my essay, even though you disagree with it. Unlike you, I saw the movie in a theater with a lot of audible admiration throughout and thunderous applause at the end. I’ve never been so annoyed by clapping at the end of a movie since I saw Slumdog Millionaire. I don’t know where you are, but maybe we should have switched theaters.

  10. Dunst is depressed, perhaps suicidal, and she doesn’t seem to care if the entire planet goes down in flames right along with her. This is what I found disgusting about ‘Melancholia’ — Justine’s goddam serene ‘schadenfreude’. If you want to die, go kill yourself, but don’t be so cavalier about the incineration of the other 5.999 billion inhabitants of Planet Earth.
    Love your takedown, and agree that Gainsbourg is getting short shrift in the accolades dept.

    • And that is von Trier’s whole point. Justine is better able to deal with it because she thinks everything is crap. Idiots who see good and value in the world like Claire, who falls to pieces, and her husband, who kills himself (which never made any sense to me — the world’s ending, what does he think he’s avoiding?) are simply cockeyed optimists and the superficiality of their worldview is shattered when it’s challenged. Von Trier doesn’t think much of the world or people in it, and that has worked in the past for him (Dogville comes to mind), but it comes off as self-involved and pointless here.

      Thanks Mark, I appreciate your comments. Hope to hear from you again soon.

  11. peter muhr

    The film is pretentious twaddle, designed to impress younger ignorant filmgoers who are unfamiliar with genuinely fine filmmaking. It amounts to a silly art-house disaster film, like Igmar Bergman meets Irwin Allen. The most annoying among many things about this film is the completely illogical choice of 2 actresses who look and sound absolutely nothing like each other playing sisters, with completely incompatible accents. Another is the direct stealing of a shot from Excalibur, of all films, complete with the same Wagner Tristan soundtrack played underneath, as Dunst sunbathes nude. This family seems to live in an enclosed bubble removed from any other people and from all media except for the internet, with no contact with the outside world. Why is the planet named Melancholia? Ham-fisted, obvious, silly, pretentious nonsense. You want a truly moving apocalypse film, involving real characters one can relate to? Watch Testament.

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