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Critical Analysis on Melancholia

Critical Analysis on Melancholia


Lars von Trier’s Melancholia has made a profound impact on the audience and provoked the avalanche of response among the critics. However, like any other film created by Lars von Trier, Melancholia provides enough material for disputes and disagreements. It goes without saying that the plot can first of all be interpreted in different ways, and that is one of the most attractive features distinguishing the European cinema from an average Hollywood movie. However, Melancholia provokes discussion on more than that. Among the other controversial approaches, it seems worthwhile to pay specific attention to the question of genre. Although the genre of Melancholia is often defined as a disaster fiction, there are actually a few reasons to look for some other answers or at least suppositions. In fact, the genre of a film can be defined in different ways. There should be certain stereotypes followed by a director to work within a certain genre. Mainstream motion pictures usually follow the canons of the genre chosen by their creators, but for directors like Lars von Trier these canons will never do. What is more, according to film theory, genre is always a vague term with no fixed boundaries (Giannetti 36). Therefore, there can be hardly any ultimate decision about what the genre of such an auteur film is. Actually, it can be disputable whether style, editing and sound influence the definition of the genre of a film, but it seems valuable to make an attempt to search in this direction. In this way, this research is undertaken to show how inimitable cinematography of Lars von Trier and Manuel Alberto Claro has resulted in an inside-out fairy tale about the end of the world shot in late German Romanticism style.

Speculation on Genre

First of all, there is a need to understand why Lars von Trier’s Melancholia does not have much in common with a typical disaster film. This genre is actually as old as cinema itself, and according to the definition, a disaster film is a film genre that has an impending or ongoing disaster (such as a damaged airliner, fire, shipwreck, disease, an asteroid collision or natural calamities) as its subject (Keane 111). Melancholia also has such a condition as a subject. From the very beginning the audience is aware that the Earth is going to collide with another rogue planet, which makes the critics consider von Trier’s film as a science fiction movie. Naturally, the fact of such a collision is not realistic, though it is supposed by scientists, but has not taken place yet. What is more, like in the majority of science fiction movies, there are cosmic scenes already at the first few minutes of Melancholia. However, disaster films usually involve as many characters as possible to show the scale of the catastrophe, while in Melancholia the action is focused on the only one family. Further, directors and cinematographers put in much effort to make the action look dramatic and full of tension; plenty of special visual effects are applied and such movies rarely lack heroic pathos. In case of Melancholia the answer is not as easy as it may seem.

On the one hand, special effects are also applied deliberately; they look impressive and leave no doubts for the truthfulness of the events. What is more, Richard Wagner’s (1813 – 1883) terrifying music from Tristan and Isolde (1859) is already enough to make a profound impact on the audience and testify for the end of life.

On the other hand, the question is whether the collision of the Earth and Melancholia should be necessarily interpreted asa disaster.

Why not Disaster?

The central figure of the narration is definitely Justine, so it seems reasonable to view the events from her point of view. Not only her cues, but also camera movement, choice of shots, framing, narrative emphasis and visual patterns tend to reflect her inner world. The prologue of the film presents her as a racked victim at the background of avian rainfall. This scene is followed by the image of the unfriendly planet approaching to the Earth, so it may seem that this is the main heroine’s disaster too. However, the film is divided in two parts, “Justine” and “Claire”, and it looks as if the wedding with numerous guests, vanity and social tension are much more like a disaster for Justine than the Apocalypses itself. It is enough to compare the territorial space, lighting and camera angles in the first part and in the second to see that in the latter Justine feels more harmonious than ever before. For her, the fatal crash is a salvation, the end of evil and suffering, and thus cinematographer spends all his talent to show the beauty of this desirable end.

Cinematographic Poetry of Manuel Alberto Claro

Manuel Alberto Claro has won the award for best film at the 2011 European Film Awards and took the prize for cinematography (“Interview with Manuel Alberto Claro” 17), so there is enough remarkable material to rely upon. For him, the main aim of the work is to create poetic images, full of texture and emotional presence, and almost each scene in the film is a full-value example for that purpose. There was no task to show the end of the world as something tragic and miserable, so the colors are soft and rich, and are really pleasant to view in the second part. Meanwhile, already in the prologue there is no sense of tragedy. The action is deliberately slowed down, long shots and low angle camera make the total space filled with mystery and meaning. There is a symbolic scene in which Justine tries to walk with her legs knotted with grey wool and in the cross cut the two planets are going to collide. These two cuts may be seen as paradox and incongruity, but in this way, collision looks like the event to free her from these unbearable chains. Further, the narration proves this thesis. She is not afraid of Apocalypses and is waiting for it with pleasure.

Hand-held Camera

The first part begins with a general overview restricted to a space in which the limousine is entering the frame. Next, the close-ups of Justine and Michael inside the limousine follow. Since this moment the specific technique typical for von Trier’s movies can be traced. Famous Dogma-style handheld jitteriness (Bainbridge 197) comes from the specific technique of shooting the movie “on the spot” and either holding the camera on one shoulder or imitating it. While Manuel Alberto Claro always tries to chose the best location and create the best possible for the space within the location for each of the actor involved, his course is to be visually expressive within that space. It is a rule for Lars von Trier to shoot without rehearsals and plan; the actors are free to improvise, no instructions are provided and due to that the cinematographer catches emotionally good moments (Simons 238). Constantly adjusting, Claro shoots what the actors are actually doing in an organic process. For that reason, the camera is not so quick to react what the actors are actually doing and may be late for a couple of moments; some lines may be missed due to that fact, but it doesn’t interfere much with the understanding of what is actually going on. Such a technique crreates an impression of participation or spying, both providing deeper emotions due to involvement of the audience. There are many unexpected zooms and pans (like in the scene in which Justine has sex with her colleague, for example) which make up a style of von Trier’s handheld camerawork which imitates documentary mode. Such an approach is of no surprise because “it is an eccentric, rogue film that never obeys the usual rules of stylistic and emotional consistency” (Simpson).

Fairy-tale Inside Out

In the first part the viewer may feel like an undesired guest at a wedding where everything gets wrong. Like the main character, the camera is nervous, sometimes approaching too close to the faces of Justine, her husband, Clair or their mother, provoking a feeling of undesired intimacy and their vulnerability. The camera does not obligatory focus on the one who is speaking; it is jumping from one frame to another and snatching out random details. In this way, the entire wedding turns into a mess. Most of the action takes place in the evening, so the darkness is prevailing. Very yellow lights were used for the wedding to exaggerate the effect of celebration and to make it disturbing.

In the second part, in turn, the disaster is not approaching, as it may seem from the plot. The disaster is over; Justine has already committed her suicide, not physically, but morally, and there is nothing to be fear of for her. The colors and lights become much more neutral, and almost each scene is a pleasure to watch. The estate is no more the realm of evil; it is now the place of comfort and calmness, and magnificent views of the countryside support this idea. Exterior sequences prevail, and background activity is reduced to minimum. The light is much more naturalistic and cold, but in contrast with the first part it is something the eye desires and it comes as if salvation is close.

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Following that train of thought, it would be inexcusable not to note that extreme close-ups intricately interchange with high overhead shots. Close-ups are generally used to catch psychological moments (like Justine’s face when she was talking about grey wool, or like in a dialogue between Clair and her husband discussing the collision); however, every now and then the people are distanced to show landscapes or to frame planets. These distant, separate, impersonal shots, called “Wagner moments” by von Trier himself (Andrews) can be interpreted as a tribute to the aesthetics of the German Romanticism. The ideal of the latter were the escape from everyday routine and from scientific rationalism to something eternal and everlasting, perfectly embodied in nature illustrated in elevated and grandiose scenes.

Together with the prologue in which the Bruegel painting is burning the second part makes up a circular construction full of mysterious energy bordering on kitsch but nevertheless providing gigantic impression.


Although Lars von Trier has created a film about the end of the world, there is no sense of tragedy and therefore instead of a disaster film it may be approached as a gothic romance. While cosmic shots were mainly technical and people’s interactions were psychological, overall impression created by von Trier and cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro is extremely beautiful and sensitive at the edge of fairy-tale. Intellectual determinism of the author is revealed through the fact that the ideas are rather illustrated than explored. In this way, visual patterns chosen by film creators have turned apocalypse narrative into ingeniously romanticized depression. 

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