The Devastating Beauty of Melancholia (2011)
I will show you what depression feels like
Picture this scenario: you see a colossal danger approaching, but you cannot escape it. You turn to your loved ones looking for guidance, but they don’t seem to care enough. You are completely helpless and cannot fight for yourself. How would you try to show them what you are going through?
Lars von Trier’s Melancholia premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it proved to be a movie of many faces. Kirsten Dunst received the Best Actress Award for a terrific performance, while the Danish director went home as a persona non grata after some unfortunate jokes about Nazism. Some viewers experienced a superb blend of photography and opera music to portray a complex reality of mental health. Others just witnessed a set of computer-made images crafting a pretentious story. Even at the plot level, the film splits into completely different halves, one covering a wedding, the other depicting the end of the Earth.
Going on a first watch with no information, I found Melancholia to be splendid: the visuals were insightful, and it was interesting to reflect on how different people react to the idea of their imminent death. It wasn’t until I discovered that the movie talked about depression that I realized I had watched something completely different. The film is the second installment in von Trier’s Depression Trilogy, which I already covered in my review of Antichrist. Indeed, once you start connecting the dots between its imagery and mental health issues, the plot turns into a shocking allegory of the inevitability of depression. In this story, I explain why Melancholia is a fantastic take on how overwhelming depression is and how frustrating it can be to communicate it. I also explore how intelligently von Trier crafts a multi-layered story, playing with images, language, and structure to portray his feelings.
Part One: Be happy, it’s your wedding
The film opens with a set of slow-motion shots accompanied by the Prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Though alluring, the images seem unconnected: a sinking horse, a boy with a stick, a woman carrying her son through a golf course. All of them lead up to one final shot of a massive planet, Melancholia, engulfing the Earth and leaving nothing but silence behind. Von Trier’s plot building here is excellent. He could have dismissed this introduction which, though beautiful, reveals the end of the movie: Melancholia crashes into the Earth, and everyone dies. Turns out, the only reason he keeps it is to play with our minds during the first half.
Part One of the movie follows newlyweds Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) on their way to their wedding celebration. Justine’s sister and brother-in-law, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and John (Kiefer Sutherland), have organized a set of activities for the night and seem to care more about their reputation than the couple itself. However, what starts as an innocent celebration of Justine’s life quickly turns into a dark picture of her relationships and mental health.
The night goes on, and we can tell something is wrong with Justine. She looks alienated and excludes herself from most of the activities. Having watched the introduction, the first thing that comes to mind is Melancholia: she must know about the imminent crash. Then, why are the attendees so dismissive of her feelings? They must be aware of the planet too but are enjoying the party more than Justine. Claire and John are furious at her for “making a scene” on her wedding day, and her parents (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) couldn’t care less about her feelings. Even Michael breaks up with Justine, leaving her alone to face her fears. It is at the end of this half when we realize that everyone at the wedding was clueless about Melancholia and that Justine was never worried about the planet crashing: she was going through a depressive episode.
Part One is therefore about the inevitability of Justine’s mood swings: she is incapable of avoiding them regardless of how many times John and Claire shame her for her unhappiness. The characters’ extreme apathy towards her may seem exaggerated, but this perception stems from Justine feeling misunderstood and helpless.
Part Two: This is how I feel
The second half of the film follows Claire and her efforts to understand Justine, who is in the worst stage of her depression: she can barely walk or eat without crying. We are also introduced to Melancholia, a recently discovered planet rapidly approaching the Earth. Claire is anxious upon its arrival, spending nights searching for information on whether the planet will collide or pass by. John, however, is dismissive of her concerns, prompting her to trust the scientists claiming they are not in danger. His attitude resembles that towards Justine to the point he gets as frustrated with his wife’s concerns as he did during Justine’s wedding.
As Melancholia gets closer, Justine starts feeling active and at peace. Indeed, the planet serves as the perfect allegory for her depressive episodes: it’s massive and inevitable, and she knows it will end all life on Earth, regardless of what John has to say about it. Justine worships Melancholia because nobody will escape it, just as she cannot escape her unhappiness.
If you ask me, she is longing for shipwrecks and sudden death, as Tom Kristensen wrote. And she gets it, too. In a way, she succeeds in pulling this planet from behind the sun and she surrenders to it.
Lars von Trier for Nils Thorsen.
The final moments of the movie reveal what we already saw in the prologue: John was wrong, Melancholia is indeed crashing, and everybody will die. John immediately gives up while Claire desperately looks for salvation in what looks like a pathetic tantrum. Justine, however, calmly waits for the inevitable to happen: Claire can run as far as she wants, but there is no escape from this apocalypse (or mental breakdown).
Claire is aghast at what death (or depression) will feel like when Melancholia strikes. Justine, however, has finally found a way for her loved ones to empathize with her. The film ends with Justine leading Claire and Leo (Cameron Spurr), her son, to a final depressive episode, one that everyone will have to experience.
Perfection in the details
Melancholia is not the only metaphor in the film, and most of the imagery gives clues on how the story was always about Justine’s mental health. For instance, in the introduction, there’s a shot of Justine being dragged by fabrics, a feeling she confesses to Claire during her wedding. Claire is later shown sinking into the ground right before Melancholia strikes. At the beginning of Part Two, Justine is incapable of crossing a bridge with her horse, symbolizing her inability to overcome her depressive episodes. Similarly, at the end of the movie, Claire’s escape ends at that bridge.
The character writing is also fantastic. Take John: his sole existence relies on him feeling superior to others, so he prefers to kill himself before his ignorance does. He also loves to show off his 18-hole golf course: jokes on him, Claire walks by the nineteenth hole at the end of the film, showcasing how clueless he always was.
Justine might not be the only character struggling with mental health. Claire’s behavior resembles anxiety or even OCD, which would explain her constant need to be in control of the situation, from the wedding to her death. She even proposes Justine an action plan while they are waiting for Melancholia. Perhaps, Claire also felt incapable of helping her sister, and John’s persistent pessimism contributed to her anxiety.
Depictions of mental health on film and television are often inaccurate, if not disappointing or insulting. I think von Trier’s perception of depression was a terrific representation of how devastating and complex these issues are. He and Dunst tackle mental health with extreme care, probably because both of them have experienced depression and are familiar with the realities behind it. At the same time, Melancholia is likely one of the most stunning movies I have ever seen in terms of photography and the use of motives and metaphors. To me, von Trier should have won the Palme d’Or in 2011, but what this movie achieves goes beyond any possible award.