I am puzzled as the newborn child
I am troubled at the tide:
Should I stand amid the breakers?
Should I lie with death my bride?
– From ‘Song to the Siren’, Tim Buckley.
There is a strange claustrophobic density to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) as that mystical silver-blue orb closes in on grassy-oceanic Earth. Situated in a sumptuous, ornate castle with a perfect view of the sea, Melancholia’s otherworldly location underscores one of the key themes of the film: the fairytale gone wrong. Should it be pointed out, this is more Brothers Grimm than Disney.
At the beginning of the film, Kirsten Dunst is pretty and glowing as newlywed, Justine. She smiles sweetly at her new spouse, Michael (Alexander Skaarsgard), giggling and girlish, exuding love and happiness. Quickly things unravel, and the perfect fairytale wedding rapidly disintegrates into a troubling saga. Soon, Justine floats listlessly about her wedding, preferring to take naps in her nephew’s bedroom rather than engage with her guests or cut the wedding cake. As the night proceeds, apathy and exhaustion give way to self-destructive behaviour: instead of spending the night with her new husband, she has sex with a co-worker on the golf course before insulting her loathsome boss and quitting her job.
Indeed, destruction is at the heart of this not-so-fairy-tale. Divided into two parts, Melancholia foregrounds Justine’s plight within the macrocosm: the eponymous, homicidal planet moving ever closer towards Earth. The imminent destruction of the colliding planet metaphorically mirrors Justine’s reckless behaviour. And soon it becomes apparent, that Justine is wrestling with her own bleak and treacherous melancholia too.
Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia 1, 1514, engraving.
Over the duration of the night, Justine spirals out of control; at times she behaves like a spoilt and ungrateful child. Yet, the depiction of Justine’s depression is both completely compelling and terrifically accurate. There’s a haunting precision to Justine’s wandering about the castle grounds and her drifting though the party – her constant desire just to escape the fancy formalities of the wedding. Her utter indifference to the night’s events manifests itself as extreme drowsiness, a constant slipping in and out sleep and tremendous fatigue the following day. Her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and scientist brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland), cannot understand her misbehaviour and similarly, her husband is clueless insofar as the complex inner workings of her mind. Speaking to Claire, a sleepy Justine poetically articulates her plight as:
Gray wool, clinging to my legs, it’s heavy to carry along.
The film’s startling opening sequence showcases this striking visual metaphor for depression with a wedding dress-clad Justine dragging cobweb-like skeins of wool behind her.
Melancholia illustrates the complexity of depression, particularly the emergence of depression in people who supposedly from the outset ‘have it all’. Of course, there is no such thing as having it all and equally, there no one exempt from the debilitating condition. While initially Justine’s life seems relatively perfect – successful career, affluent, newly married with handsome, doting husband, beautiful wedding, a promotion – we soon learn that everything is not as idyllic as it first appears. Her parents (Charlotte Rambling and John Hurt) are highly dysfunctional – her father is a trickster stealing spoons at the wedding reception whilst her mother spews caustic comments: ‘I’ve had enough of your fucking rituals’. Clearly, all is not well in paradise. Justine’s unhappiness is baffling to those around her, but this failure of others to understand, or even notice, her neurotic behaviour is crucial. A depressed state of mind can lead its sufferer to do appalling and selfish things generally out of character. In doing so, depression does not automatically make the sufferer a sympathetic figure in the eyes of others, as Justine aptly illustrates. Yet somehow, this is what makes Melancholia’s depiction of depression so potent and so searingly accurate. Melancholia goes where others don’t, grasping the deep complexities that underlie the illness rather than resorting to a simple or conventional portrayal. In doing so, Melancholia underscores the deep-set confusions and contradictions inherent to the illness: in this case, how from the outside the life of the sufferer may look like a fairy-tale, but inside it is as though everything is rotting and falling apart.
Without spoiling too much, Melancholia, in its second segment, delves even further into the mindset of a depressed person. As apocalypse looms, Justine feels a new profound sense of calm (which is supposedly modelled on the director’s own experiences with depression). Where Claire suffers a panic attack in the wake of impending doom, Justine sheds her clothes and baths her naked body in the silvery glow of the approaching planet. This scene, of sacrificial midnight arcadia, is one of the most striking images, if not the most, in a film filled with stunning, poetic visuals. In relinquishing her body to the deadly planet, Justine succumbs to its treachery and symbolically sheds the suffering of this mortal coil, ultimately making way for her redemption in the final moments of the film.