thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

“Melancholia”: Depression and Going Big

In Uncategorized on November 15, 2011 at 8:20 pm

Sarah Todd

Birds drifting down from the sky. Small bolts of lightning emerging from a woman’s fingertips. A mother carrying her child across a darkened golf course, sinking further into the green with each step. Wagner, of course.

In Lars von Trier’s stunning new movie “Melancholia,” this is one strangely beautiful way the world could end.

I never would have guessed that I would call any von Trier movie stunning, except in the bludgeoned sense. I hate the way his movies victimize women, the way the camera and director seem to revel in their suffering and assume that audiences will do the same. I hate that his movies suggest everyone is either weak or evil at the core. I hate his films’ violence and coldness. It’s more than disagreeing with his worldview: in the past, his world has not been a place that I recognized.

But I recognized “Melancholia,” as Justine (Kirsten Dunst) recognizes the big, blue planet heading speedily toward earth as part of a truth she’s always known.

“Melancholia” is divided into two parts. In the first, we watch Justine succumb to depression on her wedding day. At the beginning of the movie she’s luminous in her updo and sweeping dress, laughing at the stretch limo that can’t make it uphill to the reception, beaming at her sweet but limited new husband (Alexander Skarsgard, playing amnesia Eric for all intents and purposes). But as her terrifying mother, selfish father, and power-hungry boss reveal their worst selves at the party, Justine’s spirits stumble and flag.

Her sensible, stern sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), trying to salvage the evening and the marriage, reminds Justine that they agreed she wouldn’t make a scene. But you can hardly blame Justine for losing heart when all the people around her seem alternately oblivious and cruel. Meanwhile Justine is a kind of prophet, spotting a strange new light in the sky before anyone else. She can see Melancholia—the planet and the state of mind—coming on.

The second half of the movie, set an undetermined period of time after the wedding, is named after Claire. Truthfully, though, it’s about both sisters and their contrasting responses to the apocalypse. Claire, coming from a place very much rooted in earthly attachments—to her husband and son, to her sister, to wine and music on the terrace—falls apart as Melancholia nears. But as the end of the world approaches, Justine emerges from the depths of a crippling depression. She believes the earth will not survive Melancholia, and she refuses to mourn its passing. Nor is she receptive to comforting thoughts meant to soften the truth. Fixing a trembling Claire with a level gaze, Justine announces: “Life is only on earth. And not for long.”

There is something admirable about the strength Justine gains in the face of the apocalypse. It’s painful, in earlier scenes, to watch her destroyed by depression and dumbstruck by pain. The film acutely captures how clinical depression feels, both for the person experiencing it and for the worried, frustrated loved ones who don’t know how to help. And so it’s a relief to watch Justine come alive again—if only because she knows that life is almost over. In a strikingly beautiful scene, Justine lies naked on the riverbank, bathing in the light of Melancholia. Her depression has prepared her to accept the fate of the earth, and even welcome it. “Life on earth is evil,” she tells Claire. “No one will miss it.”

Between her mother, father, and boss, one can understand why Justine would feel that way. But what of the frayed but loyal Claire and Justine’s sweet nephew Leo? They’re certainly not evil, and although the film seems to side with Justine’s courageous nihilism it also shows the hard-heartedness that accompanies it. Justine refuses to console her panicking sister, whose despair can hardly be faulted, and barely seems to notice when her brother-in-law disappears. It’s only when Leo confesses toward the end of the film that he’s afraid of Melancholia that some measure of compassion is awakened in Justine. For all but the last few minutes of the movie, she can only occupy two points of view. Either she’s miserably trapped within herself or she is above human concerns, and therefore above human connections too.

As glorious as Justine’s steely readiness appears, I know that I’d be more like Claire if the world were about to end: frightened, desperate, trying to prevent the people I loved from slipping away. Claire’s not the movie’s favorite, but she is its human ambassador.

A part of what makes “Melancholia” recognizable to me in ways von Trier’s previous movies haven’t been is that it swaps out the usual destruction of a woman for the destruction of the entire earth. Perhaps oddly, the substitution feels less cruel. Rather than weakening Justine, Melancholia (the movie and the planet) prompts her to become a kind of superhero–one who’s not out to save the world, but let it go.

“Melancholia” is grand on every level, daring to risk the bombastic. I love to see anybody go big, and the terrible, riveting final minutes of the film in particular absolutely sweep the audience away. At the screening I saw, the credits of the movie were greeted with low laughter and scattered claps. I think those reactions weren’t so much about the movie itself as they were about bringing the audience back to earth. We’d just watched everything end, and we needed to make some noise to remind ourselves that we’re still around. For now.

  1. Thanks! I love (and completely agree with) your general impression of Von Trier but I was still wondering/hoping if Melancholia might be as good as it looked. Now I am excited to see it.

  2. Dunst was very good in this role but her character was just a little mopey for my liking. However, von Trier keeps his artistic vision in-tact and although there are moments of boredom, it still all comes together so well in the last 40 minutes. Great review. Check out my review when you get the chance.

  3. This was meant as a reply to the author, Sarah Todd.

    This review was excellent, poignant, and as I said below, “spot on.” Thanks for sharing! After reading it, I will definitely come back again soon!

  4. I have always been a fan of Kirsten’s work. i to suffer with depression, sometimes it can become crippling as it did with her charactor. She portrayed it very well in my opinion. the final moments where extreme to say the least. I was incredibly anxious as the world was about to end hearing the noise getting louder and louder.

  5. […] book is like Melancholia, but less in your face apocalypse and more slow ride apocalypse: take it easy. Julia, the […]

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