Hello, person of the planet Earth.
It’s actually very interesting that I started off this post by talking about planets, since the name of the film is the name of a planet featured in it. I will go ahead and say this now – this post will contain spoilers about the film (obviously). It is one of my all-time favourites so I would definitely recommend seeing this piece of art for yourself, and then, of course, coming back here and finishing reading the post.
Among the many meanings and symbols in Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011), this film is about depression. More or less, Lars von Trier captured his own depression, his own feelings and emotions that he had during that time. What is very interesting to me is how well-portrayed this illness actually is in the film. As someone who has suffered with depression and who knows exactly how it can be, I can say that Melancholia is probably the film that explains it beautifully. From the colour scheme, through the soundtrack, the symbols and the references – every single part of this films contributes to an experience you will never forget.
The film opens with a sequence of slow-motion shots. It feels almost dream-like and, right from the beginning, we can see that the film portrays excellently how depression feels like. We get the feeling of the characters being disconnected of their surroundings, and, at the same time, being kind of dragged into them. It is almost like they try to escape reality, but it freezes almost to steadiness and it gets to them either way.
The intro of Melancholia actually contains the whole plot of the film and it establishes the fact that Earth and Melancholia will collide. This very well responds to the fact that depression is a constant feeling of impending doom and that it is almost a longing for it. It is one of the central themes in the film and I will analyse it as we got more into it.
Lars von Trier makes many references in his film, especially in the opening sequence. One of the most noticeable ones is a shot of the main character, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), floating on water. It is a very straightforward reference to Sir John Everett Millais’s painting Ophelia. The painting depicts Ophelia singing while floating in a river, just before she drowns. The scene is described in Act IV, Scene VII of Hamlet in a speech by Queen Gertrude. Ophelia is probably one of the most famous depressed characters in literature and Lars von Trier clearly made this reference in order to establish that she and Justine have something in common.
The main musical theme of the film is the prelude to the first act from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It is played during the whole length of the intro and many times throughout the film in order for the viewer to make a connection to the opening sequence and to recognize the presence of the planet Melancholia. It is a direct reference to the planet itself and to out main character, as well.
After the opening, act I starts. We see a couple – Justine and her new husband are sat the back of a large limousine, trying to get to the reception from the ceremony. Both of the characters seem happy and inlove, and they seem to be completely inlove with eachother. Eventually, they decide to walk to the reception, which ends up in them being late and Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), scolds her that she is late. As viewers, we do not feel this lateness, because we’ve been observing the world through the bride’s point of view (as we continue to do so for the most part of the film).
The reception is very weird and uncomfortable to watch. We observe it through the perception of Justine, so everything seems distant and quiet. This is the first time we realize that Justine is melancholic and depressed. Throughout the reception, we see the bride and the groom interact with each other, and, with time, they distance themselves from one another, and, as Justine dives more and more into depression, it almost looks like they don’t know each other at all. I would say that this is due to the fact that Justine’s depression has added a new side to her, a side that slowly captivates her whole mind and body. Her husband does not recognize that part of her, probably because he has never experienced depression himself. We see Justine escape the party many times, almost like she’s trying to catch her breath in her own world. Every time she comes back, though, the party is still going on, even without her. This is expressed well by Lars von Trier’s chaotic and disorganised editing – intentionally done in order to make the viewer see how Justine perceives the world – time is stretching, moments are lost, feelings are numb. To me, depression is like being underwater all the time – everything is distorted, slow, everything seems to be coming from afar, it’s dark at the bottom and the surface seems so far away. By leaving her own reception many times, Justine is trying to reach the surface of her underwater world. Not that when she’s alone she’s okay – but at least she does not have to pretend that everything is okay and keep a smile on her face when she’s by herself.
I would say that her acts also project how she looks upon weddings (and life in general) – it’s a meaningless series of acts and rituals, everyone is pretending to be playing by the rules. This is also illustrated by the wedding guests – Justine’s divorced parents, each of whom try (and pretty much fail) to accept each other and not make a scandal during the reception. She desperately tries to look for value and perhaps depression is what she chose. This is because we, as humans, are designed to think that value entails suffering – therefore, Justine chooses the ultimate form of value, which is suffering itself. By being depressed, Justine separates herself from everyone else and gives her own life meaning. For her, pain is the only thing that is real. Her inside world is much more important and meaningful than everything external. She is longing for death and shipwrecks, because pain and sorrow are directly tied to them.
In one of the instances when Justine gets away, we see her in the golf field, lit by moonlight. The way she looks upwards makes me feel almost like she is “married” to the Moon, rather than to her husband. She feels disconnected from everything on Earth and she feels like she doesn’t belong to it – so the Moon becomes the only thing that “understands” her. She later has sex with someone from the reception at the golf course, under the same moonlight, and she’s doing that directly after rejecting her husband’s same intentions on their first wedding night. This also supports my theory that she feels more deeply connected to the Moon than to her own new husband (and her home planet in general). She views herself as the only human who knows true value – everyone else is ignorant and uneducated to her and that is why she’s trying to escape. The Moon represents her inner world and her hope and love for meaning itself – and for suffering.
The end of the reception also ends the first chapter of the film and we move on to the second one. After an unmentioned period of time, Justine moves in with her sister and her family, because she is now at the lowest point of her depression and her sister asks her to stay with her in order to try and help her. One of the reasons that I love this film so much is because it portrays this illness incredibly well. As someone who has suffered from depression myself, I can say that Justine is an excellent example of someone having it. She is tired at all times, she either doesn’t sleep or sleeps a whole day. She is incapable of doing even the simplest of tasks – like taking a cab or having a bath. Her favourite dish “tastes like ashes” and everything seems to have lost its color saturation. Her sister has to make her do everything and help her to do so, because Justine lays in bed all day, incapable to lead a normal everyday life.
Then, she learns about Melancholia – a planet 10 times the size of Earth, which is on the way to collide with Earth. Justine is lifted up instantly and slowly starts crawling out of the bottom of her own self. This is because she finally feels like she is close to home, but also because her longing for death and ultimate destruction are about to be achieved. What could be more devastating and ultimately, more meaningful, than the apocalypse?
Now that Melancholia is approaching more and more, we see how different Claire and Justine actually are. Justine, calmly awaiting the collision of the two planets, strives in the world that she is in. Claire, on the other hand, as someone “normal”, gets more and more paranoid and anxious. The characters get dispositioned – Claire is now the one panicking and shaking, and Justine is finally emerging from the depths of her own mind. In one confrontation between the two sisters, Justine states “The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. […] Nobody will miss it.”. Claire is shaken up and we see her desperately trying to find a solution to the impending doom. She talks about how maybe they can live somewhere else, but Justine contradicts her, saying that life on Earth is the only life in the universe. Claire insists that she couldn’t possibly know that, but Justine firmly replies that she does, an instance, which, once more, proves that Justine feels like she’s superior to other people.
The film ends with a beautiful sequence. Now that the roles are switched, Justine is trying to help Claire come to terms and accept reality, the same as how Claire helped Justine take a bath once. Justine builds a stick fort for herself, her sister and her nephew, and they all hold hands. It’s almost like Justine is trying to help them settle in her world, now that it has arrived. She is welcoming them to destruction, to her soul and her mind.
And, as Melancholia strikes Earth, Justine is finally home.
Until next time,
- Melancholia. (2011). [film] Lars von Trier.
- Parc, Z. Melancholia – by Lars von Trier. [online, website] Melancholiathemovie.com. Available at: http://www.melancholiathemovie.com/.
- FilmGrab. (2016). Melancholia. [online] Available at: https://film-grab.com/2016/01/29/melancholia/ [Uploaded 29 January. 2016].
- YouTube. (2016). Melancholia: Depression on Film. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPkANZ9HGWE&.
- Millais, J. (1851). Ophelia. [Oil on canvas] London: Tate Britain.
- Shakespeare, W. and Jenkins, H. (1982). Act 4, Scene 7, Hamlet. 1st ed. London: Methuen
- Wagner, R. (1865). Tristan and Isolde (Prelude). [Opera] Munich. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fktwPGCR7Yw [Uploaded 13 Apr. 2008].
- Brooks, M. (2016). The End of the World: Understanding Lars von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’ through Louis C.K. and Camus – Ludic Works. [online] Ludic Works. Available at: http://www.ludicworks.com/the-end-of-the-world-understanding-lars-von-triers-melancholia-through-louis-c-k-and-camus/ [Uploaded 8 Jun. 2012].
- Power, N. and White, R. (2012). Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia”: A Discussion « Film Quarterly. [online] Filmquarterly.org. Available at: http://www.filmquarterly.org/2012/01/lars-von-triers-melancholia-a-discussion/ [Uploaded 18 Jan. 2012].