Melancholia – A Stark Fantasy of Depression

Lars von Trier made headlines earlier this year for his Hitler-sympathy gaffe at Cannes, and as a result, that controversy took up the bulk of the conversation. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened had he not spoken out of turn. We might have been more focused on the film he was representing at the Croisette, because truth be told, Melancholia is a devastatingly beautiful film from the famed provocateur.

The film begins with a nearly ten-minute long prologue of wordless images set to Wagner.  This striking tableaux, which resemble shots from his prior film AntiChrist, are profoundly composed, and as we soon find out, part of Justine’s dream.  Some of the images are fears, desires, anxieties, even events foreseen, and we will only understand each image’s meaning at the end of the film.

When the story itself finally gets started, we are at a wedding party for Justine (played with heretofore unseen vulnerability by Kirsten Dunst) hosted by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, AntiChrist).  All seems well at the beginning: Justine is a beautiful, happy bride and in spite of her and the groom’s (Alexander Skarsgard, True Blood) late arrival, the imminent tragedy seems far out of reach.

Before too long, Justine’s smile begins to falter, and she is visibly uncomfortable being the center of attention in a crowd. The party lasts for several hours at least, and we see her take frequent trips through the house, preferring her own solitude to the teeming masses.  Without revealing any spoilers I can say that the evening doesn’t end well.  In fact, this might be the worst wedding party ever.

It is, however, distinct from the second part of the film, which focuses more on Claire’s anxieties.  A planet named Melancholia is careening towards Earth, but her husband consoles her saying that it will simply be a fly-by, a near miss.  He puts his faith in the “scientists” who tell him this, but we fear with her that he is  wrong.  All that we know is that it gets closer and closer.

In many ways this seems to be a companion piece to AntiChrist, but I doubt anyone would have any moral qualms with this one.  Instead of dealing with “true evil” or “nature” portrayed in AntiChrist, this film takes its time dissecting the nature of depression and how we all deal with it in ourselves and/or others. It may be the best treatment of depression in film, too.  It treats depression not as a switch that goes on or off, but a sometimes more, sometimes less, gradual shift in mood, beyond anyone’s ability to ultimately cheer up–but not without hope.

The film also shows how others misconceive of depression. When Justine’s new husband shows her the orchard he purchased for them, he tells her “when you have one of your sad days you can just go out there and it will make you feel happier.” He thinks that “feeling happier” is some consequence of a sentimental action. His gesture is adorable and sweet, and she tries to respond in a manner that reflects the generosity of the offer, but when she leaves the picture in her chair it is no wonder she views the whole situation with a disdainful reserve.

The trajectory of the planet Melancholia is the most powerful image in the film,  and it deserves some treatment here. It is no coincidence that von Trier named his planet and his film after the same thing, and this is hinted at when Claire begins to do research on the planet (the first few things that show up all feature the mental condition).  Her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) insists that it will pass, drawing a connection to his demands that Justine smile at her own wedding.  He believes that the melancholy will pass from his wife and sister-in-law just as easily as the planet will pass by, and then will be gone.  He thinks that this is just something they are going through, a stage.  As the planet approaches and recedes, it is an external manifestation of the feelings Justine keeps internal.  It is a staggering metaphor, and the implications it suggests by the film’s end are just as powerful.

Did I think Melancholia could be this good? Not in my wildest dreams.  It certainly isn’t for everyone, as it is incredibly art-y drawing upon a whole tradition of visual art, as well as the works of Jean Genet, Marcel Proust, and Alain Resnais, but for those who are willing to give it a shot, it is an incredibly rewarding experience.

-Ben Creech

Melancholia is presently available in a limited theatrical release and on OnDemand.

2 responses to “Melancholia – A Stark Fantasy of Depression

  1. 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.

  2. Just watched this, and thought it was brilliant. Lars von Trier is certainly not a filmmaker for everyone (that may be an understatement), but his ability to almost literalize depression as a science fiction concept is nothing short of genius. Having known people who have suffered from depression, I can absolutely sympathize not only with Dunst’s character, but also characters like Alexander Skarsgard’s and Kiefer Sutherland’s. I have no doubt been the person on the outside looking in, trying to desperately to understand and help, but unable to do anything. At the same time, I can only think that the film expertly portrays what they must have been feeling, like the whole world is literally crashing down on them. That feeling of tension as the planet gets closer, heightened by the beginning of the film in which we are shown that it is definitely going to crash into Earth, that sense of dread and sadness we feel seems likened to how feelings of depression are described.

    Von Trier doesn’t get enough credit, and due to a bad joke he made we may never get to hear his insight in a public setting ever again, which is a real shame, but perhaps that will only add to the enigma he has created through his own public actions as well as his films.

    This is undoubtedly a masterpiece.

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