Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsborough and Kiefer Sutherland
Written and Directed by Lars von Trier
Lars von Trier is one of those directors with a distinct, uncompromising vision. You get the feeling when you see one of his movies that every shot is exactly the way he wanted it to look, and every word is what he wanted you to hear. He is a director with an intimate knowledge of storytelling through movies, and every film he makes is essentially a direct communication from the artist to his audience. He aims to be obtuse, as clearly as possible.
This makes a lot of his movies simultaneously fascinating and impossible. I think critics love him because he uses movies to push people, to confront them with ideas about the world that make them uncomfortable. It’s rare that someone can pull a fast one on audience these days; we love to pick things apart, and love or hate it we typically know exactly what a director is trying to do. With von Trier, even though you can guess the through-line of any movie he leaves big enough gaps that make you question what he means by certain things.
With Melancholia, the entire opening sequence presents itself as a puzzle of surrealist images that you’re not quite sure about even after the movie is over. What’s the deal with the 19th hole? Why do we see the same characters in vastly different places, doing wildly different things? How far does the metaphor go — all the way to the immense blue planet that’s causing birds to drop from the sky, two shadows to fall on the ground, electricity to rise into the air? How much of this stuff matters to understanding the rest of the movie? Even after stewing on it a few days, it’s hard to tell.
As near as I can figure, though, Melancholia is a movie about two different sisters dealing with two different disasters. In the first part, Justine (Dunst) looks to be a happy newlywed with an incredibly blessed life. She just married Eric Northman from True Blood, she was promoted to Art Director at the advertising firm she works in, and her wedding reception is an incredibly high-end affair at her brother-in-law’s (Sutherland) golf course and resort.
As the night goes on, however, things are systematically deconstructed to reveal the horrible truth underneath. Justine suffers from crippling depression that makes her unable to function with those closest to her on what should be her happiest day. Her boss is a controlling tyrant who hires his nephew on the condition that he hounds Justine for the tagline of a new campaign throughout the night. If he doesn’t get it, he’s fired. Her brother-in-law doesn’t think much of Justine or her squabbling, eccentric parents — he’s only interested in making sure she knows how much money he’s spent on this affair and how ridiculous she’s being.
And to be fair, Justine is fairly ridiculous. She frequently slips away from the reception at inopportune moments to be alone, making the tightly-scheduled affair run off track. Her harried sister and doting husband do everything they can think of to make her happy, and she gives them only the mask of gratitude in return. She pisses on her brother-in-law’s golf course and cheats on her husband with the assistant hired specifically to harass her. By the time the sun rises on the uncomfortably dark night, she’s ruined everything that’s been given to her — her job, her fledgling marriage, her relationship with her family. Justine is one of the most unlikable main characters I’ve seen in a long time, but I can’t help but feel a deep sympathy for her.
Why? Because I identify with that level of depression. When you’re in a hole that deep, you go a little crazy — even if you realize what you’re doing you feel unable to stop yourself. Your sense of perspective breaks down, and you stop thinking about long-term consequences, or how other people might feel. The only thing that matters is easing the pain as much as possible so you can make it to the next moment. It doesn’t matter how destructive an act you’re perpetrating; if it eases your suffering, then it’s fair game. In some ways, it’s better if what you do makes a mess of things. Crazy, broken people don’t deserve nice things and the pressures that come with them. In some ways, having nothing means being burdened by nothing, and laying down your burdens is the only thing worth doing in a deep depression.
In the second part, Claire is preparing for the arrival of Justine at the bottom of her spiral and the rogue planet Melancholia, also reaching the end of its journey. According to the scientists, the planet should fly by Earth in a few days, stealing some of its atmosphere but doing no lasting harm. Claire’s husband John is annoyed by her fears about Melancholia and Justine’s melancholy, and he spends most of the time being curt with both of them. Of course, it turns out that the planet is going to hit Earth after all, and Justine, Claire and John must deal with the reality that the world will end.
Here is the tragedy of the movie. John responds in the most despicable and cowardly way possible, and his reaction is hardly worth mentioning here. I can definitely sympathize with his impulse — his actions inspired a fairly long conversation between Ryan and I — but the way he does it makes it one of the most selfish things I’ve ever seen. It leaves Claire completely alone to face the horror of what’s coming, along with her young son.
Justine responds to the news with a calm, fatalistic detachment. Claire must deal with what’s happening completely alone, while struggling with how to handle the news with her son. Justine is of no help; when Claire asks that they do something “nice” for the end to distract themselves away from it, her sister mocks her and calls her plan a “piece of shit”.
With the end coming, we see Justine and Claire grow increasingly isolated. Justine has retreated away from the world and into her depression a long time ago; the absolute end of everything just represents the ultimate laying down of her burdens. Claire can’t reach out to anyone, and with no outlet for her pain and bewilderment she simply falls apart. It’s an awful thing to watch, but it also illustrates the true price of depression.
I don’t mean to say that depressed people suck and inconvenience the lives of the people around them. That would be a horrible thing to say and simply add to the feeling of unbearable burden that depressed people must carry with them. But I do think that depression is a condition that takes you away from the world and puts you in a hell of your own making. At its worst, it forces you to withdraw inward so deeply that your view of the world is incredibly warped. Everything loops back to the pain you feel, and you begin to grow so sensitive to it that you shut down to avoid it.
It’s an awful feeling. During a scene where Claire has to physically drag Justine into the bathroom to wash her, my heart broke for both of them. I can empathize with what Justine is going through in that moment; just the motion of taking a step or lifting your leg might cause something to break within you that you just can’t handle. But I also feel terrible for Claire; she’s devoting so much time and energy to a person who is incapable of appreciating it, or of helping herself. It’s a thankless and difficult job, and no one recognizes the work she’s doing or the sacrifices she’s made.
By the end of the movie, Justine, Claire and her son on a hill as the planet approaches. They hold hands as the sky is filled with intense blue light and the wind begins to roar around them. But the final image is something that I’ll never forget — Justine, serene in her withdrawal, closes her eyes and accepts her fate. She’s completely oblivious to her sister’s suffering; Claire is rocking back and forth, her eyes squeezed shut and her hands over her ears when the blast wave hits. She had to bear the terror of her last moments alone, even though she was surrounded by family.
Even though Justine is presumably the main character, I feel like the movie is really Claire’s. And my reaction to the movie is entirely personal, drawn by my own experiences. I think back to all of the people who’ve tried to drag me from my worst depressions, the people who sacrificed time and effort to bring me up. I think about all of the people that I’ve disappointed, hurt and abandoned because my depression had made me too self-focused to see what I was doing. All of them become Claire, wild with need and suffering, closing their eyes in pure terror. It’s a terrible thing to know that there are so many people who love so freely and are ignored and unappreciated.
I know I’m not Justine, but I’ve been Justine. And Melancholia paints an uncompromising portrait of what depression looks like to other people, what it does to the people who suffer it and the people around them. It makes me feel a deep sympathy for everyone stuck in that situation. And it makes me glad that it’s over.