“Melancholia” is an unnerving, honest look at depression (4/5)


Melancholia is a film that is metaphorically transparent. Everything that we need to know about it is fully emblazoned in the title. The blue planet that finds itself on a collision course with Earth (guess the name of the planet!), more or less represents that unsuspecting power of depression. It comes out of nowhere and there is nothing we can do about it. Despite the film’s sci-fi premise and lack of interest in understanding how a planet can hide behind the sun, it’s undoubtedly about the strength and isolation that comes with depression. Considering how graphic and unscrupulous his last film was (the over the top Anti-Christ), Lars von Trier has constructed a film that feels more along the lines of a traditional film. Oddly enough, it’s a more intimate venture for him as well.

Boasting alluring images and a gothic color palette, Melancholia makes it a priority to place us in a perpetual state of mental isolation. This is clear once the film opens up on a section titled “Justine”, where a level of listlessness is found. We are introduced to Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a blushing bride making her way to her wedding reception. Happiness is clearly pressed against her face. She has a dashing husband; profitable job and a wedding reception that would make the royal family feel meek in comparison. It’s a dream life that would surely usher in waves of happiness and glory. But throughout this joyous event, one that has been delicately crafted by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine is removed from the event altogether. Often disappearing at the wrong time and delaying the reception, Justine’s fleeting behaviors are seen as the acts of a petulant child. A woman who is already an island now finds herself floating adrift, even further away from civilization. In a matter of a few hours, Justine’s newly christened marriage dissolves and all of her relationships with her family members are taken off life support. The troll known as depression has been sufficiently fed.

From there we go to a segment titled “Claire” which follows the distraught mindset of Justine’s sister of the same name. Claire is a bit frazzled to say the least. With the planet Melancholia making its way towards Earth, Claire fears the worst: death is imminent. Making Claire’s fear compound, despite her astronomy enthusiast husband’s evidence, is the arrival of a now catatonic Justine. Claire’s attempts to reinvigorate Justine with home cooking and other condescending tools send Justine further into mental despair. The funny thing is that as time passes and the planet of Melancholia looms closer, Claire begins to lose her wits while Justine actually begins to slip out of her depression. In the end, it doesn’t matter if the planet ends up crashing into Earth. As a matter of fact, we know the planet crashes into Earth within the first few minutes of the film. What matters is the dissolution of Claire’s mental stability and the growing assurance of Justine’s.  Lars von Trier does a terrific job of heightening the differential paranoia in the leads and the growing insecurity in the audience by crafting moments of quiet terror. From horses moving restlessly about to a nude Justine bathing in the light emanating from Melancholia, von Trier continuously perpetuates the anxiety and askew nature that resides in everyone’s mind. Even more impressive is that von Trier does this all with small bits of rage, which is a difference from Anti-Christ, a film that started out on a quiet note, but reached a ridiculous level of silliness through over the top gore.

The paranoia is exemplified by the performance of Kirsten Dunst, who undoubtedly gives the performance of her career. Vulnerable, bitter, and engaging, she’s yet another actress that von Trier has molded into an impressive specimen. Dunst’s ability to dive into the ever-growing sadness of her character sends a wave of depression through the viewer. It doesn’t make for a comfortable viewing, but it’s a sure sign of an actress who is fully dedicated to the material. Outside of Dunst’s acting, as well as the fine performance from Charlotte Gainsbourg, the most gratifying aspect of Melancholia is its deft understanding of depression. More specifically, it’s the sudden and undeterminable appearance of the crippling mental illness. After having battled depression over the last few years, it’s clear that von Trier has exploited his sickness with fervor and intelligence. Leaving no stone unturned, von Trier beautifully displays both the intrinsic and extrinsic downfalls of such an affliction. The extrinsic idea is the most damning as the characters around Justine lack the understanding to help her through the trenches, a notion that finds its way into our reality. Oddly enough, and contrary to the dark and controversial words the slip off his devilish tongue, von Trier has made a film that is weirdly like a public service announcement that offers those who suffer from depression a comforting hand. One wouldn’t expect von Trier to be a beacon of light, but he gives us an opportunity to walk through the maze known as depression and in that, we get a bit closer to those who have no choice but to feel distant.

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4 thoughts on ““Melancholia” is an unnerving, honest look at depression (4/5)

  1. That is an interesting review, but hardly encompasses the breadth and the depth of this movie. I saw someone say it was a woman’s movie. It may have been written from a woman’s perspective (as there wasn’t a man with a set of balls in the entire movie), but the idea it was about her, or her depression is a very small part of this. The depression is a result of the imminent disaster she senses. Because, as she said, “I know things.”

    The movie attempted to show the absolute molecular connection of a woman to the earth, and to it’s demise. It means to show we live in a state of relative peace compared to the possibilities of destruction. It tries to show us that we are small but infinite, and inconsequential yet paramount to the universe we live in. Sorry, your writing is stellar, but you have an immature perception as a receiving mechanism.

    • First off, thanks for reading and commenting. I’m always interested to see how others perceive or react to a film. Melancholia is one film that I especially wanted to see how people viewed. Undoubtedly, Melancholia is a film that can be looked at from various perspectives. This holds true when one considers the playful deception that von Trier loves to utilize. I agree that one can unearth the notion that it’s written from a women’s perspective. In reality this can be said for most of von Trier’s films. As for the woman’s connection to Earth, well, despite it being an interesting thought, it’s not anything that overshadows the running theme of depression.

      I truly don’t think there is information within the film that would constitute a female’s “molecular connection to the Earth” being more significant than the sudden and abrasive acts of depression. Would I entirely rule it out? No, simply because I’m not in von Trier’s head. With that being said, asserting that the role of depression is small would make us no different than the ignorant family members (especially the males) who thought Justine would move past her emotional eclipse with a warm bath and a slice of homemade meatloaf.

      I do agree with the sentiment that we, and our rituals, are inconsequential yet paramount to the universe we live. Melancholia and von Trier aptly handled this idea with Claire being overly invested in Justine’s wedding and with Justine debasing Claire’s need for ritualistic comfort in the end.

    • Thanks for reading and giving your kind words! It is an interesting drama enveloped with a sci-fi veil. Definitely one of Lars von Triers’ best films. I hope you like it!

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