Note: This post is part of my on-going “hauntology project” series. You can find all posts in this series using the category “hauntology.”
Melancholia is a difficult movie…no…a brutal movie to get through. It is a punishing two hours and fifteen minutes in which all the moments of rest and humor come in the first thirty minutes. And this includes the eight-minute montage of slowly moving, beautifully rendered, pseudo living paintings that culminates with the end of the world, all of which is set to the strains of Richard Wagner’s Prelude from Tristan und Isolde. It is a hard movie to watch, and is even harder to recommend.
I guess the upside, if there is an upside, is that if you can’t get through the entire film, at least you know the ending: the world ends. But how the film gets there—how it slowly builds as all mirth and joy leaves its world, and the viewer and characters are stuck in a claustrophobic, opulent country castle as the world grapples with apocalyptic happenings (and yet, you see nothing of that outside world on-screen)—is masterful to watch. It just isn’t enjoyable to view.
The focus of Lars von Trier’s camera and script are the sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and their respective mental states, their depression and reactions to the slowly approaching apocalypse. This is because Melancholia is less a film about the end of the world and more a study in mental health and how crushing, all encompassing, and apocalyptic depression can be. The end of the world is both a metaphor for depression and also a catalyst for Justine’s slide into depression. As such, the name of the film, also the name for the rouge planet that destroys earth, may be a bit on the nose but is no less apt.
* * *
Melancholia hit American theatres in November of 2011 and was the third, and most overt, apocalyptic film that I saw that year after The Tree of Life and Another Earth. The weekend of its release I was in San Francisco, California, at the annual American Musicological Society conference. It was a long weekend, made even longer by the meetings I had to go to as the graduate student representative of the Rocky Mountain Chapter—a post my advisor had volunteered me for and to which I was elected to without my knowledge. (This is what happens when you don’t go to meetings!)
I am not sure how the film had come to my attention. Maybe I had heard something about it from its Cannes premier and the ensuing controversy surrounding von Trier’s comments after the film’s screening. Or maybe I had stumbled onto a trailer somewhere. Regardless, I had learned of the film and was curious enough to seek out a screening while in California and was happy to see that there was an indie movie theatre perfectly positioned between my hotel and the conference hotel. So I made a plan of catching a screening on the final day of the conference on my way back to my hotel, and hoped to have a relaxing final evening in San Francisco before flying back to Colorado the next day.
Nothing prepared me for the movie I saw. Stunning, beautiful, and absolutely punishing to watch, and the lugubrious strains of Wagner its only musical score. I even bought the score album (just seven tracks of the various excerpts and pieced together bits of Tristan that they used in the film) and listened to it as I waited for my shuttle to take me to the airport.
Much like the film’s title, the use of Wagner is also a bit heavy handed yet no less effective: the hanging resolution of the famous “Tristan chord,” the slow build-up of tension, the prelude’s ratcheting up of pressure until its almost orgasmic release. It was a masterful choice of accompaniment.
All that being said, though, I don’t think I ever want to watch the film again. Ever.
* * *
For those who have never seen Melancholia or who need a refresher, let me briefly go over the major story beats.
After the eight-minute Wagnerian opening, a title card announces the beginning of “Part One: Justine.” The film is structured in two large sections, each about an hour long. Part one takes place on the evening of Justine’s wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), a co-worker at Justine’s PR/Advertising firm. They are incredibly late for the reception because their limo cannot navigate the winding road up to the hotel/golf course where it is being held. A posh castle that is owned by her brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland).
The comedy of trying to navigate the limo gives way to traditional wedding reception antics: embarrassing speeches by family members (especially Justine and Claire’s estranged mother Gaby, played by Charlotte Rampling), hilarity of stressed out wedding planners, and the problem of Justine’s father Dexter (John Hurt) being surrounded by too many women named “Betty” at his table. But there is a creeping dread to Justine. She is slowly disconnecting from the party and at first you want to attribute it to normal wedding day stress, but it becomes apparent that it is more than that. She is pushing away her new husband, hiding from the guests—which includes new co-worker Tim who her boss, and Michael’s best man, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård, Alexander’s real life father), has tasked with getting the tag line for a new campaign out of her.
Essentially, everyone at the party is pretty much awful. John keeps reminding Justine how much the reception is costing him, Claire does nothing but hound her all night, Jack only seems interested in making her work on her wedding night, and Gaby made it quite clear that she does not approve of marriage as an institution. Even the wedding planner has essentially shunned Justine by the end of the evening for ruining his schedule. Indeed, the only person at the party who seems remotely human is Dexter.
By the end, Justine has slipped so far into a depression that she has quit her job, quit her marriage, and even had sex with Tim on the golf course after she failed to have consummate the marriage with her husband.
And things only get worse in “Part Two: Claire.”
Set some time later, Justine has slipped further into her “melancholia” and is almost unable to get out of bed. She barely makes it to the hotel after Claire sends a cab for her. The castle is eerily empty except for Claire, John, and their son Leo, probably due to the rouge planet Melancholia that is slowly moving towards Earth. John, ever the rational man, claims it will pass by safely and stakes his claim on the scientists—though he is carefully prepping for something more disastrous occurring. Claire, however, is certain it will hit and spends time secretly looking up crackpot web sites that detail Earth’s impending doom.
Justine, meanwhile, starts out part two as a completely broken person, but slowly regains her strength and seemingly comes out of her depression as Claire gives into anxiety and despair. Claire completely gives up after Melancholia passes by only to then be pulled back towards Earth, unable to escape the gravitational pull of our planet after similar flybys of Mercury and Venus.
Upon realizing that the end is nigh, rational John commits suicide, leaving behind his family to face the end by themselves. Claire proposes a plan of enjoying a glass of wine on the terrace while the Earth falls apart around them, but Justine, attempting to comfort the young Leo, instead builds a “magic cave” and they all huddle insides as the Earth explodes and Wagner, along with the low rumble of Melancholia, builds to a crushing climax and the movie ends.
* * *
To describe Melancholia as a roller coaster of emotions would not be entirely accurate. Similarly, uneven does not really get to it. The film starts with its funniest parts and then, at first very slowly but with increasing speed, slides into a state of crushing depression that never lets up. Even when Justine is seemingly recovering, Claire is picking up the emotional slack. In many ways, one of the images from the opening perfectly encapsulate the feeling of depression that the film evokes: Justine in her wedding dress, tangled in vines, struggling to move forward.
I have only recently been diagnosed with social anxiety and some depression brought about by it. It is not as all encompassing as Justine’s condition, but I have had moments where I know exactly what Justine is feeling as she struggles against those vines. It took me a long time, and some very dark moments, to finally seek out a diagnosis and treatment. It partially took so long because I was truly scared to. Scared that either the problem is worse than I imagined or that my “issues” are actually nothing more than me making something out of nothing. I know, both of these reasons were irrational but since when was the brain ever rational? In the end, seeking help was the best choice I have ever made.
However, back in 2011, I was not really prepared for what this film represented and discussed when I walked into the theatre on that Sunday, and, in all honesty, I was probably more than a little naive about myself back then as well. I was probably more struck by the haunting images—the slow-motion, high contrast painting like images that make up the opening montage—in the film than by any sort of introspection. I was probably even less aware of how Melancholia, the planet, was a metaphor for Justine’s own mental state, though it was clear that her emotions were somehow tied to it.
Melancholia is a study of depression and how one may react at the end of the world. There is a sense of doom over the entire film, even before Melancholia is made manifest. Maybe it is because von Trier tells you the world will end up front, and maybe it is because Justine knew all along what was going to happen and that is exactly what causes her to spiral into her melancholia.
* * *
What if the sense of doom some feel during a depressive episode is entirely justified? What if all of our negative thought patterns, our fantasies of all that could go wrong, or our darkest prophecies actually came to pass?
One of the things I missed when I saw Melancholia in 2011 was a small moment towards the end, when Justine has seemingly returned to her old self, albeit much darker. “The earth is evil,” she says, “We don’t need to grieve for it….Nobody will miss it.” “[There] maybe life somewhere else,” Claire retorts. “But there isn’t,” Justine says, certain of it. She knows that there is no life elsewhere in the universe, that humanity is an aberration and that the rest of existence is a cold and uncaring place. Justine knows things, and it seems to have been a theme throughout her life. And in this, she is certain: “…when I say we’re alone, we’re alone. Life is only on earth, and not for long.”
Upon my second viewing, it occurred to me that the reason for the entire first part is not to contrast the happy wedding with Justine’s descent into a depressive episode, though that certainly is a reason, but rather to show the moment when Justine realizes that the wedding, and everything, is a futile exercise because there is literally no future for her marriage. That Justine knew what was going to happen to Earth. She knew about Melancholia.
Shortly after reaching the castle and reception, Justine looks up at the sky and sees a red star, identified as Antares by John, and later that night it has disappeared and the viewer is left to assume after-the-fact that it is because Melancholia has moved in front of it.
Seen through the lens of hindsight, and the fact that Justine “knows things,” it could be that this was her moment of insight because it was only after this that the audience begins to see her emotions turn toward the dark and melancholic. However, there are also hints that this was not the first time Justine’s emotions had collapsed into depression. Many times throughout the wedding reception, Claire, John, and Michael seem to indicate that Justine has a history of depression. She even says to Michael, after they essentially declare their marriage a failure, “what did you expect?”
As a portrayal of how an individual would react to the end of the world, Melacholia is an intensely intimate film. As a portrait of depression and musing on mental health, it is devastating film for anyone who knows or has experienced negative thought spirals in which you endlessly have conversations in your head in which you convince yourself of your own lack of worth. Justine never externalizes her thoughts, but the restless walking, her physical gestures acting like wordless screams, her failed attempts to force a happy face, and her family and friend’s inability to understand, are familiar to many, including myself.
For Justine, there is no future, which is part of what eventually leads her to the increasing sense of calm as Melancholia’s dance of death reaches its Wagnerian climax. Justine knows the future and the pointlessness of raging against the dying of humanity’s light. In this way, it is sort of a darker side of Arrival and its temporal games. Albeit without a clever device like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis nor any explicit statement of the protagonist actually knowing the future.
So, what do you do when the end is inevitable? And what is the meaning of existence when a “rogue planet” wipes out the only sentient life in the entire universe? As a movie in Lars von Trier’s so-called “Depression Trilogy,” Melancholia is a meditation on the pointlessness of human existence. As much as Contact wants us to know and feel like we are not alone and that meaningful connection with others are the only thing that makes the crushing emptiness of space bearable, Melancholia says, to quote Justine’s summation of Claire’s end of the world party on the terrace plan, “I think [that idea is] a piece of shit.”
* * *
I went into Melancholia probably because it seemed like an interesting piece of science fiction, however it would only qualify as such under the loosest of definitions. However, like much sci-fi, it does pose interesting questions. But, even though it does ask important questions, and, more importantly, presents a devastating yet illuminating portrayal of depression that might help some either seek help or better understand and support friends suffering through it, I am not sure I would ever recommend the film to anybody.
When I use the words “brutal” and “punishing” to describe my reaction to watching it, I am not exaggerating. The film is very quiet and slow, which is usually not a problem for me. However, the film’s slow descent into depression—the frustration that seeps out of Justine’s family, their exasperation and seeming inability to show her an ounce of compassion, not to mention the viewer’s own exhaustion with everyone on-screen, and the angst caused by the Damoclean sword of Melancholia that looms over the entire second part—makes the film emotionally taxing to sit through.
I am not sure if this is indicative of von Trier’s wider filmography as it is the only one of his films that I have ever seen, and my experience with Melancholia, for as beautiful looking and haunting as it is, does not make we want to explore the rest of his catalog. Indeed, despite having bought the film on blu-ray when it was released, this was the first time I pulled the disc off the shelf to watch it. And as I did so, there was a part of me that dreaded pressing play knowing what I was in for.
Much like Justine’s wedding reception, the day I watched this film for the first time since 2011 was a bit of an emotionally uneven day which sank lower and lower as I watched Melancholia. It began with me starting to watch a fun anime romp called Food Wars while also embarking on my culinary adventure of making homemade, from scratch, pizza. However, like Justine glimpsing Antares, the death of Jóhann Jóhannsson, composer of the music for Arrival, should have been an indication for what was to come. The effect that watching Melancholia would have on me. There was more than a little hesitation to actually watching the movie. I tried to rationalize putting it off and instead watching more Food Wars, I even briefly tried to talk myself into dropping it from this project entirely. Such was my abject aversion to subjecting myself to Melancholia’s meditation on depression and the end of all things.
I can say with almost completely certainty that I will never watch Melancholia again, and I will never recommend it to anyone. However, I do recognize it as a truly masterful work of art, and a meaningful one that tackles a difficult topic. But it is absolutely the most difficult film I have ever watched (even more so than Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 Italian neo-realist classic Umberto D), and not even almost seven years between viewings made it any easier or any less haunted. If anything, it has grown even more ghostly as I have grown to understand myself, my emotions and psychology, even more. And while I have never suffered from the acute depression that Justine experiences, I can relate to her feelings of despair and belief in the lack of a future.
I wonder, though, if there is a way of viewing this film in a slightly less depressing light. What if the entire film takes place in Justine’s mind at the moment she sees Antares. That, in that singular moment and because of Justine’s depression and inner-narrative, she projects out everything that would happen if it wasn’t just Antares and she imagines a rogue planet on a collision course with Earth? Does that make the film more hopeful? Hopeful in that humanity survives and Justine is able to pull herself back from the brink after running through her inner narrative. Or maybe it is even bleaker because Justine, on what should be her happiest day, is unable to be happy. There is no future for her or her marriage, just as she was projecting forward the end of humanity. And if that is not an apt description of depression then I do not know what is.