Since I saw Melancholia at Fantastic Fest 2011, I haven’t been sure how to respond when people ask me if it’s good. It feels inappropriate to summarize it in those terms: the single best word to describe it isn’t “good” or “bad” but “uncomfortable.” It’s a full two hours but feels longer, full of headache-inducing hand-held shots and constantly shifting focus, but the most unsettling thing about it is how blatantly nihilistic it is. Melancholia, the “black bile” of the four medieval humors. In the film, it’s also the name of a planet ten times the size of Earth that has, until now, been blocked from our view by the sun. Soon its orbit will make it visible to earth, but scientists disagree about whether the two planets will pass harmlessly or crash into each other. Melancholia is singular not only because it is a science fiction film about mental illness, but because even while submerging that illness into natural metaphor, it manages to represent it surprisingly well.
The film is divided into “Part 1: Justine” and “Part 2: Claire.” In Part 1, Justine’s (Kirsten Dunst) depression begins to upstage her wedding reception, triggered by the Worst Wedding Toast Ever from her divorcee mother, who sneers at the happily-ever-after marriage fantasy and urges them to “enjoy it while it lasts.” Her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and brother-in-law, John (Keifer Sutherland), who are hosting the reception at their lavish castle of a house, are more concerned about how her behavior affects the success of the party. A lot of the film is conducted in a sort of code that is painful to watch. Characters subject Justine to guilt trips and directives to be happy (“You know how much I’m spending on this? You better be goddamn happy”), they use euphemisms to describe her state, and frame her emotions as voluntary (“You promised you wouldn’t do this”); Justine spends the night detached and numb, unable to do anything but disappear and engage in acts of petulant self-destruction.
Tellingly, two of the shots in the overture (the sequence before the title card, which includes many of the amazing shots included in the trailer) never receive context in the rest of the film; that is, in the world of the film, they don’t actually “happen.” One is the shot of Justine in her wedding dress, trying to walk through the forest, held back by giant gray ropes strung around her legs. Later in the film, she references this image to Claire (“Gray wool, clinging to my legs, it’s heavy to carry along”), but it isn’t shown – it’s only a description of a feeling. The second absent scene also involves Justine in her wedding dress, this time floating on her back down a clear creek, clutching her bouquet (see picture above). If the first shot is meant to portray a feeling and not an actual event, it seems logical that the second one is too. The rest of the overture scenes, however, do happen when Melancholia gets closer to earth, which makes it a) clear that the movie is more about Justine’s feelings than actual events but also b) more confusing: maybe the whole thing happens inside her head. But it doesn’t matter - even if it is all inside her head, it’s still real to her. There’s no rhyme or reason for what happens in Melancholia; there’s no real message except “you’re going to die someday.” Its focus is very narrow: it’s about how it feels to be depressed, not about how to live with it in yourself or someone close to you.
There are a few tropes that come into play when externalizing an internal struggle this way. One is that people with depression or mental illness are somehow more psychically in tune with the grand truths of the natural universe. “I know things,” Justine says. “I know we’re alone. Life on earth is evil. Life is only on earth. And not for long.” She turns out to be right. We also get the Romantic-with-a-capital-R ideal beautiful dead girl. This is made pretty explicit through some (admittedly gorgeous) painterly shots that are clearly references to actual paintings that Justine puts on display in Claire’s library. But I think these elements actually work in service of the film’s purpose, which is not to represent the real-world effects of mental illness on an individual or their loved ones, but to represent how it feels. Claire and her family live an insular, otherworldly life, tiny people running around an absurdly huge house on an artificially constructed golf course out in the middle of nowhere. It’s a strangely apt visual representation of depression: warped, isolated, unreasonable, in its own twisted way lush and comforting. It’s awful, but it’s something to cling to. And in some ways Melancholia really is realistic in its unsparing but judgment-free portrayal of Justine; her depression is never shown as a choice or something for her to “overcome,” but it also doesn’t rob her entirely of agency.
[SPOILERS in this paragraph] In Part 2, Justine returns to Claire’s house in deep depression as Melancholia approaches. It has been hiding behind the sun; her constant fear of something huge but ineffable now has a name and is perceptible to the rest of the world. The only thing that seems to give her energy is seeing and naming the planet; she literally bathes in its light, welcomes it, waits for it with the quiet resolve of someone ready to die, someone who in one way or another has been anticipating death for as long as they have been alive. When Melancholia comes to pass, everyone else gets to feel how Justine feels, just for one day, and they can’t handle it. Terrified, Claire tries, absurdly, to make the end pleasant, then to hide from it; John denies it until it can no longer be denied, then kills himself. Justine waits patiently for it, vindictive, righteous and calm. Melancholia is a movie about depression in which the world ends, which is to say…it’s a depression revenge fantasy. So is it “good”? That depends on how you feel about the end of the world.
Interestingly, another movie, Take Shelter, has come out that uses strikingly similar themes of impending doom and natural phenomena to represent a personal experience of mental illness. Prepare to compare and contrast!
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