I haven’t watched a lot of films by Lars Von Trier. I still haven’t seen his possibly most popular work with Bjork, Dancer in the Dark. But in the few films I have seen by him, I know this: Von Trier isn’t about subtlety. He aims his 2 x 4 straight across the jaw, just to make sure you get it. Yet this film, as opposed to many of his others, had many subtle touches and was a truly human film, filled with human touches. The two main characters don’t represent Woman, but are characters we can recognize and appreciate, as extreme as some of their actions may seem.
This is also possibly Von Trier’s most beautiful film. The first five minutes of surrealistic shots, almost stills, took my breath away. And though the film then moves quickly into narrative, it is still filled with the most gorgeous shots. The lighting of the reception moving outside to the grass, the shot of Kirsten Dunst bathing in the light of the coming planet… all gorgeous. And Wagner’s score from Tristan und Isolde over it all just inhances the beauty. Honestly, if you want me to love a film, make it surrealistic, with an amazing score and throw in beautiful images—yeah, it’ll be one of my favorites.
One of the most surprising things about this film is that though it is all about depression—we get that from the title—yet it is not depressing. It is filled with humor, beauty, and even hope and joy. Sure, it’s about the end of the world, but that doesn’t mean it has to be sad. More about depression in the film in the analysis.
A much more straightforward film than Antichrist, but covers some of the same themes, about depression and nihilism. I think this film might be the key to really “getting” Antichrist, which I will watch again to get the idea of it. If I finally “get it” then I’ll write my findings in a new post.
Overall, Melancholia was a marvelous experience, excellently acted and brilliantly conceived. I cannot recommend it to everyone. If you have had no experience with depression or have never struggled with being overwhelmed by life, perhaps you wouldn’t appreciate it. But for me, it was an amazing experience, and one I want to have again. 5/5
Below is my analysis of the film, including spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend not reading it until after you’ve seen the film.
As I was leaving the theatre after seeing Melancholia, I heard one woman say to her companion, “That was so stupid.” And I could understand why. After all, the film ends with Earth being destroyed and flames engulfing the audience, and finally, complete silence. This isn’t subtle, nor is it an ending where you have to decide whether it is happy or unhappy. Frankly, the film makes it clear: it just is. This is reality. For many people, this is simply silly. They have never experienced the end of their world, nor dealt with the depression in which such an end is inevitable. To end the film in this way is a slap in the face to their sensibilities, a pointless exercise in nihilism.
But part of what the film communicates is that melancholia is a state of mind, an “illness” that cannot be gainsaid. Either you have had this state as an experience or you haven’t. If you haven’t, then such thinking is “stupid”, overdramatic and a rejection of reality. But if melancholia is a part of you, then it is just how reality looks. The end is truly nigh, and our body just is preparing for the inevitable.
What is exactly meant by melancholia? In the ancient world, a melancholic personality is one who has too much of a certain “humor” (or fluid) in the blood. The melancholic personality is introverted and creative, and when one develops too much of the humor that creates such a personality, then such a person becomes isolated, lack energy and depressed. This is an early form of what today we call clinical depression. Technically, clinical depression is usually caused by a lack of serotonin in the brain, which causes one to no longer feel pleasure in everyday experience. This causes lethargy and a lack of energy. Such a lack of serotonin can also cause one to be anxious, inflating little fears to inaction. Depression is sometimes a way of the body indicating that it has had enough stimulation, and that it needs rest. In chronic depression, the body never catches up on the “rest” it needs, and the victim can spend his or her time sleeping, staying away from people and hiding from anything that might cause stress or stimulation.
Von Trier adds one more layer to melancholia that isn’t usually found in ancient medicine or modern psychology: a philosophical side. Attached to lack of energy, introversion, and creativity is a nihilism—a confidence that there is, in reality, no hope for life. All life will end and there is no life or spiritual force that will replace that life when it is gone. It is true that such hopelessness often accompanies depression, but it isn’t a necessary component of it. However, what does accompany such depression is a satisfaction that life will end, because once life is over, then so is the stress and one can finally rest.
Obviously, Justine is the melancholic, the focus of the film—and the representative of Von Trier himself. She has all the indicators of all the layers of melancholia, and Part I lays out exactly what such a condition is. Justine, is in the midst of the “happiest day of her life” and it is clear that everyone expects her to—nay, demands that she— be happy. But happiness is not in her nature, and frankly, such a social event with so much planning and detail is a clear trigger for a depressive event, demanding more energy than a melancholic has. Everyone is disappointed with her, but she has no reserves to meet everyone’s demands.
Finally, she escapes the stress by undermining her entire life. She publicly has sex with a visitor to the wedding, thus ending her short marriage. She deeply and publicly insults her boss, thus ending the promotion he just gave her. The only relationships she retains are those that give her comfort: her father (who runs from her) and her sister. In this way, she ends her own world, allowing the thoughts of the inevitability of such an end have their self-fulfillment. Now she can rest. There are no more demands. Disaster is not something to fear, but it is to be embraced. It is the end which is best met quickly and on one’s own terms.
In Part II, the focus changes. Now it is about the impending disaster of the planet Melancholia coming to destroy the Earth. For the characters, there is some ambiguity as to whether the planet will hit, but for us, who has already been given a preview of the event at the beginning of the film, there is no question, and the horses agree with us—the end is inevitable.
There are four responses to this impending doom. The first is Justine’s. She is not surprised by the end of all life, she not only expected it, but is content with such an end. “The Earth is evil” she says, and so it is worthy that all life be destroyed, to be replaced with nothingness. The funny thing is, that while pressures were being put upon Justine in the first part of the film that she couldn’t deal with, the only truly evil actions in the film are hers (except, perhaps, for John’s selfish end). “Evil” then, must be a personal definition, not a moral one. The Earth is evil to her because she can’t deal with it.
Because of this attitude and approach to crisis, Justine is supremely able to deal with the ultimate crisis. Her whole life has been in preparation for this very moment, in being able to deal with the ultimate disaster. She creates the idea of a “magic cave” which will protect them from the coming disaster. Of course she knows that such a protection doesn’t exist. But she creates it to ease the anxiety of those around her. The cave is much like the isolation that she participated in to shield herself from the end of her life.
I think that this is how Von Trier sees existentialism and probably religion. They are necessary fictions to help the normal human deal with the inevitable, impending disaster. This is not unlike Jean-Paul Sarte’s view of reality: Nihilism is fact, but we cannot live as if there is no hope or meaning to life. Thus we have to create fictions, commitments to life, that we surrender ourselves to completely. It doesn’t delay the inevitable, but it makes life easier to bear in the meantime.
The second response, which is the opposite of Justine’s, is John’s. He is completely optimistic, he is absolutely confident that life will continue on as normal. This crisis is simply a bump in life, one of the normal intrusions to the humdrum world that makes life interesting. He rejoices in the planet, and takes as much pleasure as he can out of it. Eventually, he expresses his real doubts and finally seeks out the truth of the matter. When he discovers that Earth will actually be destroyed by the planet, he finds himself completely unprepared to deal with it, and commits suicide. It is interesting that it is the sanguine John who commits suicide and not the depressive Justine, although in real life it is the depressive that often commits suicide. The point is that when the world ends, it is the optimistic who can’t deal with reality, not the melancholic.
Another response is the horses. (Not Leo. He just follows his father’s response and then Justine’s). They know that disaster is inevitable, and their first response is panic. All they want to do is escape it, run away. Augustine won’t cross the bridge because he knows what is coming there. But after a time, they calm down. There is no point to continue panic. What will happen will happen. In a sense, the horses reaction is the most logical.
Finally, we have Claire. In normal life, Claire is the most practical, the one that holds everything together, the one that smoothes out the rough edges, who maintain relationships, who keeps her head in all of life’s little crises. She is the kind of person who keeps life going. So the possibility of life abruptly ending is the worst possible outcome, and the one thing she just can’t handle. Her response to this, appropriately, is fear. Her husband tells her that she is just anxious, fearing for nothing. However, we find out later, that he simply just couldn’t deal with her fear in light of his need for hope, so he just denied her the logical response.
When it is clear that the end of life is inevitable, Claire’s first response is to perpetuate life. Just to stand on the terrace with her sister and son, to drink wine and make small talk. Justine refuses this, recognizing that when life is ending, such a response is inadequate, and only perpetuates denial, leading possibly to a worse breakdown. Claire finally accepts Justine’s solution of participating in the “magic cave”, but in the end, the false protection means nothing to her and she remains anxious to the end, recognizing that her worst fears have been realized.
The final question I had about the film is the allegory of the planet Melancholia itself. Certainly it represents the end of life. Possibly the end of one’s social life, as what Justine experienced in the first part of the film. Or perhaps it represents a personal end to life—the inevitability of death for us all.
But Melancholia represents more than the object which precipitates an impending disaster. As its name indicates, it is also a representative of depression itself. Certainly it represented the mental state of impending doom for Justine. She refused to undress for her husband on her wedding night, nor did she even undress for the young tool she used to end her marriage with. But for the planet of Melancholia, she completely disrobed and opened herself completely to it. Depression itself was the joy in her life, that which she could completely surrender herself to.
But is the planet a representation of depression to everyone? Is the greatest disaster of everyone’s life in the film not the “end of life as we know it”, but Depression itself? Is John actually denying depression in response to crisis as an option, and when depression comes he commits suicide? Is Claire fearful of her lack of response to life? Is she ultimately fearful of losing control, of no longer having the energy or drive to love, to hope, to smooth things out?
I don’t know that Von Trier intended such a deep metaphor, but it is interesting to think about.