On A Collision Course with Depression: Unpacking von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA
22 January 2012
Melancholia, the latest film from Danish director Lars von Trier, is an apocalyptic drama told in two parts: Part I: Justine and Part II: Claire. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are sisters, and, although each part focuses on the two women respectively, each woman plays a vital role in her sister’s section of the film. In Part I, von Trier captures Justine’s descent into a bout of deep depression during her all-night wedding reception. In Part II, which takes place shortly after Part I (although he audience is never told exactly how long after), von Trier follows Claire’s anxiety and panic as the rouge planet, Melancholia, which was “hiding” behind the sun, changes course and makes its way toward Earth. By the film’s conclusion, Claire’s worst fears become reality; Melancholia collides with and destroys Earth a ball of fire.
In many ways, Melancholia is a quintessential Lars von Trier film. First, as in so much of his filmography, von Trier presents a female protagonist(s). Justine and Claire, like the women in almost all von Trier’s films, are struggling females living within a flawed system or society. Subsequently, the flaws within the system and society lead to the undoing of the protagonists. Justine and Claire are unique women, yet there are echoes of Grace (Nicole Kidman) from Dogville, Bess from Breaking the Waves (Emily Watson), and Selma (Bjork) from Dancer in the Dark in them (to name female characters from some von Trier films of the last 15 years).
In addition to the female protagonist, the camerawork in Melancholia is also quintessential von Trier. The director almost always uses the handheld camera technique; therefore, the film, ideally, has a greater affect in its audience. With the handheld technique the camera moves around in the middle of the action, giving the audience a greater sense of realism. Moreover, the constant movement of the camera and the way it causes images to rapidly come in and out of focus can make the audience a bit motion sick. The camera is intentionally unstable in Melancholia, which can be a difficult von Trier signature for viewers.
Yet, while there are classic von Trier stamps on Melancholia, there is something new in von Trier’s cinematic approach with this film. Typically, von Trier emphasizes realism in his films’ visual presence; Melancholia is a complete change. Inspired by German Romanticism, Melancholia’s aesthetic is sensationalized and reminiscent of the beautiful paintings and artwork of the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, during the overture the images, which are moving in extreme slow motion, seem like portraits from the German Romantic movement. Due to this remarkable shift in aesthetic, Melancholia serves as a foil for Dogville, an earlier von Trier film, filmed in a black box theatre with no set and minimal props. The German Romantic movement inspires a completely new feel and design to von Trier’s film that he has not explored before, marking an expansion in von Trier’s style.
Nevertheless, in content, Melancholia aligns with von Trier’s personal experience. As an individual who struggles with depression, von Trier courageously confronts his own demons in Melancholia, which allows him to explore this subject matter with authenticity and accuracy. The film is about depression, yet that word is never mentioned. Clearly, Justine suffers from severe depression, which, at one time, would have been diagnosed as melancholia.
In Part I: Justine, Justine’s efforts to “be happy” at her wedding reception unavoidably deteriorate as her behavior becomes odder and increasingly dejected. As an audience member, it is not difficult to understand that Justine suffers from severe depression and she slipping into a dangerously deep bout right in front of our eyes; the severity of her suffering is almost immediately evident and frighteningly tragic. However, as an audience member it is difficult to understand the people surrounding Justine. Why does no one acknowledge Justine’s condition? Claire refers to her as “sick,” tells Justine she must not let her new husband, Michael, know she is “sad,” and reminders Justine more than once at the wedding reception that she “promised to not do this” (meaning, slip into a fit of depression). Claire is completely preposterous. How could Justine be held to such a senseless and impossible promise? Moreover, Justine tells her mother (Charlotte Rampling) outright that she is “scared,” while she begs for help, and she pleads with her father (Jesper Christensen) to stay and talk to her, but both parents selfishly deny the plight of their anguished child. Even the party guests at the wedding frolic around, dancing, drinking, and laughing, as the bride mostly wanders around, dejected, from place to place, often lurking in the background of her own wedding reception, and frequently fleeing the party mysteriously for long periods of time.
The film argues that society’s treatment of depression is, in many ways, just as dysfunctional as depression itself. According to this film, ignoring depression feeds depression. As Justine’s behavior is swept under the rug, mostly by Claire who chases Justine around and feverishly trying to hide and excuse her behavior, Justine’s depression worsens. Depression is the elephant in the room, until, of course, its gigantic presence can no longer be hidden…enter the rogue planet Melancholia.
In Part II: Claire, the rogue planet, Melancholia, which is vastly larger than Earth, “dances” with Earth. The planet, evident by its name, is a metaphor for depression. Traceable with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the term “melancholia” dates back to the 17th century and has always referred to a state of severe depression (Justine’s affliction). Claire is terrified Melancholia will hit Earth and end the world, but her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), relentlessly attempts to pacify her by saying, “Melancholia is [only] going to pass by us.” Again, this is preposterous; melancholia does not pass by, it hits and hits hard. Claire’s fear of the planet is the same fear she has always had of her sister’s depression, but this time she cannot sweep it under the rug and pretend it is not there; Claire must confront Melancholia, stare it down in all its glory as its majestic, immense blue aura shines down on the Earth.
Initially, as everyone watches, Melancholia passes by the Earth. But, in passing by, the elephant in the room can no longer be ignored; Melancholia no longer hides behind the sun or in the shadows. Therefore, the game of pretending is over, the fear is real, and the end is near. Melancholia continues its dance, circling back and consuming the earth.
Von Trier treatment of depression in Melancholia is as honest as it is hopeless. Like the planet, the film dances with melancholia and ultimately succumbs to its power. There is no artificial, fairytale ending that recuperates the film, allowing the audience to feel the satisfaction of right having been restored. Like Earth in the film, Melancholia consumes its audience. Thus, even with the new terrain von Trier explores in Melancholia, in terms of the German Romanticism inspired aesthetic, the film sustains the signature, avant-garde von Trier techniques, which never disappoint.