Melancholia and von Trier’s Take on Depression

First, play this song in the background while you read. It’s Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde prelude, and it plays throughout most of Melancholia.

Now, an important question: how do I review the newest Lars von Trier film without giving too much away? Well, I suppose I could start with my very emotional response. I saw Melancholia this past Saturday in Tempe. I attended the film by myself, because I wanted to see the film so badly, I couldn’t wait to “make plans” with a friend. I drove across town and sat in a dark theater with the Sour Patch Kids I snuck inside.

I did not cry during the movie at all. I watched it from start to finish, collected my purse at the closing credits, walked to my car, sat down in the driver’s seat, and then I started sobbing. Alone in a parking lot in Tempe. I sobbed my face off.

Days later, I’m still not sure why this happened. I don’t know why the film elicited such emotion. But I have given the film itself a lot of thought since Saturday, and I must say: it deserves every award it receives and then some, even if it did make me cry.

I have only seen one other film written and directed by eccentric Dane, Lars von Trier, and it was Dancer in the Dark with Björk at the helm. In the case of Dancer in the Dark, I didn’t make it to my car; I sobbed for the entire last fifteen minutes of the film. I know this all sounds pointless—seeing movies that make me cry—but in the case of Dancer in the Dark and Melancholia, there’s nothing pointless about it. These are films that make me feel. They make me consider the sacrifices people make and, particularly with Melancholia, how occasional depression is not something I suffer alone.

The one sentence synopsis of Melancholia: A crazy chick gets married while a ghostly planet threatens to destroy life on earth. Simple, right? Wrong. It starts with an awkwardly slow montage of images, set above Wagner’s prelude (which you’re listening to right now, aren’t you?). The images don’t mean too much at the onset, but they make a lot of sense as the movie progresses. Then, you’re tossed into the middle of a dysfunctional family wedding, featuring the awe-inspiring Kirsten Dunst as the bride, Justine. Everything seems peachy, until you begin to realize Justine is, to put it lightly, quite mad.

Or is she? The storyline for Melancholia came from one of von Trier’s own therapy sessions, being an extreme depressive himself. His therapist told him that people suffering from depression deal much better with natural disasters and unexpected tragedy, because to them, could things really get any worse? Disaster is almost a relief to a true depressive, which creates the majestic character arc that is Justine’s decent into madness and eventual rise to serenity.

The incoming disaster is epitomized in the mystery planet known as “Melancholia.” Melancholia is threating to ram Earth, but scientists say, no, it’ll go right past. The approach of the planet is almost like a countdown, as you are left to wonder, will the planet hit or won’t it? Of course, von Trier uses “Melancholia” as a double entendre: it’s a big, blue planet, but it is also the state of living for both Justine and her desperate sister, Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg—seemingly a favorite of von Trier’s, as she also appeared in his earlier film, Antichrist.

Claire just wants things to be okay. She wants to keep her family safe and happy, but you can feel her creeping anxiety and depression; you can feel that she’s only a couple steps from totally losing it like Justine. But has Justine really lost her marbles? It’s not clear until the end of the film.

At its basest, Melancholia is gorgeous. The imagery makes your heart swell. More importantly, Melancholia is an in-your-face, honest study of depression and how it ruins lives. Is it a cheerful film? God, no. Should you see it? Yes. Of course. Just nominate an emotionally stoic friend to drive you home.

4 thoughts on “Melancholia and von Trier’s Take on Depression

  1. I just watched it. Now I’m trolling for people who had the same emotion as me. I, like you, watched from start to finish making very little sound. I found myself breathing heavy as ye characters breath became heavy. I found my stomach tying itself it knots as Charolette’s character was on the verge of snapping. Then comforted by Kirsten’s character. “I know things,” she says and it made such an impact. She knows that life can end, will end, she’s been waiting for it. A reality we all live with but so very often ignore. We use our daily rituals to stay positive and productive, really we’re just waiting. Living is waiting.

    The credits rolled. I sat silent. Then I sobbed. Almost uncontrollable. I still don’t know exactly why. Is it witnessing the truth? The human condition? Realizing that life isn’t fair for all? Not even for me? Realizing we are helpless? Ugh. I just don’t know. What I do know is that he last scene terrified me and yet made me feel a sense of calmness; then made me break down.

    A wonderful film. I suggest seeing alone. So you can think and not let the opinions of others shape your feelings. This film is an emotional experience that should be personal.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! It’s nice to hear someone else out there was as affected as me. A beautiful review from you 🙂

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