Folks, yes, I am that person who watches a heavy Lars von Trier film at 4 p.m. on a Friday. Continuing in my vein of watching “disaster films,” I watched his 2011 film Melancholia, which apparently is part of a so-called Depression Trilogy from von Trier. The first of these was 2009’s Antichrist, which I’ve seen and also stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, and which I’ve ranked as the second most disturbing and controversial film I’ve ever seen. I also called Antichrist one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen, which I would also say about the second of the Depression Trilogy films, Melancholia. It’s gorgeous to look at, especially the shots of the planet Melancholia getting closer and closer to the Earth. The third film in the trilogy is 2013’s Nymphomaniac, which I have not yet seen, but also stars Gainsbourg.
Melancholia is a film about two sisters facing down the end of the world courtesy of Melancholia impacting Earth. At first, Jack Bauer thinks it’s just going to do a “fly-by,” but he’s wrong and kills himself. That is, Kiefer Sutherland’s character, John, who is the rich husband of Gainsbourg’s character, Claire. He’s hilarious in this, by the way, constantly muttering “unbelievable” about Claire’s family and being a greedy and arrogant rich man.
The film is split into each sister’s part, first Justine’s (played by Kirsten Dunst) and then Claire’s.
Claire’s part is the first hour and seven minutes of the film after an opening dream sequence or, perhaps, premonition, foretelling the end of the world (much like the last disaster film I watched where the beginning tells the ending, It’s a Disaster) with stunningly beautiful orchestra music. That orchestra music gets used throughout and it’s achingly beautiful.
After that opening though, that entire 67 minutes never mentions the end of the world. Instead, we follow Claire through her wedding to Michael (played by Alexander Skarsgård). It seems as, if given that premonition at the beginning, Claire’s character “knows things.” She later says as much.
In other words, this isn’t a traditional disaster flick. Instead, the focus is on these two sisters. In the Justine section of the film, we basically watch as Justine trudges through the doldrums of depression. She tries to explain it to Claire by saying, “I’m trudging through this grey, wooly yarn. It’s clinging to my legs. It’s really heavy to drag along.” But Claire doesn’t quite get it, and she and John keep insisting to Justine for her to just “be happy.”
Claire has it all together in this first part, organizing the wedding. But by the second part, she begins dismantling at the sight, literally, of Melancholia bearing down on the Earth and the impending death of all life on the planet.
Melancholia has often been cited as the greatest representation of depression ever put to film, primarily through the lens of the Justine part of the film. Maybe. At least that line I highlighted above is a great way of describing depression. And the way she’s annoyed by everyone telling her to smile and by happy is on point. But … I’m not sure about the rest. I’m not sure why she got married at all and I’m certainly not sure why she ended up having quasi-sex with a random stranger on her wedding night. She’s also mean to her sister, but I get that in a sense. Anger is how some people who are depression express that despair.
I think there is an existential sense in which a depressed person would handle the end of the world differently than someone who isn’t and that’s emblematic in the dichotomous reactions of Justine and Claire to the ending; Justine and Claire have flipped, with Justine in control and calm and Claire anxious and unraveling.
Again, Melancholia, like Antichrist before it, is a visual treat to behold, perhaps realizing that claim of “the greatest film about depression ever made” even more than the incredible, career-best performance from Dunst. That’s sort of the paradoxical frustration those in the depths of despair experience: There is also so much aching beauty everywhere, felt so damn acutely.
I also believe that the “end of the world” setup here is that depressed people tend to catostrophize events, and Justine has done that on the grandest scale possible by catostrophizing the end of the world.
Like all von Trier films, it’s not an “easy” watch. It’s more of a visceral experience. If you’re up for that experience and know that it’s going to be visceral, it’s well-worth the patience and endurance.