Written by Augustine
Justine: “I smile, and I smile, and I smile”.
Image source: popmatters.com
When I was a sophomore student almost two years ago, I fell in love with T.S Eliot’s “The Waste Land” simply by reading the first stanza. I could not understand a thing– the poem is considered a mosaic of quotations, echoes of another poems and tributes to other authors, thus needing a lot of discussion and analysis to actually get the multiple meanings– but I was certain that what I had just read would always trigger strong feelings within me. I knew I stumbled across my favorite poem of all times, and I am not the type who can easily choose the best out of things she likes.
My initiation to Trier’s cinematography started almost the same way; just like with Eliot’s poem, from the very first minutes I knew that Melancholia would have a huge impact on me. And I guess my hunch turned out to be spot on; every time someone asks me to name my favorite films, Melancholia owns the highest place in that list (along with Pan’s Labyrinth). And every time I have to name my favorite directors, Mr. Lars von Trier is always among them.
Justine (Kristen Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are sisters, two women of different mentalities and psychological states– at least superficially. The movie is divided into two chapters after their names; in the first, Justine’s depression overshadows and ultimately ruins her wedding day. In the second, Claire’s anxiety about Melancholia, the newly-discovered planet which can be seen approaching Earth, heavily juxtaposes her own practicality. At the same time, this anxiety is also contrasted to Justine’s evident apathy towards this potential cosmic disaster. Before discussing the reasons I believe this movie perfectly depicts the state of being clinically depressed, I would like to dedicate some words and praise Trier’s photography and references– especially as merged during the intro of the film.
Anyone who has seen some recent Trier movies, like Nymphomaniac or Antichrist, is familiar with the director’s technique to divide his works into chapters. Nevertheless, in Melancholia the ending is presented from the beginning; while listening to Wagner’s mesmerizing “Tristan and Isolde” we are bombarded with slow motion pictures, mainly of Justine and her seemingly incapability to feel nothing, neither fear nor terror, in the face of a potential disaster. On the other hand, Claire is presented as desperate and heartbroken, a mother trying to protect her son when there is nowhere to run.
The close shots on Justine’s face and the fact that she seems connected with the post-apocalyptic surroundings are perfectly tied in with the atmosphere of the film. Trier not only foreshadows the ending but he also lets you know that this movie is all about depression and anxiety. What is more, the amazing bride scene where Justine tries to walk but something almost like a heavy net of branches is tied around her legs and body thus pushing her to the opposite direction, can be interpreted as an allegory for her suffocation if married, for her suffocation as a woman and a victim of mental illness in a still strongly male-oriented society.
The last statement can be further corroborated by the Ophelia-like posture Justine claims in the lake (also bringing to mind Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the Shakespearean heroine, such as Millais’ or Waterhouse’s). Just like Ophelia, the madwoman with flowers on her head, Justine’s whole identity is shattered due to authoritarian figures in her life, her husband or her parents for example. Justine/Ophelia is presented as the ultimate female victim of oppression, depression and repression– apparently, the mock-bride scene in the lake exposes the fundamental themes of Melancholia all at once.
Trier’s surrealism is there to emphasize the turmoil of depressed people; a turmoil no one can fathom unless they have been there themselves. Justine’s chapter revolves around typical symptoms of depression; she cannot feel happy or receive joy from anything around her, she experiences hypersexuality and unfathomable fatigue. In the second half of the movie, she seems unable to react to the forthcoming tragedy; while her sister slowly dissolves into piles of anxiety and panic. i
As a victim of a depressive episode myself, I can fully understand and identify with Justine’s behavior– and that is mainly the reason why I believe this movie does justice in depicting mental illness. When a great number of movies recycle stereotypes about depression and mental health in general, Melancholia protests, with a loud and clear voice, against these obsolete and superficial misconceptions.
For the record, Trier commented that as a victim of depression as well, through Melancholia he wanted to demonstrate how clinically depressed people have the ability to remain peaceful when facing a catastrophe. ii It would be useful here to mention that the planet Melancholia is mainly an allegory for depression and mental illness. Hence, the macrocosm is connected with the microcosm, the inner reflects the outer and vise versa.
However, Melancholia is not there only for the depressed; if we cross-examine it with Freud’s theory of the “Uncanny” we could safely argue that this planet is everything humanity represses in order to survive in a society of hierarchies, taboos and laws. But just like an obsession, it keeps returning– signifying the familiar and the unfamiliar at the same time, the mysterious and the uncanny of life. And at the end of the day, this reminds us of all the primitive collective fears we, as humans, try to bury deep inside us.
Trier’s surrealist techniques which are complimented by his insightful view of mental illness and of the collective anxieties humanity strives to get rid of, construct Melancholia, a contemporary psychological masterpiece which is there to remind us that no matter what, there is always going to be something dragging us down. And no matter what, we should always find ways to learn to live under its regime.
ii “According to the director’s own PR department, he has made “a beautiful film about the end of the world”, which sure sounds very von Trier-esque in its ambiguity. But just as von Trier-esquely, he rejects his company’s tagline. He does not consider “Melancholia” to be about the end of the world and the human race but about humans acting and reacting under pressure. The idea for the film emerged while he was in treatment for the depression that has haunted him in recent years. A therapist told him a theory that depressives and melancholics act more calmly in violent situations, while “ordinary, happy” people are more apt to panic. Melancholics are ready for it. They already know everything is going to hell.” from The Only Redeeming Factor is the World Ending by Per Juul Carlsen (http://goo.gl/4Fgqc4)