I have a recurring dream. I am outside at night, looking up at a castle-like home on a hill. The building is covered in fairy lights as if a wedding is taking place. There are people everywhere around me, but I am alone. I look down and I am wearing a bridal gown. I run to the building, and once inside, it’s like I am searching for someone, but I don’t know who. I push past people, through increasingly tight corridors, almost like a cave lit with twinkling lights. It is beautiful, but I am confused and I don’t want all these people to be here. If I am the bride, why are they all ignoring me and not letting me pass? I keep seeing a man in the distance but I can never catch up with him. I see him go through a door into a room, I follow. When I walk into the room it is empty. I wake up.
I have been having that dream on occasion, though less so recently, for about 20 years — very little changes. Sometimes I get close enough to the man that he whispers in my ear in the crowded corridor, but I can never hear what he says.
You may be wondering what this has to do with Lars Von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia? Well, because this film is so much like my dream that when I first saw it, I was totally astounded. Frightened almost. The wedding, the lights, the struggling to get through. It makes sense to me now. Melancholia portrays chronic depression in precisely the way I have experienced it and better than any other film or tv representation I have seen. It’s almost painful for me to watch because I feel Justine. It’s slow and agonising, and nothing can be done to make it less so.
The films opens with a close-up shot of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), her eyes closed, her pale blonde hair wild and wet, a dishevelled crown around her face. She slowly opens her eyes.
Then a sequence of shots, in extreme slow-motion, almost still, images of the film’s most crucial moments to take note of. Justine in deep sadness with birds falling from the sky around her. We see Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine’s sister, as she wades through the mud with her son in her arms; we see a red planet aligned with the Earth that we later learn to be called Melancholia. Then Justine being swept along a river in her wedding dress, becoming tangled in reeds. Then lastly, Justine with her nephew as they make a magic cave before Melancholia hits.
This slow-motion sequence feels like the paralysis of chronic depression, the inability to get out of bed, the considerable effort it takes to do the simplest of tasks, like walking and breathing. The shot of Justine sliding into the soft mud as if it’s quicksand dragging her down and the sense that something massive is slowly crushing you is about as great a metaphor for the weight of depression as you can get. I would vastly disagree with anyone who says this film is overly melodramatic. If you have experienced melancholia, then you know this is how it feels.
Part One: Justine
The film is in two parts. In “Justine”, we find her trying to distract herself. It’s her wedding day. She has just married Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), but she’s pretending to be happy because everyone wants her to be and thinks she should be. As if it’s as easy as that. Justine walks through this big house, through the rooms like a ghost in a beautiful white wedding dress, and she does look gorgeous, at least superficially. Her eyes tell a different story; it’s a common sentiment throughout the first Act. Michael’s toast to his bride is almost entirely based on her looks. Her father’s (played by John Hurt) first words to her when she arrives two hours late to her own wedding are that he has never seen her look so beautiful or so happy. It’s just words and no substance.
No one ever asks her why she is unhappy. It doesn’t really matter why she isn’t; they just want her to play the part of the blushing bride.
Her sister Claire repeatedly tells her not to make any scenes. She follows Justine through the long corridors of the mansion, trying to persuade her to hide her debilitating sadness from her new husband. Claire is Justine’s shadow, her double. In this half of the film, Claire has the sight and she guides her blind sister, trying to make her believe that if she would just open her eyes and see how beautiful everything would be perfect and she would be happy. As long as Justine appears to be happy, the world can keep spinning. But if Justine remains depressed, the world might just stop.
But no one wants Justine to be happy for Justine’s sake. It’s for their own. Her new brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland), mutters, “You better be goddamned happy. Do you have any idea how much this wedding cost me?” At the end of Part One, Justine begs her parents to listen to her. “I’m scared. I’m frightened.” Their father, Dexter, is a selfish, hedonistic narcissist. Her mother, Gabby, a jaded and brutally blunt woman who does not care for anyone else’s feelings. They are no longer together; their father has a new woman and a stepdaughter, which may be the reason why their mother is so bitter about marriage.
Justine tries to play at being cheerful but the darkness swallows her. It is part of her. Like her mother, she knows the truth, and the truth is that the world is an awful place. In tatty yoga wear, Gabby sits moodily at her daughter’s wedding reception, waiting for the moment when she can speak. She doesn’t beat around the bush. With the entire wedding party as her audience, she announces her dislike of weddings, then she sits back down, looking happy with herself.
Meanwhile, Justine keeps trying to escape her wedding by hiding in her nephew’s bedroom, napping, sliding into a temporary death. Until Claire finds her. Unable to keep her eyes open, Justine says, “I’m trudging through this grey, woolly yarn. It’s clinging to my legs. It’s really heavy to drag along,” Claire replies, “No you’re not.”
Yet, it is Justine who really sees what is happening. When she first arrived at the wedding reception, she instinctively looks up into the sky and asks, “What star is that?” John, a scientist, replies, “I’m amazed that you can see that.” She sees what no one else can. Other than Justine, no one else is really present. Her mother is bitter and unapproachable; her father is busy groping his new wife and her young daughter; Claire is fragile and so consumed with worry about pretty much everything that she can’t be with Justine in the moment, and Michael is pretty but vacant.
In the same sense that she sees more deeply into the night sky, she also sees the superficiality of everything happening around her — the pointless pomp and ceremony of the wedding, the strict schedule, the insistence on her putting on a show of happiness. Seeing what others cannot is often assumed to be wrong. Like a hallucination or form of psychosis, but in the darkness, Justine has the gift of sight.
Justine knows the truth; that marriage, the rituals of family life and compliance will cause her spiritual death. She just can’t do it. Instead, she starts knocking the drinks back and rummages through art books for images of sadness, leaving them open for everyone to see. This is a way for her to express what she has been forced to hide. Before the darkness swallows her whole, she abandons the celebrations in the mansion, urinates on a golf course in her wedding dress under the moon, and has sex with a young coworker. She is desperately trying to feel something. By behaving recklessly like this, she wants her heart to beat fast, to get angry, to feel passionate about something. Yet even after getting married, quitting her job, having sex with a stranger and then leaving her husband all on her wedding day, she still feels numb. After Michael leaves, she finally goes to sleep.
Part Two: Claire
The morning after, Claire finds Justine asleep on the sofa and encourages her to get up so they can go horse riding together. This scene is filmed from above and we can see the sisters on horseback as they race blindly through the fog.
They reach a bridge which is the link from Claire’s and John’s land to the outside world, when Justine’s horse Abraham as if he intuitively knows something terrible is about to happen, refuses to cross. He will not venture past the gate into the unknown. Justine stands beside Abraham and looks up to the sky. “The red star is missing from Scorpio,” she says, “and Taurus is no longer there.” Somehow she just knows what is happening. Frustrated with the horse refusing to move, she whips him mercilessly. It is, in a sense, self-flagellation, for she wanted so much for the horse not to be like her and to feel safe out there.
Justine’s spirit dies. She is consumed by melancholy. Claire tries to persuade Justine to take a bath and tries to lift her sister’s body to place her in the tub, but she can’t. Even though Justine is painfully thin now, the tremendous weight of depression anchors her body down. It goes a little way to show Claire just why Justine cannot do anything; the effort is too much. She cannot carry herself.
Justine falls into a melancholic blackout. To blackout is to lose consciousness, to temporarily lose your mind. I am sure many people have felt close to this in the last year, with COVID-19 affecting the entire world. We don’t know how to cope with such an enormous worry. We shut down, paralysed by fear, not even so much of getting the disease, but of this bizarre new way of life that we have to adapt to. Melancholia is similar to the blackout on drugs or alcohol. Where the mind goes in these situations, we don’t know but think of when you have been in intense physical pain; your mind travels to that place then. You blank it out to protect yourself from the horror. You forget so that you can fight to live another day. Until you can’t forget or fight anymore.
Melancholia, the very thing that wants her dead, is the drug that feeds Justine and allows her, in the end, to see the bigger picture. All of Part One is Justine’s collapse, her blindness, her reawakening and her beginning to see. Everything in her life is meaningless: her job at the advertising agency; her salary; her gorgeous husband who can’t see her at all beyond her looks; the golf courses, the fancy cars, her father’s childish behaviour, and her mother’s kooky new-age-hippy disapproval of everyone.
Justine dies in Part Two of Melancholia, blinded by darkness. But when she learns that the world is coming to an end, she is reborn. The next day, a somewhat healthier Justine confesses to Claire that she simply “knows” certain things — like the number of beans in the bottle at her wedding reception and that Earth and Melancholia will actually destroy each other. What’s more, Justine says: this is a good thing because the Earth is evil.
Claire, who was once logical, becomes hysterical, and Justine, once clouded, is clearheaded. Inside this reality is a kind of twilight. Melancholia passes by Earth the first time, but the conspiracy theories were correct. Melancholia turns on its path and heads right back. There is nothing that can be done. There is no way out for anyone. John commits suicide by taking pills that Claire had been saving for an emergency. His cowardice and selfishness in leaving his wife and child to face death alone push Claire to the edge of sanity.
That the world is coming to an end is apparent even without it colliding with another planet. Money and material things are prized above all else; the massive numbers of people living in poverty, while the world’s richest one per cent, those with more than $1 million, own 44 per cent of the world’s wealth. Inequality leads to anger the lack of spirit in humankind. Instead, a society of robots consumed by their ego and ruled by the governs of society (what to buy, what to watch, what to eat).
It feels strange writing about an end of the world movie when the whole world is going through this COVID-19 crisis. Is our world coming to an end? Well, no, not quite yet, but now is our chance to take stock. Could we do better for our neighbours, friends and family? Yes, of course, we could. Could corporations and the Government help out those in need more during “peacetime”? Definitely, sometimes you need to face the end of your world to see the light.
When she learns that the world is coming to an end, Justine’s depression lifts. She is rejuvenated. Ravenous at the dinner table, she plunges her fingers into a jar of marmalade, licking the stickiness from her fingertips and later eating chocolates, one after the other. It is the end of the world, and Justine feels fine. Unlike Claire and John, she did not love the world and its things. She saw it for what it was.
In the end, Justine, Claire and Claire’s son sit cross-legged, holding hands in the magic cave — a teepee made of twigs. Justine tells her nephew to close his eyes. Claire closes hers and begins sobbing. But Justine never closes her eyes. The film ends with three together, Claire and the boy, with their eyes tight shut, but Justine, unafraid of the end, waits with her eyes wide open.
If you notice that those who suffer from depression and anxiety seem to be coping better with this global crisis right now, there is a good reason for that. We live like this daily. We’re used to staying indoors and avoiding social contact. We often feel like the world is ending and that we have the weight of a planet resting on our shoulders, pinning us down, able to crush us at any given moment.
Justine feels relieved when she knows the end is nigh because it means it is over. No more struggle; she is finally free. To save our sanity, we must look to the end of this crisis, don’t ignore it. Stay home and wait with your eyes wide open; you will be reborn. We all will be once this Melancholia is over.
We can learn a lot from Melancholia right now. While there may not be a planet heading to destroy us, we are slowly destroying our home environment. We are allowing people to die out of pure selfishness and greed. If there was ever a time to reflect on our behaviour as a species and stop this, it is now. Open your eyes, don’t cover your melancholy with fake smiles. Talk about it. Tell the people who matter that you love them. Don’t waste your energy arguing on the internet. Stay at home with your loved ones. Allow yourself to fall in love with life again.
Fall in love. It’s the greatest single thing you can do to balance the fear and survive the apocalypse.