Melancholia is one of those films that severely divides opinion. It is inspired by writer/director Lars Von Trier’s bouts of depression and follows Justine (Kirsten Dunst) as she struggles to deal with her own depression during and following her wedding party. Oh, and there’s also a giant planet on a collision course with Earth, threatening to blow it into very small pieces. However, there are many more ideas running through the film, and here are just a couple of them.
The power of two
The number two, or at least things relating to the number two, feature heavily within the film. Probably the most obvious reference is that the film is split into two parts.
The first, entitled ‘Justine’, focuses on the wedding party of Justine and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). During this section of the film, Justine puts on a front, a façade to hide her unhappiness from her family and friends who are all there to witness her big day. The second half of the film, ‘Claire’, centres on the threat of Armageddon at the hands of Melancholia, a bewitching, ethereal planet heading straight towards Earth.
The two halves of the film represent the dual personality that someone who suffers from depression can often possess. The first is the smokescreen put up to reassure others and to hide what’s really within. The second shows the reality of the situation – Justine’s depression and that a planet is on course to collide with Earth, both of which almost everyone is blissfully unaware of in part one.
Justine and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are very different people, but are essentially two parts of the same person, displaying differing ways of dealing with a stressful situation – in this case, the end of the world. Due to her depression, Justine embraces the end and is relatively calm in its impending arrival. However, Claire is the other side of the coin; she finds it incredibly difficult to cope and acts in a way many would expect a person to – with frenzied panic and hysteria. This could be the director’s way of showing that everyone has the capacity for depression and can react either as Justine or Claire in the face of adversity.
The two planets are also significant in that, aside from their impending date with disaster, they also represent Justine’s state of mind. Earth is a hateful place for Justine, full of poisonous people and pointless rituals. Her mental state deteriorates until she becomes aware of Melancholia and it draws closer and closer to Earth. Melancholia represents the escape that Justine has been longing and she hopes that it will continue its path toward Armageddon. We even witness Justine lying naked under the planet’s glow, offering herself to it, enticing it towards her – is she actually responsible for pulling it back towards Earth?
As predominantly shown in the film’s first half, Justine is surrounded by incredibly flawed people. Many of these people’s lives have been scarred by relationships past and present, which could account, in part, for Justine’s bizarre unease at having just gotten married. Indeed, she is happiest at the outset of the film during her mischievous and impromptu turn as a limo driver when it is just her and Michael, before they get to the party and are surrounded by so many damaged souls.
Justine’s parents clearly had a tumultuous marriage, and her mother has become a very bitter person who is not afraid to let her feelings be known in front of people. Justine’s father seems like a much happier and more grounded individual. He laughs and jokes with the other guests and dances with his daughter, telling her he has never been so proud. However, he clearly doesn’t know his daughter as well as he thinks, as otherwise he would notice that she is not as happy as a new bride should be, and when Justine needs him the most and asks him to stay so she can talk to him, he disappears, leaving nothing but a note.
Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), has a relationship with his work that could be deemed ultimately destructive. His unwavering belief that Melancholia won’t crash into Earth gives his wife false hope, which makes the realisation that he’s wrong all the more distressing. When John himself realises his mistake, the effects are similarly disastrous for him and his family.
The relationships involving Justine’s employer, Jack (Stellan Skarsgard), are also bizarre ones. As his ‘plus one’ he decides to bring Tim, a new employee at his advertising firm, whose sole purpose is to wheedle a killer slogan from Justine for their new campaign. Tim does exactly what his ‘other half’ says at all times, afraid of losing his job, scared of the consequences. Ultimately, Jack loses patience with his latest squeeze and fires him, finishing the relationship that wasn’t working, likely devastating poor Tim who was so keen to impress.
Justine clearly has an unhappy relationship with her work and her boss, although she has never let it show before. However, Jack, like everyone else, seems completely unaware of Justine’s real feelings and is aghast when Justine throws his generous job offer back at him and tells him what she really thinks, finally plucking up the courage to break away from a relationship she was desperately miserable in.
Perhaps the happiest and most innocent person in the entire film is Claire’s son, Leo. He is young and has thus far in life been unharmed by relationships, which is shown in the final scene of the film with Leo, his mother and Justine. Claire, who cannot bear to die, is distraught, whereas Justine, who cannot bear to be alive, is calm. Leo is also very placid, as his short life has been a happy one, and he has few, if any, really negative experiences to make him embittered towards the world.
The film’s negative attitude towards relationships could also account for the reason why none of the characters have surnames, one of the things that can define a person’s relationships with another.
Take as much or as little as you like
These are just some of the important themes running throughout Melancholia, but there are many that have not been discussed and many that have likely not even been thought of. Director Lars Von Trier took much inspiration from art and literature, and there are certain parts of the film – the first five or ten minutes or so in particular – that can come across as pretentious and leave you feeling cold towards it. If you want to read into the film’s various subtexts, then there is a wealth to examine. However, if not, you can still view the film purely as a journey of someone suffering depression, a sci-fi experience, or a combination of the two; it’s entirely up to you.
Words: Chris Thomson