On MELANCHOLIA And The Determinism of Despair

Lars von Trier paints a portrait of depression in still life.

Lars von Trier's Melancholia is an almost literal portrait of depression - the painterly prologue depicts sequences in severe slow-motion, evoking still life in disquieting micro-movements. Von Trier doesn't hide the end of the world at the end of his narrative, but spoils it intentionally, robbing us of any hope. There is no hope in the clinical clutches of despair, only the unwavering determination that the end is nigh, and those suffering welcome it with open arms.

Kirsten Dunst's Justine dissolves quietly and quickly from happy bride to a woman in exhaustive despair, forcing her smiles and pleasantries. Her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), recognizes these false smiles and accuses Justine of lying to everyone. We can examine that statement for symptoms of Justine's depression, but the search would prove futile. There is no exact cause or moment we can pinpoint where "everything went wrong."

Perhaps the only keys to deciphering Justine's depression lie in three elements: her name, and the two paintings she furiously selects in the study. Von Trier takes the name Justine from the Marquis de Sade novel, in which a young woman endures years of sexual punishment only to be struck by a bolt of lightning after she unburdens herself. Von Trier's Justine may view her relationships, and her current matrimony in particular, as forms of punishment: she submits herself to torturous normalcy but is unable to obtain the happiness it should provide. In the opening sequence, one scene finds Justine standing alone on the golf course, staring at her hands in wonderment as lightning emanates from her fingertips, another nod to de Sade's novel.

While alone in the study, Justine becomes agitated by the modernist abstract paintings displayed in books on the shelf - they are angular and ugly, and too simplistic for this occasion. Instead - as if at random, but that cannot be so - Justine opens two books to two paintings: Sir John Everett Millais' Ophelia, which depicts the tragic character from Shakespeare's Hamlet, drifting in the water and held afloat by her ceremonial gown; and Pieter Bruegel's The Hunters in the Snow, depicting an unsuccessful hunt in a harsh winter.

Again, in the opening sequence we see Justine floating in the water, evoking Millais' painting, her wedding dress offering precarious, momentary buoyancy. As Gertrude told the story in Shakespeare's play, Ophelia was gathering flowers from a tree when she fell into a river and became "incapable of her own distress," and while her dress initially held her afloat, "her garments, heavy with their drink" caused her to sink and drown. The metaphor doubles over on itself: Justine's marriage provides temporary buoyancy before the depression takes hold again and she drowns in her sorrow; unable to control the sudden violent grip of sadness, Justine is incapable of her own distress.

Similarly, the prologue depicts Claire holding her son and trudging through the grass, her feet sinking into the soft earth, which swallows them like quicksand. Bruegel's The Hunters in the Snow features hunters trudging through the wintry white ground, the footsteps comparable to those made by Claire. The hunters return empty-handed from their mission, though one carries the limp body of a fox to signify their failure - Claire's son is the fox, a fragile, desperate sigil of her inability to perform her duty as wife and mother.

These paintings represent despair and desperation, but they are not able to tell us everything there is to know about Justine's depression - because attempting to explain or dismantle it is hopeless, just as attempting to elude the end of the world is hopeless.

Justine's depression is all-consuming - not just of Justine herself, but of everyone around her. It appears as if from nowhere, though von Trier's narrative hints at its enduring presence throughout her life. She becomes childlike and unwilling to care for herself, forcing Claire to nurture her thanklessly. It is a portrait of depression in the extreme, and although at times Justine's petulance seems agonizing and makes her what some would perceive as "unlikable" (an unfair word), von Trier ultimately dares us to empathize.

Von Trier's film is filled with severe metaphors, though none more overt than the end of the world. When we are depressed, it's easy to feel as though the world is ending, and we welcome it - happily - because the destruction is a means to an unpleasant end. We believe we see and understand things that no one else can or will (as Justine believes she has developed a "seeing" ability), that life has become pointless, or as Justine notes, "Life on Earth is evil," and later echoes with the refrain, "Life is only on Earth, and not for long."

Depression inverts our worldview, so that everything joyful becomes sorrowful and vice versa - we wallow in our despair and embrace it because to fight it is too difficult. The images of Justine trudging along the ground, moss tangled around her ankles and pulling her back, and Claire carrying her son while struggling against the pull of the Earth - these images offer a simple, startling view of depression and its weight. It's easier to release and allow yourself to be pulled down than to march forward toward an uncertain future which promises only temporary happiness followed by inevitable despair. And so Justine bathes naked in the light of the planet Melancholia, embracing it.

This rogue planet threatening to destroy Earth is itself a symbol of depression - it doesn't "fly by" as hoped, but eclipses and consumes. Melancholia looks like our Earth, only larger and more cancerous, and when it hits it's as though the Earth is smashing in on itself. Our depression is an insidious twin version of ourselves; it is bigger, meaner and more powerful than we are, and when it hits, it consumes us and everyone we love - and we allow it to take them and grow heavier with their weight.

Von Trier's prologue isn't merely an insinuation of the still life qualities of his portrait and the affliction within - it's an insistence for everything that comes after. The director employs the same determinism to which Justine finds herself beholden, creating a fatalistic rendering of life at its most restrained.