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 there is nothing that can be done to make it less so.
The opening shot of the film is a close-up of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) her eyes closed, her white-blonde hair wild and wet, a dishevelled halo around her face. She slowly opens her eyes.
Then a series of sixteen shots, each an extreme slow-motion, almost still, version 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 mud with her son in her arms; we see the Earth aligned with a red planet 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 radical slow-motion evokes the paralysis of chronic depression, the inability to rise out of bed, the considerable effort it takes to do the simplest of tasks, like walking and breathing. The image of Justine slipping 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. 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 gown, and she does look gorgeous at least superficially. Her eyes tell a different story, a sentiment echoed throughout the first half of the film. Her husband’s toast is almost entirely based on her looks, “I never even dreamed I would have such a gorgeous wife.” 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 (Charlotte Gainsbourg) repeats to her over and over, “You promised me, we don’t want any scenes,” and 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 blinded sister, trying to make her believe that if she would just open her eyes and see how beautiful everything is she would be happy, everything would be perfect. 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) threatens her, “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 the feelings of anyone else. 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 happy, but the darkness swallows her. It is inside her. Like her mother, she knows the truth, and the truth is that the world is an awful place. Gabby, in tatty yoga wear, sits glumly at her daughter’s wedding reception waiting for the moment when she can speak. She wastes no words. With an audience of the entire wedding party, she announces her dislike of weddings, then she sits back down, looking relieved.
Meanwhile, Justine keeps escaping her wedding, hiding out in her nephew’s bedroom, napping, sliding into blindness, a temporary death. That is 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,” to which 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 stops as if by intuition, to look up into the sky and asks, “What star is that?” John, a scientist and know-it-all, replies, “I’m amazed that you can see that.” She sees what no one else can. Aside from Justine, no one else is really present. Michael is pretty but vacant; her mother is bitter and unapproachable; her father is busy groping his new wife and her young daughter; her sister is fragile and so consumed with worry about the future or the past, that she can’t join Justine in the moment.
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 being happy. 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, rituals of domesticity and conformism are steps toward her own spiritual death. Plus, she can’t do it. Instead, she gets drunk and rummages through art books for images of sorrow, leaving the books open for everyone to see. Displaying these artworks is her language; the only way she can express what she has been forced to hide. Before the darkness entirely consumes her, she abandons the celebrations in the mansion, urinates on a golf course in her wedding dress beneath the moon, and has sex with a younger 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 passion. 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 resigns herself to sleep.
Part Two: Claire
The next morning Claire finds Justine asleep on the sofa in the study and encourages her to get up and go horse riding together. This scene is shot 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 also blind, refuses to cross. He will not venture past the gate into what he does not know. Justine stands beside Abraham and looks up to the daylight 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 wholly consumed by melancholia. She cannot lift her head, move or talk. 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 the blackness trapped inside her 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 few weeks 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 it is the same place the mind goes when it experiences extreme physical pain. You blank it out to protect from the horror. You forget so that you can fight to live another day. Until you can’t forget or fight anymore.
The 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. From the beginning, melancholia had been consuming her. All of Part One is Justine’s collapse, her blindness, her awakening and her beginning to see. It is meaningless, all of it: her job at the advertising agency; her raise in salary; her gorgeous husband who can’t see beyond her looks; the golf courses, the limousines, her father’s childish behaviour, and her mother’s kooky new-age-hippy disapproval of everyone.
Justine dies in Part Two of Melancholia, by blindness, 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 pragmatic becomes hysterical, and Justine, once mad, is clearheaded. Inside this reality is the light of truth, 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 pushes Claire to the edge of sanity.
That the world is coming to an end is clear even without it colliding with another planet: money and material things cherished above all else; the massive numbers of people living poverty, while the world’s richest one percent, those with more than $1 million, own 44 percent of the world’s wealth. Inequality leads to anger the lack of kind spirit in man (and woman). Instead, a society of robots consumed by self and ruled by the dictates 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 really 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 be able to see the light.
Once Justine learns that the world is coming to an end, her melancholia vanishes. She is healed. We see her ravenous at the dinner table, her fingers in a glass jar of marmalade, licking the sticky jam from her fingertips and later eating chocolates, one after the other. It is the end of the world and a relief for Justine. Unlike Claire and her brother-in-law, she did not love the world and its things. She saw it for what it was. Her melancholia was a kind of allergy to the world.
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. As does Claire, who begins to weep uncontrollably. She can’t stand the idea of losing the world. But Justine never closes her eyes. The film ends with three together, Claire and the boy, with their eyes shut, but Justine, unafraid, her eyes open.
If you notice that those who suffer with 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 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.