Updated: Feb 18, 2020
In darkness lies beauty—and in beauty, a sliver of darkness.
As the strength of summer warmth weakens and the ever milder evenings begin to crunch and devour our daylight, we circumspectly move closer to the melancholic and colorfully veiled shadows of fall. And what better way to celebrate the impending season than by colliding with the affecting radiance of Lars von Trier’s apocalypse film, Melancholia.
In spending a good bit of personal time researching and reading the critical offerings on the subject of Melancholia, I lurched into the trappings of miles of narrow catacombs with walls erected by reaching and tugging hands. As I struggled to find my way out of the tug and pull, I was tempted (but never fully allowed myself) to be captured by any of those convincing slants. Then my own hand whacked my forehead, and I concluded I didn’t actually need the arguments or insights of others to support my own observations and connections to this film. That is not to suggest that what I’ve witnessed in the form of criticism and analysis hasn’t influenced me. Of course, it has! But my approach shifted when I released an overpowering need to validate my feelings (happens often) through the opinions of others, which stemmed from a foolish and unfounded fear of being wrong.
I’m entirely convinced there’s no clear or hygienic way to approach a von Trier film. Even in addressing my own connections to his films, I muddle about in mess and lose my way. His movies (at least, the ones I’ve seen) present a myriad of cluttered paths for analysis, and in my own method of viewing and analyzing a von Trier film, like a deer during a meal, I practically have to pause after each line or frame to bed down, process, and digest. I should also mention, von Trier films have a tendency in the direction of controversial, and each new film, for me, boasts potential to relieve the crown title as The Thorniest Pill from the film before. To revisit a von Trier film is an admission of my own insanity, and yet, I find myself returning to his films as I would a nasty habit. I’ve seen Melancholia 20 times or more. Of course, Melancholia is notably one of von Trier’s more accessible films, and even the filmmaker himself has regretted its polished quality and called it possibly his happiest creation. Von Trier also stated in an interview with Mark Kermode on The Culture Show that Melancholia is “more a film about a state of mind or a mental condition than a disaster film.” And ultimately, this is the personal connection lane I dare take.
The opening sequence for Melancholia is a living, breathing, poignant magnum opus that serves skillfully as the bridge between the opening sequences for Antichrist and Nymphomaniac (the first and final films in Lars von Trier’s Depression trilogy, which includes Melancholia). In this sequence, you will see the film’s main characters, sisters Justine (a melancholic, intuitive character played by Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Justine’s nervous, caretaker counterpart played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), betrothed to a dreamlike, slow-motion thread of images, which concludes with a collision of Earth and the planet Melancholia. Richard Wagner’s prelude piece from Tristan und Isolde furthers the gently sad yet brutally passionate trepidation and build of this sequence. By commencing the movement of Melancholia in this manner, von Trier eliminates any possible anticipations or expectations of survival at the film’s end so that the viewer may focus solely on the mood and emotional aspect of the film.
In the overture to Melancholia, von Trier captures an essence of something skillfully striking and moving despite his unsettling end of the world scenario.
From research, I obtained the proclamation that Melancholia reflects von Trier’s own experiences with depression, and the film’s concept originated from a treatment session where his therapist claimed (and I’m absolutely paraphrasing here) that those prone to bouts of melancholy or depressive people are more insightful and calm during times of distress, because they already anticipate misfortune. My own projection of depression runs images of a limp gasping mind and semi-detached body slumped tranquil on the rigid soil of a stale subterranean crypt with no windows and only the means of a corroded spade for a makeshift exit. In my darkest days, I’ve known depression to be every bit as isolated and gorgeously disturbing as Melancholia culminating in imbibed tablets with hopes that those powdery concoctions would absorb and illuminate the darkness. In that darkness, there is the consideration of nothing and everything. Perhaps there is a wavering insightfulness and tranquil density to depression, and perhaps not. To declare such would be to argue some sort of superior wisdom and serenity in times of suffering because expectations are desolate, and I’m not comfortable or confident in making that declaration. But there may be something consoling in death when harmonizing with the sentiment that maybe we do not really having anything to look forward to or live for—or at the realization that life on Earth isn’t always all that spectacular and chaste.
Inevitably, Justine appears to peacefully accept Earth’s fate, which is conveyed by her willingness to be completely naked, open, and vulnerable under the glow of Melancholia. And at the end of the film, this belief is reiterated as Justine appears to be the calmer, more complacent and together entity of the pair.
In simply watching the end sequence (which is obviously not even remotely close to experiencing it), I encounter an irrational amount of worry as well as a clutching chill of terror. I can’t imagine (even in the understanding suggested by von Trier or by his therapist) that I would be in the slightest bit composed.
Von Trier may be trying to connect with his audience through accounting his own depression in a cathartic exercise of movie making. Perhaps Melancholia (and the other films in the Depression trilogy) is Lars von Trier’s version of a good cry. Either way, I was able to connect and relate to his depiction of depression in Melancholia and that relationship alone rendersthis film as deeply meaningful and relevant to me. I have been there; I have experienced and surrendered to my own version of Melancholia – and having that experience firsthand doesn’t make me trendy, exciting, or unique. On the contrary, I think it makes me rather ordinary, normal, and human.
Depression is a forecast of flickering television light with blackout curtain conditions and an accumulation of tears. Depression is sitting in your car on the outskirts of a nearly empty parking lot, gorging on fries, nuggets, and diet soda, never really tasting the food, but attempting to fill a pit created from feelings of worthlessness. Depression is never eating at all and withering away as your appetite fails and all desires for pleasure desert.
It is an undulating torture sword swinging between insomnia and hypersomnia, which never cuts to balance between. Depression finds still and emptiness in an active crowded room leaving you silent and alone. Depression is nothing—feeling nothing, feeling like nothing, and existing in nothing—as it consumes your world and everything around you. Depression is a bowing out, a wilting, and a limp succumbing to sadness. With that yield, everything begins to hurt deeply and in an inexpressible way—ALL OVER.
Depression in a series of stunning, running pictures is Melancholia.