Tonight I have no doubt that Melancholia will be revisiting me in my sleep and tomorrow it will be there waiting for me when I wake up. I was asked this evening if I thought it takes a certain type of person to like Melancholia, or if it takes a certain type of person in a certain type of mood. That’s difficult for me to answer as I know that yesterday I didn’t see Melancholia because I was in a more fragile state of mind. Tonight, I felt happier with life and so readier to face what I suspected the film would throw at me. It turned out that I wasn’t ready for it at all. Melancholia stripped me raw, ate me up and spat me out. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Melancholia demanded of me everything that I would wish from cinema at its best.
Melancholia is a film in two acts. Each is dedicated to one of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). In the first, we follow Justine and Michael (Aexander Skarsgård) though their wedding day, as arranged by Claire and her filthy rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) in a grand country home and golf course (how many holes does it have?). On the day of the wedding, Justine spots and points out to her keen astronomer brother in law John a bright red star in the sky. It is identified (falsely) and dismissed.
Justine suffers from depression. Her moods swing from pole to pole. Her new husband Michael seems on the surface ready to bear the burden but as the act progresses it is clear that only Claire knows how to cope with Justine’s illness. And even she can barely scratch the surface.
The second half turns our attention to calm and cool Claire. Except now she’s no longer calm and cool. The red star has become the planet Melancholia and it is now blue. Once hidden by the sun, its possible collision course with the much smaller Earth is now painfully clear. Claire fears the worst. She gathers to her, in the same place as the wedding of the first act, her sister Claire, now almost catatonic with depression, her son and her husband, John, who continues to insist that Melancholia will miss. But, as we know from the opening moments of the film, the planet will not miss, there will be no future and, as Justine states quietly, there is no life beyond earth and all life on earth will end.
Melancholia is quite possibly the most realistic depiction of depression that I have ever seen on the big screen. That doesn’t make the film depressing, it just makes it accurate. Director Lars von Trier and Kirsten Dunst have both experienced depression and this insight resonates. As someone who has lived with the illness on but more often off for years, I have never seen it portrayed in such a way before that I understood that I was seeing an element of myself, one that has been kept carefully hidden. This exposure is, of course, both hugely painful to watch but also extremely comforting. As I watched Justine run from room to room, or from space to space, or from happiness to disassociation, I felt her panic. On occasions, this feeling has driven me across cities at night, through streets with no shoes on my feet, or into a cupboard in my home. It appears irrational to everyone, including the person who’s running, but that’s the way it is. There’s no rhyme or reason behind it and yet Melancholia captures it as it is.
My one grumble with this part of the film is with the bridegroom Michael. He wouldn’t have learned all this about his bride on their wedding day. Her behaviour wouldn’t have been out of the blue.
In the second half of the film, it is now the turn of the other sister Claire to feel vulnerable. In her remote home, kept away from the internet by her optimist sky spying husband, she waits with her son for Melancholia to hit. Justine is turned so inwards that she is immune to fear. Her horse won’t cross the bridge that leaves the estate. But then, as Justine knows, where could they go? Claire’s son has developed a child’s way of knowing which way Melancholia is heading. By holding a circle of wire towards the planet, close to one’s chest and looking again every five minutes you will know if Melancholia is getting nearer or further away. Sometimes, when you test your fears, you won’t like the answer.
Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Keifer Sutherland are excellent. Their performances are rounded and they’re honest. Kirsten Dunst physically lays herself bare for the role and any amount of nonsense spoken by the director at Cannes shouldn’t detract from the unadulterated wonder of the performances he has produced in his cast, including John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling as the very separated and incompatible parents of Justine and Claire. And then there’s Udo Kier as the Wedding Planner who cannot bear to look at the bride.
Despite the story, there are moments of real humour in Melancholia, which shouldn’t be surprising as depressed people are adept at making others laugh. There are laugh out loud moments here, not least with the ghastly mother at the wedding and the rather eccentric father. The film itself looks beautiful. The opening scene, with its tableaux set to classical crescendo, inevitably reminded me of Tree of Life but here there is substance and heart, not pretension and emptiness. We experience here the end of the world as seen by a very small group of people. There are no TVs, no radios. Power is gone. Instead, we see a group of a very few with a monster blue planet rising above the horizon. Each must come to terms with his or her maker.
Flee or stay? What would you do?
Watching Melancholia, I inevitably thought about what I would do if it came to those last days, hours and minutes. And if I wanted an idea of how I would feel during those ticking seconds of life going by I know I could do no better than watch Melancholia for the answer.
This film divides. It’s not for everyone. I heard the man behind me make excuses to his partner and leave the theatre, saying he’d meet her outside. But yet, if you’re a certain type of person, possibly in a certain type of mood, but not necessarily, you will watch Melancholia and you’ll take something from it that will inspire you for days to come. I long to see this film again.
Thanks to Hideki for some of the questions about this film that made me think.