Words by Lea Kavita Kutscher
Lars von Trier’s portrayal of depression, starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, has gained infamy for good reason. After more than ten years, Von Trier’s depiction of mental health remains unique by neither romanticising nor stigmatising it. Von Trier simply portrays it as it is: insanely confusing but altogether human.
Something is slightly off as soon as the film begins, a stress-free Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) arrive late to their wedding. Time passes incoherently. There is an underlying sentiment of oddness that continues with the reaction of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John who are not overjoyed about their time of arrival. Slowly, the energy slowly changes. The night of the wedding unveils the complicated dynamics and lives of the attendees.
The complex emotional world of Justine is at the centre of the movie. There are no labels attached to her mental state; only implicit comments from Claire, John, and Michael. It's the human reaction and lack of understanding that adds to Trier's authenticity. It almost seems like if they do not say it out loud, they can continue to believe that it is not real and simply something 'Justine does’. While she is silently criticised as she fails to play the part of the bride, no one confronts her. Their silence ultimately reinforces her self-destructive coping behaviours.
The deeper you delve into the movie, the more understanding you feel for Justine and her behaviour. Von Trier brings something to life that words cannot explain through the aesthetics of the movie. The way depression changes your perception is depicted in the awry passage of time and the focus on seemingly random details that don’t necessarily contribute to the plot. It isn’t concise but neither is depression.
Von Trier is no amateur at depicting mental health on screen, having additionally triumphed with Nymphomaniac (2013) and Antichrist (2009), therefore as a Psych major his work holds a unique attraction for me. Melancholia goes one step further; it does not only reveal a realist insight into depression, it also depicts a part of its history.
Melancholia, originally, was only found in men. It was something geniuses and creative minds had. When science deemed it as pathological, women suddenly were melancholic too. While science does tend to understudy anyone who is not white and male, the history of women in psychology also features the concept of hysteria that labelled women as the primary victim for mental disorder. I could see the history of psychopathology in the movie as everyone simply labels Justine and her mother as ‘odd’. Throughout the movie only the perspectives of Claire and Justine are shown and although they do not represent the typical strong heroine figure, their previously overshadowed perspective is empowering.
Melancholia is a Marchioness modern classic. You’ll probably find your own element that sucks you into its apocalyptic world, because it definitely will draw you in. It’s a feel-bad movie, just as gloomy as it is beautiful.