I don’t expect every critic to tell his life story (as I am selectively doing here), but I think it is only honest to make clear to readers: “Here I am. I am writing this. I am not infallible. I am just a human being like yourself. What I have to say and the way in which I say it was determined by my own background, my own experience, my own understanding (or lack thereof). I make no pretense to Absolute Truth.”
—Robin Wood, Preface to Hitchcock’s Films Revisited: Revised Edition
I’ve suffered from depression my entire adult life, but 2011 was the first year I began to understand and accept this fact. In retrospect, my inability to fully embrace my depression was itself a sign and symptom of depression: above all, I didn’t believe I “deserved” to be depressed (because it felt like complaining about my life when others had it much worse, which is certainly an incorrect understanding of depression) and then I insulted and belittled myself for not being smart or strong enough to “fix” my depression, believing that others would think I was “faking it” and simply refusing to be happy and get on with my life. Even though I can’t think of a period in my life where I’ve gone more than a month without significantly feeling the effects of depression in some form or another, I falsely and shamefully convinced myself that I was just going through a series of phases, part of the process of ironing out one’s issues on the path to adulthood. Now, that entire idea, that depression is something wrong that must be fixed and that it is a mere obstacle on the path to maturity, is something I find monstrous, and instead, I feel the most urgent need to safeguard my acknowledgement of depression, which feels infinitely more valuable than all the promises of conventional adult normality. The only real victory I can count is that I don’t run away from this acknowledgement anymore. Others might see this as regressive or even self-destructive, partly because they fear depression so much they’d rather ignore it, but for me, that is just another sign of the grotesque way we deal with depression and mental illness in our culture. One bright spot I’ve found is Lars von Trier’s latest film Melancholia, which coils unbudgingly around a similar acknowledgement of depression not just in its central character (as well as the writer/director who made the film) but as a larger fact of life. Beyond any consideration of aesthetics, I think that it’s a hugely important film, for myself of course but also possibly important in general, and I’d like to try to explain why I think it’s so important.
The first aspect of Melancholia that seems relevant to discuss is its subject matter: this is a film that envisions the destruction of our planet and all life on it. But while the film ends with the annihilation of life on Earth, the heart of this final image is the centered and calm, radiantly beautiful Kirsten Dunst as the film’s protagonist Justine. There are many different ways to look at this image, but for me, a person who suffers from depression, it is beyond beautiful: it is essential. In every way, the narrative of the film revolves around, or orbits (apropos for a film about two planets), the figure of Dunst as Justine. We must remember that this is just a story, one we can safely walk away from, but it’s clear that apocalyptic storytelling can be productive beyond its destructive imagery. It can help us envision the end of our own corrupted world as a prelude to the creation of a new and better one. Or perhaps more importantly, it can realize and make concretely visible the entanglement of poisonous thoughts and feelings, perhaps no better embodied than in the figure of a planet crashing into Earth, that afflicts the depressed person, and in this way, an imagining of the apocalypse as in Melancholia can give tangible solidity to the darkest emotions of the depressed person. By creating an exteriorization of what is inherently, tragically a self-destructively interior process, a film like Melancholia allows a depressed person to draw strength from these images: at least in them, the truth of the world as imagined or feared by the depressed mind is made real, finally, rather than continuing to plague him or her as a terrifyingly palpable, yet elusive, phantasm. And in this final sequence of Melancholia, it is Dunst’s character Justine who remains calm and has the capacity to comfort the young boy Leo (Cameron Spurr), son of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Finally, we are useful for something! At last, the part of us that is ugliest can serve to create rather than destroy: I can’t think of a single image in the cinema of 2011 that brings me as much peaceful contentment as the “magic cave” Justine creates for the three of them out of sticks. It is an act of writing onto the real world that which terrorizes so many people from the inside, invisible and too often merely dismissed. This image comforts me because it suggests that in the face of what appears as utter hopelessness, there is a safe place, a sanctuary, where we can retreat and even draw others in for protection.
The equivalent of this sanctuary in my life has been therapy, my own version of the “magic cave.” Between early 2009 and a few months ago, I saw a therapist, and I only stopped seeing her because, as a student, she came to the point in her academic career where she had to stop seeing patients. I really cannot express my gratitude toward her enough. Through therapy, the greatest ability I have gained is an understanding my own thoughts and feelings and my tendency toward depression. As a culture, we desperately lack good information about depression and mental or emotional wellbeing, and this has led to many misconceptions. For one, we tend in general to dismiss our emotional life, either labeling emotion “feminine” (and thus weak), dismissing it as unimportant, or falsely believing that emotions are not only controllable but that it is our duty to control them. Even though many people would probably describe me as a more emotional person than average (or at least, for a male), I did subscribe to these beliefs about depression and my emotional life. I came to believe, if not consciously, that in many matters, my emotions didn’t really matter because I was supposed use my mind to determine what was right or wrong in any situation (the “right” feeling and the “right” thought). The dominance of the rational over the emotional is one of the main currents that runs throughout Western history, and it’s something that Lars von Trier has examined directly, perhaps most notably in Antichrist. Our culture tends toward duality, and before we have even reached adulthood, our thoughts and beliefs are shaped by socialization and normalization. One of the ways that depression manifests itself is in the splitting of the individual against him- or herself, which leads to the feeling that there are two voices informing one’s thoughts and actions. This leads to rejecting thoughts and emotions that are “ugly” or unseemly and ultimately to despising a part of yourself. This is considered entirely normal and appropriate in our culture, but it can only ever harmfully split the individual and punish those whose mental and emotional lives place them outside the norm, so that battling against not only depression but also oneself becomes an absurdly Sisyphean task. At no point is complete self-acceptance considered an option, and in fact, many signs in our culture tell us to guard against this, because if we accept ourselves completely, we are immorally tolerating the negative aspects of ourselves that supposedly require punishment and expulsion.
In Melancholia, specifically the first part entitled “Justine,” we see this duality and bi-vocal tendency present in Justine’s conflict with herself at her wedding party. Trier partly illustrates this by contrasting lively and bright party scenes with slower, darker, and more quiet sequences in which Justine wanders around the estate’s golf course or hides from her own party. We can see that Justine is conflicted in the way many depressive people are because she vacillates between apologetic excuses for her behavior, intended to pacify her family, and imploringly expressing her darkest fears and innermost thoughts, which she then conceals so as to make an attempt at the contented normalcy that everyone wants for her quite selfishly. She tries to be everything to her husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) and her family, while also attempting laxly to be faithful to her own inner voice, which is telling her that something is not right. In my own experience, this bi-vocality manifests as intense self-doubt and second-guessing. What should serve a normal, healthy function (allowing us to use reason to make sure we are doing the right thing) becomes incessant and, in the process, merely harmful. If we second-guess everything, what purpose could this ability possibly serve? If always functioning, second-guessing means we can never know when we should rightly doubt a thought, feeling, or action. One of these two “voices” feels like the person’s real self, but the other one is much stronger, more bullying, sapping every bit of joy we should feel from moments that ought to be purely affirmative. Life becomes confusing, like fumbling in the dark, and this makes us feel helpless: think of the image, near the end of the film’s first part, of Justine sitting on top of stacked chairs, her legs dangling over the edge like those of a child too big for her seat. It’s tempting to see this as infantilization, and the cynically insensitive often accuse depressed people of behaving like children, when everyone agrees they should just “grow up.” It’s often tempting to do what others tell us is the right thing to do. At least this is something we can rely on, because it’s so much easier to trust another person than to trust ourselves. But this is only temporarily relieving, because we know that it will only take us farther away from direct contact with our true thoughts and feelings. Justine seems to throw everything away at the end of the film’s first half, but in actuality, she is preserving the only thing inside herself that she knows to be true, doggedly clinging to that voice and ignoring all the others.
Depression can also feel like a constant weight we must always pull around. Justine herself expresses this feeling when she describes a vision to her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Her wedding dress is another symbol of this. We frequently see Justine picking up her dress when she moves or in some way fumbling with it. At one point, part of it gets stuck on the golf cart she uses to get away from the party. When she pulls at it and rips it rather than carefully extract it from where it’s hooked, we can see her always-present frustration with the weight she must carry around every day. It’s a small moment that describes untold depths. Justine feels the weight of normalcy’s demands, the pressure to conform. People who don’t understand depression will not understand what is really bothering her. She’s not upset that she tries and fails to be “normal”—Claire says, agreeing with Justine, that she “really did try.” Instead, Justine realizes that she is irreparably different and will always be, in some way or another. Even if depression is “overcome,” a deeply false way of looking at it, its effects stay with a person, for better and for worse. It’s useless to try to fit in and attempting to do so is like pulling a weight that drags Justine down. When she tries to get away from her party and find a place to be alone, she takes a bath: how good it must, finally, to sit in a bath and feel truly weightless. Or perhaps her bath has the opposite effect, a tantalizing glimpse of what it must feel like to give in and allow oneself to drown finally in it all. In the film’s prelude, one of the images we see is Justine in her wedding dress and holding a bouquet, floating along a stream. This image is later echoed by the painting in one of the books Justine picks up later on, Ophelia by John Everett Millais. Suicide is darkly enticing for many depressed people not just because living is difficult but because of how appealing resignation is, a final shrugging off of the weight. In fact, what’s most disturbing is that resignation is probably an important step for many dealing with depression: not toward death but resignation toward and acceptance of one’s depression. In Melancholia, images of suicide and of the weightless of resignation are mingled, and disturbing though it may be, the image of Justine floating on the stream is an undeniably peaceful one.
At its worst, depression feels like having fallen into a pit and not being able to get out of it. In the film’s second part, entitled “Claire,” the focus is on Justine’s sister and how she copes with the inevitability of Earth’s destruction, but we see a different Justine here, one wholly and completely in the pit of depression. This aspect of depression is perhaps the most confusing. Most people think of depression merely as an emotional state, but this doesn’t exactly make sense. We all get sad, and the person who has never felt sad would be far more strange than the person who is always depressed. People use the term “depression” in a colloquial way to mean “feeling really bad.” This emotional state is certainly a big part of depression, but focusing on it too much is misguided and indicative of the way we think of life as a series of ups and downs. Literature on depression conveys the idea that traumatic events, such as being fired from one’s job or losing a loved one, can trigger depression. This is true, but it’s not the case for most people who deal with chronic depression. For these people, the problem is not that a series of negative events and circumstances are affecting and causing our mood; rather, it’s the opposite: our underlying depression is affecting how we react to the events and circumstances of life. That’s why it’s misguided to speak of “being depressed” merely as a state, as the biggest problem of depression is its tendency to reoccur over and over again and to color even “happy” times in a person’s life. Importantly, Trier doesn’t give us a reason to believe that Justine should be depressed. We have a hard time explaining her feelings—but then, why do we think it’s up to us to explain them?—and even she cannot pinpoint why she feels the way she does. Depression colors everything, like a screen put between us and our lives so that even when we feel good, depression has not totally been silenced. Trier’s frequent use of jump cuts and changes in focus help convey this puzzling and erratic state that lacks a strong sense of direction. It isn’t the downs that are necessarily most confusing to a depressed person, it’s everything, such as the way even the supposed “ups” (e.g. a person’s wedding night) feel distant and joyless. On what should be the conventional “happiest night of her life,” surrounded by people who love and support her, Justine cannot escape the pit of her depression.
This helps us see how people suffering from depression are different from others, how they relate differently to these “ups and downs” and to life in general. We can see the three principal characters of the “Claire” section—Justine, her sister Claire, and Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland)—as indicative of the way Trier (rightly, I would add) views different responses to trauma. Justine is a classically depressed person, that much is clear. Her opposite is John, who is portrayed as being very rational and projecting strong competency in all situations. He is somewhat of a two-dimensional character, but I think Trier is well-served by keeping these characters very archetypal. The fact is that there are many people in the world just like John, and we can read a lot into his character. He takes pride in his wealth and seeming mastery in many situations. Much like the character of Jack Bauer that Kiefer Sutherland plays on the TV show 24, John is more a man of action than reflection or feeling. Individuals like John are troubling for a person suffering from depression, because for him or her, action and mastery are complete challenges. Moreover, because people like John have it so much “easier,” relatively speaking, they tend to assume that the problem with people like Justine is that they need to do something in order to fix their depression. This attitude tends to uncaringly suppress any consideration of emotions. How many times has a person suffering from depression been told, “Don’t just sit there and feel bad about yourself, go out and do something to get your mind off it”? Speaking from experience, this is horrible advice! Just thinking of someone telling me that makes me furious because it is a fundamental misunderstanding of a depressed person’s challenges in life. John expresses his disappointment in Justine at the wedding, reminding her of how much money he has spent on the wedding and party. What he wants, the deal he’s going to make with her, is that he’ll feel it’s worthwhile if she’s happy. Tellingly, Justine says that she hopes he feels the money was well-spent: notice how she doesn’t say, “It was totally worth it and it’s a great party.” She can’t feel that way and instead masks her true thought, which is probably that she’s ashamed that she can’t enjoy it. All John wants is for her to be happy, even if, it seems implied, she must somehow force herself to feel that way, as if that were even possible. A true man of action, John seems to believe that one’s emotions can simply be manipulated and reshaped at will.
When the three of them become aware of the planet Melancholia, John is initially excited. Men of power like him always idolize power in all forms, including that of an entire planet (so powerful that it eventually destroys Earth). In this sense, John is a lot like Justine’s boss Jack (Stellan Skarsård), who narcissistically manipulates a young man he has just hired to get a tagline for an ad campaign from Justine on her wedding night or else he will be fired. When Justine quits her job, we can see that she and Jack (or John) are complete opposites. Powerful men like Jack and John respond to trauma and stress through action, whereas depressed people always turn inward to ruminate or direct their hostility toward self-destructiveness. When Justine quits her job, Jack gets upset and immaturely throws a tantrum, breaking a plate. If Freud is right that aggression is innate in human beings and must be channeled in some form or another, then we have a moral responsibility to choose what we do with it. Like Albert Camus’ attitude in his novel The Plague, I believe that it is better to accept harm oneself, even if it means direct aggression inward (which is how Freud described depression), than avoid harm through causing or allowing others to fall in harm’s way. People who suffer from depression often bear the brunt of this, sometimes necessarily and other times needlessly, but this is superior to the way men like Jack achieve happiness (however false) through having power over others. Whatever the case may be, the choice is not innocent or merely a matter of self-preservation. And in the end, Justine may at least take pride that her depression has endowed her with the greatest ability of any of the characters to cope with Melancholia’s impending destruction of Earth. How does John respond when, after initially believing that Melancholia would simply pass by Earth, he discovers that it’s rapidly getting closer again? He kills himself, because unlike Justine, who has likely dealt with depression and trauma her whole life, he doesn’t know what to do with his fear and stress. People like John and Jack have no coping mechanisms because they attempt to block out anything resembling depression by forcibly overriding their emotions. Men like this get off by being in control and don’t know what to do when it is wrested away from them. Finally, they must deal with not having any control, which is exactly what depressed people struggle with every day. A true man of action, John simply kills himself.
John’s wife Claire, Justine’s sister, represents another stance people have toward depression and trauma. We might find people like Claire everywhere. She seems relatively normal and happy, even though we can tell she is excessively conformist, always following rules and orders. At heart, she is good-natured, and she probably has more patience for Justine than any other character. But where John presents mastery and Justine exhibits resignation, itself a form of mastery, Claire is rather passive and weak. She is weak, first of all, in being unable to really connect with her sister. She tries to help Justine, yes, but this “help” often resembles making Justine fit a prescribed model of normalcy than it does true empathy. And twice Claire gets so frustrated with Justine that she says that she sometimes hates her sister. Justine must somehow welcome hearing this because it confirms her worst fears of what others think and feel about her. Claire gets exasperated easily because although she is sympathetic, unlike John or Jack, she is ultimately rather ignorant about her sister. She doesn’t think for herself so much as she merely channels convention, so her attitude toward her sister’s depression is more harmful than beneficial. One might imagine someone like Claire believing, as many do, that Justine’s depression is exaggerated or somehow fake. I have personally feared that people would judge me this way, which has resulted in me doubting even my own depression (an odd sort of reaction that only tends to make me more depressed, ironically enough). You wouldn’t be surprised if Claire simply expects her sister Justine to one day snap out of her depression, after which Claire would express a kind of pitying happiness about her sister’s shift (all along having waited for her sister to simply “come around”). There’s something casually uncaring about Claire, but she’s not actively malicious, just negligent in her relationship with Justine. When it becomes clear that Melancholia will likely hit Earth, Claire tries to do the right thing by attempting to protect her son, but her unwillingness to directly confront the facts of her situation render her helpless. In the end, it is the much wiser Justine, “Aunt Steelbreaker,” who does the most to help Leo. Despite being withdrawn from life and even somewhat hostile toward her sister, Justine nonetheless shows true care toward Leo. Unlike Claire, allied to a powerful man, Justine is most comfortable caring for the powerless and helpless, drawn as she is toward children and animals. She may suffer from depression, but she displays true compassion in her ability to care for others, while Claire simply panics, even up to the moment of her death.
What Claire’s attitude illustrates is one of Melancholia’s very profound insights into depression. Claire represents the common attitude of the majority that depression is merely an aberration, something wrong that must be fixed or cured. We hear in the film that the planet Melancholia was not noticed earlier because it was hiding behind the Sun. Trier here expresses a new understanding of depression as distinct from the conventional norm. The question is whether depression is simply an error, a misapprehension of some aspect of life, or whether there is some real and important truth in depression. Because people who are depressed interpret events in a far more intensified way than most people, it is assumed that they are experiencing a distortion. Reality is out there, and the depressive simply misreads it, this view might say. Some critics balked at Trier’s grandiose plot device of a planet named Melancholia, but I think it is an essential device: it clearly, avoiding any confusion, conveys Trier’s understanding of depression as something concretely real, not just a mistaken way of experiencing reality that afflicts certain individuals. Melancholia has been hiding behind the Sun, so in other words, our too-eager focus on the positive, life-affirming aspects of existence, embodied in the Sun, have blinded us to depression’s essential truths. These truths may not supersede this other, more positive outlook, but it is important that we allow them to at least stand alongside as equals. In fact, by having Melancholia destroy Earth, Trier affirms a curious victory of sorts for depression: after all, in the end it is Justine who is right and who acts most calmly. In an earlier scene, Justine tells Claire that she knows certain things, alluding to an almost supernatural sixth sense, which Claire of course denies. The film’s conclusion allows that Justine may indeed know certain things that Claire perhaps cannot ever know. For the average viewer, this may seem morose, almost macabre, but I saw it much differently, as saying that maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world to suffer from depression. In our culture, skeptical of depression from the very beginning and operating on an ideology of constant happiness, tied quite closely to consumerism, this is subversive and perhaps might even be considered dangerous. But I for one have already given up on being “normal” like everyone else. To be told that perhaps I have unique insights because of something that has seemed to only caused me suffering means a great deal to me. It’s a sign of hope.
And there may be evidence supporting Trier’s view of depression as something other than merely deviously provocative. An article in Scientific American entitled “Depression’s Evolutionary Roots” offers an alternative view of depression, very much unlike how we’re used to thinking about it. The article suggests that we might view depression as an “adaptation, not a malfunction,” that brings “real costs, but also brings real benefits.” The tendency for depressed people to “think intensely about their problems,” as well a “difficulty thinking about anything else,” aligns the thoughts of a depressed person, often called “ruminations,” with analytical thinking that can “dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time.” This type of thinking can be very productive across a spectrum of disciplines, from very intellectually oriented pursuits such as science or math to more emotionally oriented ones like art. It’s no secret that many creative individuals have chronically suffered from depression, leading to an intense focus on their work. The article suggests how the symptoms of depression—“social isolation,” “the inability to derive pleasure from sex or other activities,” “loss of appetite”—aid this analytical activity by focusing the mind on this work and blocking out all distractions. There is even evidence that, despite the assumption of most clinicians and researchers that “depressive rumination” is harmful, “expressive writing”—an activity that encourages rumination—“promotes quicker resolution of depression” because, it is suggested, “depressed people gain insight into their problems.” Finally, there have been studies that have found that “people in depressed mood states are better at solving social dilemmas.” But even without the scientific research to back this up, it makes a lot of sense. Most people can remember a time when they felt depressed and withdrew from their regular activities because they couldn’t stop thinking about a certain problem; the constant rumination most likely helped lead them to some kind of insight. Lars von Trier himself has attributed his films Antichrist and Melancholia to his depression. We might be naively simplistic to assume that working on those films led him out of his depression; instead, perhaps it might be more accurate to say that being depressed led him to create the films. Whatever the case, there is a solid argument to make that Trier is right, as he implies in Melancholia, that there are truths that depressed people have accessed that are valuable. His film is a powerful and hopeful affirmation of this.
But the stakes of what Trier is arguing here are a lot bigger than just whether or not people like Justine really and truly do “know things” that others do not. Melancholia is like Antichrist in that while its focus is primarily personal and psychological, it has real social and political implications that demand to be examined. The ending of Antichrist, featuring hundreds of ghostly women, conjured for me the notion of “missing women,” in Amartya Sen’s use of the term. Antichrist powerfully gave voice to the cultural and social pressures forced upon women in Western society, recalling in its own way Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, a film that showed how a woman finding herself unable to find fulfillment in conventional society would rather identify as a witch than be untrue to herself. Similarly, Melancholia looks broadly at the social pressure that enforces conformity on people who suffer from depression and cannot live up to the ideals of normalcy. If Antichrist used psychodrama and horror as a way to connect Trier’s personal vision with broader social concerns, one of the ways that Melancholia finds its way out of the merely personal is through an engagement with advertising. Justine works for an advertising firm and eventually expresses, to her boss, that she despises the work. I can’t be the only one who sees an echoing of fashion and advertising imagery in Melancholia, which often looks like a fashion spread in some kind of magazine for melancholy apocalypse enthusiasts. Advertising is constantly telling us how our lives should look and feel. We live in a culture where it’s shameful not to be happy, especially given the disparity in wealth between the West and the rest of the world. We use social media to make sure everyone knows that we’re happy or else to draw pity and empty sympathy from our acquaintances. In this world, we must do like Anne (Lisbeth Movin), the heroine from Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, and embrace the role of the villain. Anne would rather be a witch than conform to a society that would never let her truly be happy. Like Justine, we who are depressed must accept this fact and refuse to conform to an image of happiness enforced upon us by advertising and other forms of discourse. In doing so, our embrace of our own unhappiness and depression becomes a subversive act, an image in opposition to a society that only peddles cheap, false happiness.
Melancholia is for me a work of solidarity, articulating a politics of displeasure, depression, and unhappiness. Think of how we could change society if only we rejected all of its shallow claims on our wellbeing and attempts to instill in us a belief in consumerism as a panacea. All people who do not conform to the norms of society stand only to gain from this act of subversion, and many of them have already come to realize that sometimes there is nothing more oppressive than an idea of happiness, however well-intentioned, that shackles rather than liberates us. In order for us to really change society, we must start by examining what we need in order to be happy, truly happy according to our deepest selves rather than merely contented and pacified by cheap thrills. Like Justine, we must come to realize that this process is rooted in this politics of displeasure, of an acceptance of unhappiness and an embrace of depression. Justine may appear more melancholic than ever in the film’s final half, but there is sturdy, noble truth in her suffering because she has rejected the need to conform or the delusion that someone like her could pretend to be someone she’s not. It’s a first step toward honest self-acceptance. This form of politics is already starting to manifest itself around the world, particularly in the form of Occupy Wall Street. It’s not a coincidence that what the American economy is currently experiencing is known as a “depression.” Our society is truly sick, not in the sense that shallow moralists use the term but in the sense of being unhealthy and ill-suited to enabling us to find our own happiness, and it’s getting to the point where it’s harder than ever to ignore this fact. In fact, the drama of Melancholia maps perfectly onto the drama of Occupy Wall Street. Justine is like those brave individuals on the front lines, having dispensed with the delusion that anything good can come out of our way of life. They are fueled by displeasure and an empowering resignation. John and Jack, the two powerful males in this film, are the film’s so-called 1%. This much is clear from John’s misguided attempt to make a “deal” with Justine: her passivity in exchange for his approval and empty tolerance. Justine and John are extremes, but there are countless people like Claire today. They are the people in the middle, the 99% comfortably aligned with figures of power for their own protection and happiness. They’re too naive to realize what’s going on before it’s too late and unavoidable. Consider how different Claire’s relationship with her sister might have been if only she ever really listened to Justine rather than forcing her own view of the situation, but she was too busy hoping that Justine’s view of life was simply wrong, scared as Claire is to confront the more depressing aspects of life.
It should be clear from everything that I’ve written that I cannot begin to judge this film on purely aesthetic grounds. I’ll never be able to disentangle my view of it from the way it speaks to me directly. I’ve seen the film twice now, within the span of a week. After the first viewing, I felt drawn to return because for me the film depicts a world that feels very safe and peaceful. This may sound strange—and perhaps it is—but I left the theater both times feeling more comforted than anything else, as if truly heard. For a person suffering from depression, there is no escaping its effects, and Trier seems to get this: conspicuously, every scene in the film takes place in the same general location, Claire and John’s estate, conveying quite effectively the unceasing feeling of being locked inside one’s own self-destructive thoughts, which constitute a world of their own. Even the opening prelude, featuring apocalyptic imagery, felt calming and soothing rather than horrifying; Trier has experienced depression so deeply and gets something about it so precise that his images are entirely suffused with the stillness of the depressive state. Classical music critic and author Alex Ross has recently written rather negatively about Trier’s use of Wagner. He says that “repetition robs the music of its capacity to surprised and seduce the listener.” Yes, I’d agree, but these sequences aren’t about surprise or seduction, and for the latter, one only needs the image of Dunst laying nude on a hill, bathing in the supernatural glow of Melancholia (as seductive an image of depression as there ever was in cinema). Who needs to be surprised, after all, when depression is about the endless monotony of a particular mental state? These sequences, with their unearthly slow-motion, felt to me very pleasing and, in their own way, happy precisely because there was no surprise. We mustn’t forget that some people, myself included, find joy in the comfortingly reliable nature of repetition. Ross also writes that Trier’s vision “buys into a cheap conception of Wagner as a bombastic nihilist.” But again, to return to the point I made at the beginning of this essay, there is nothing inherently nihilistic about envisioning the end of the world precisely because this is a vision, not reality. That I have returned to see the film a second time is ironic evidence of this fact: we can see the world ending over and over again. Images are important because they help us externalize what is so unmistakably internal. They give us something we can hold onto when everything seems to be slipping away.
Immediately following my second viewing of Melancholia, as the credits appeared on the screen, I heard laughter from multiple groups of people. I cannot tell you how crushed I was at this moment, not because they were laughing at a film that meant a lot to me: it felt, rather, like they were laughing at me. I’ve gotten the sense that some people find Trier’s vision grandiose and self-indulgent, perhaps even a bit pompous and, to return to a word Ross uses, “bombastic.” Perhaps I can only ever been “too” sensitive about this film, but for me, Melancholia is not merely about pleasure: it’s about survival. In all sincerity, I feel an intense and overwhelming sense of gratitude toward Trier and Dunst, who gives a breathtaking and beautiful performance that affirms her as an equal collaborator to Trier. They have made a film that speaks to all the doubts and fears that plague my mind on a daily basis, as if to say, “It’s okay, I feel that way too. You shouldn’t feel bad, it’s just who you are, and maybe there’s something beautiful and good about it.” The public image of Trier, increasingly with every year it seems, is that of a merely childish provocateur, but—and I cannot stress this enough—this is simply wrong and misleading, perhaps even harmful. The proof is in the film, and Melancholia is as deeply thoughtful and sensitive a film as I’ve seen all year. It is a true work of art, a beautiful and mesmerizing collection of image that, contrary to what Ross writes, really does give hope because it expresses an emotional state with brilliant vividness, pinning the darkest shadows of the mind onto our own world in a delightfully subversive and hopeful act. I can only speculate that the viewers who laughed at Melancholia did so out of their own discomfort or incomprehension, but the message it sent to me is that depression is laughable. It’s easy to laugh at fragile, tender vulnerability, but we owe it to ourselves to engage works of art like this seriously. When we fail to do so, we turn a blind eye to issues with life-and-death consequences for some people. If you watched Melancholia and couldn’t connect with anything you saw on the screen, consider yourself fortunate. But for someone like me, every single moment and gesture made sense, a vivid realization of the darkest, most terrifying aspects of my own mind rendered soothing and alluring. When it was over, I felt overwhelmed by this “magic cave” of a film, a creative act of compassion that dared not only to express and visualize the depression I’ve experienced, and feared, my entire life but also to suggest that there was something worthwhile and beautiful about it.
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