Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is perhaps the most faithful film in the so-called ‘Depression Trilogy,” which also includes Antichrist and Nymphomaniac. Its upfront title aside, the film deals with melancholic state more directly than its companion pieces; after all, what can possibly be more depressing than the total annihilation of our planet? Maybe the overwhelming nihilism and implacable hatred towards the world in Justine’s face—a dazzling performance from Kirsten Dunst. In Melancholia von Trier slowly smothers every human existence with the suffocating Wagnerian pessimism, and, of course, they all vanish from the universe before they could even asphyxiate.
Melancholia is a shocker not because it ends with Earth vanishing from the universe after the collision with a massive planet, but because the film does not actually show the moment of extinction and its aftermaths. In the beautifully crafted opening sequence we do get a glimpse of the violent crash between the two planets, but right after Earth’s explosion quickly follows the title shot. Same with the ending: all we get is an abrupt fade-to-black. If you think about it for a minute though, it’s only sensible to not show the moment of total annihilation and anything beyond—there’s no one left to witness it by then. However, it still comes across as a ‘shocking’ conclusion because of how our civilisations have dealt with the concept of death and extinction throughout history.
“[O]ne of the promises we make to one another is that we will try to retrieve our casualties, try not to abandon our dead to the coyotes.”
– From “On Morality” Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
Our species has always been extremely fearful of just the idea of complete void—the seeming nothingness that awaits us after death. Many attempts to overcome this fear led to the rise of religions, many of which promised afterlife and rewards for the harsh conditions endured during one’s lifetime. These emerging religions meant the development of civilisations, and we have come to regard death as an event that is bookended by life and afterlife, as opposed to life as an ephemeral event that is bookended by two sets of abyss. It seems there’s great comfort in the thought that even after death, one’s existence is somehow preserved in remembrance, objects, legacy, etc. Hence, the grandiose funeral and mourning rituals—be it religious or not—evolved in many parts of the world. Although they all come in different forms and shapes, respect towards the dead (and sometimes death itself) appears to be a universal theme across cultures. But in Melancholia, none of this is a possibility. Once Melancholia shatters Earth, there’s really no one left to mourn for our deaths. No, we won’t be remembered, either.
“The Earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it,” declares Justine who appears to suffer from severe depression. She belittles human existence to the point it does not deserve mourning and remembrance. Perhaps, she regards life as an incident bookended by two pillars of emptiness, as opposed to death as an incident that divides life and afterlife. And to her life is an incident that should never have come into existence—a mistake. Of course, an exit from all this is available: suicide. However, even suicide, it seems, does not entirely accommodate her needs. What Justine really wants isn’t death, but complete extinction from and of the shambolic blunder that is life. As mentioned earlier, death leaves traces in various forms in the mortal world, and these traces, be it significant or insignificant, linger on for the duration of history. Moreover, even after her death, life continues on Earth. In order for her to stop life—including her own—from existing, the world has to become extinct with her.
“In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.”
– Sigmund Freud
According to Freud’s diagnosis, melancholia results in “an impoverishment of [one’s] ego on a grand scale.” Justine loathes Earth and every life on the planet, therefore she hates herself for living it, too. Her conditions fit nicely with the Freudian definition of melancholic state. At the same time though, the case of Justine goes far beyond Freud’s diagnosis, as the self-hatred extends to the entire human race and what it has built throughout history. She does not slowly combust herself in listlessness, but instead wishes for the end of the world. In fact, she finds the way to make her wish come true—is it just to me that Justine seems to be the one who is pulling the planet Melancholia to Earth? That shot wherein she lies naked nearby a lake, starring at the planet Melancholia in the night sky looks to me like a sex scene between the two. She seduces the planet into fulfilling her most desperate dream, and it is in this shot do we see Justine at her most exuberant, and hell, most beautiful.
It’s interesting that Justine’s virtual sex with Melancholia is the only successful—and meaningful—sexual intercourse she has in the film. On her wedding night, she rejects her bridegroom Michael in bed, and turns to a new colleague for a spontaneous shag. Though the latter, unlike the former, at least does occur and seemingly puts her in a happier mood, it’s nothing comparable to the third intercourse with the massive planet. That Justine’s only successful sexual contact in the film is sterile, in a way, confirms that the fate of Earth has been sealed. There will be no more life on Earth, and the planet itself, too, will vanish forever.
This reminds us of the context of Melancholia, the remaining two films of the trilogy. In Antichrist, which precedes this film, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s unnamed character ‘She’ removes her clitoris with a pair of rusty scissors. If Justine is the extension of She, her unsuccessful sex life (or frigidity) can be explained by the absence of clitoris. And the one time she experiences orgasm, a global scale apocalypse is just around the corner—or rather sex ’causes’ the apocalypse. The link between sexual fulfillment and self-destruction, of course, continues in Nymphomaniac. Joe, again played by Gainsbourg, gets involved in a fatal incident all because of her insatiable sexual appetites. But, of course, the analysis of the trilogy as a whole requires another post or two.
To me, Melancholia is the most fascinating film in the Depression Trilogy. It’s a mesmerising exploration of Freudian melancholia with hauntingly beautiful imagery and spellbinding performances. At times von Trier’s visual flair and heavy-handed symbols become a little bit tiring, but they certainly work better than Antichrist. In fact, the 7-minute opening sequence with the prologue from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde alone makes Melancholia worth checking out. Another solid film from the Danish auteur, but I’m slightly worried where he’s headed to after Nymphomaniac, which, besides being an unusually ‘funny’ film from von Trier, didn’t make strong impacts on me.