We’d like to offer the depressed comfort in the form of a single life-changing pep talk. But in reality, depression eats away at the belief you can be happy again. Perhaps this is why feel-good films are poor fare; If only it were easy to believe that things will be better. Melancholia does not attempt to make anyone feel better, only offering sympathy and understanding. But it offers more solace to the depressed than any happy ending could ever hope to.
While it is easy to resent that Justine is miserable on such an opulent estate, the setting truly speaks to the nature of depression. Justine has the wealth to buy anything, but she wants none of it. Her support network, however, believes that money can buy happiness. A memorable scene, where Justine’s lover buys her an orchard, telling her “If you still have days when you’re feeling a little sad …I think this will make you happy again”. Could he be any more clueless? Claire’s husband is obsessed with the cost of the wedding and his house, resenting that Justine takes a bath rather than participate in her wedding. Wealth is not meaningful for Justine, but she is stuck in a world that revolves around the pursuit of material happiness.
A major symptom of depression is a feeling of alienation from others. The mise en scene reflects this. Justine does not look anything like her family, a blonde American compared to her dark-haired family. Her accent is American among a British family, further emphasizing her apartness. In addition, nobody at the wedding seems to understand or care about Justine. Her mother insults her in a toast, her boss hounds her for a tagline, her sister argues with her when she has an emotional breakdown, and her father abandons her when she needs him most. As far as everyone else is concerned, Justine is a pretty piece of property to be traded around. Even Tim, a seemingly nice guy immediately tries to obtain Justine for himself when Michael breaks off the wedding. Perhaps Justine’s problems would not be as severe if she had a proper support network.
Justine’s actions at the wedding become understandable in this context – she acts out because of a need to express a pain nobody understands or cares about. Justine has sex with Tim because, unlike her husband, he understands her plight in a small way; Nobody at the wedding shows him much sympathy either. Most heartbreaking is Justine’s line “I tried, Claire, I really tried”. Justine desperately wants to please the people around her, but her actions are self-sabotaging. This feeds a cycle of failures – she fails, loses self-esteem, setting her up for another failure. Justine is even aware of this cycle, bitterly asking Michael “What did you expect?”. It’s easy to blame Justine for ruining the wedding, but it’s impossible to hate Justine more than she hates herself.
After the wedding, Claire learns to accept Justine, and cares for her. Even when her husband berates Justine’s inability to take a taxi, she patiently counsels Justine. Claire’s support is in sharp contrast to the comfort her husband gives her about Melancholia. Her husband can only tell her “It’s not going to hit us”. “Everything’s going to be all right” is poor comfort when you have no capacity for hope, and Claire does not believe him. Many would-be soothsayers like to tell the depressed how much there is to live for, but it’s too difficult to really believe. Claire doesn’t tell Justine “everything’s gonna be alright” - she just makes sure she is there for her. And over time, Justine gets better. There is no single event that heals Justine, but a process. And perhaps this is why it’s so hard for others to help the depressed. It takes patience and sustained effort, when it’s so much more convenient to give help in one passionate dose. This leads to friends and family getting fed up, which makes the depressed feel even more alone.
The planet Melancholia represents the inevitability of death. Justine accepts the end of the world without complaint. She even seems to welcome it, presenting herself naked to the blue planet in the sky. Justine’s expression is zombie-like at the end; She can accept death because she is already dead inside. Like many suicidal people, she believes nobody cares for her, saying, “The earth is evil, the universe will not mourn us”. But she does make an effort to comfort her family, who do not share her suicidal thoughts. She builds Leo a magic cave, and holds Claire’s hand as Melancholia descends on them. Justine’s grim resignation at the end speaks to a peculiar strength of the depressive mind – she cannot handle the pressures of a wedding, but faces the ultimate fear without flinching. Ironically, the least melancholic among them, Claire’s husband, kills himself when he realizes Melancholia will hit Earth. Perhaps he never really believed he would die, thinking his wealth would make him immortal. He is the only one to welcome Melancholia, denying it would hit earth. In the end, though he realizes his own mortality, and faced with it, expedites the process. Claire tries to escape Melancholia, but she finds herself stuck on a golf course, unable to leave the estate. In the films world, there is no escape from death; Claire’s attempts to leave the estate would not have saved her even if she had made it. In the end, all the sisters can do in life is console each other.
Tristan Und Isolde plays throughout the film, and the score corresponds perfectly with the narrative – tragic, personal but epic. This is the sound of earth’s destruction, and any other disaster film should take note. The film also eschews the traditional sci-fi disaster tropes. The world outside of the castle is rarely mentioned, we do not see television reports referring to earth’s impending doom, cities are not destroyed. This is a personal film – we see a family dealing with a disaster, rather than a united Earth. And depression is a personal disaster. It isolates the victim, makes them feel alone in their own little bubble. The estate serves to isolate the audience from the rest of the world, much as Justine is isolated from everyone else.
If there is a flaw in the film, it is the use of the shaky camera. Perhaps it was introduced to make the film more realistic, but it often distracts from the film. Depression is like being mired in molasses, and the camera should make slow, steady movements, or not move at all. Instead we have manic camerawork, which detracts from the film’s statement. But it is a small flaw in an otherwise brilliant film.
Many critics of the film are annoyed with Justine, but do these critics really understand what depression is like? It’s easy to call her a self-destructive bitch when you see the world normally. Depression robs you of your self-worth, your ability to reason, even just your ability to believe that anything could be good in life. Justine deserves our compassion, because she is in terrible pain, and hates herself more than any critic could. Most of all, Justine needs understanding about her illness, someone to hold her hand and not give up on her. And so do all our friends and family members who suffer from depression. Melancholia is a portrayal of depression, a film that should inspire compassion, not anger. Yes, it’s slow, and self-indulgent. Be empathetic. The film cannot give you the hope of a traditional Hollywood spectacle, but it will hold your hand through your darkest moments, and that can mean the world.