Driving home a point in storytelling is tricky. For instance, you can go the route of a film like Fireproof which makes no attempt at subtlety. The message is front and center, with the story taking a backseat. And while Lars von Trier’s Melancholia does not preach, it also makes no attempt to hide its core purpose of showing the despair one can feel at the greatest depths of depression and anxiety. The title alone wears its heart on its sleeve.
A previously unknown planet, Melancholia, is on a collision course with Earth. Life goes on for sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). After a Tree of Life like, operatic montage, we’re thrown into Justine and her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), trying to make it up a long winding road to Claire and her husband John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) mansion on an 18-hole golf course. They are running late for their own wedding reception and the stretch limo isn’t helping matters. From there the first half of the movie is reminiscent of Rachel Getting Married, complete with an impromptu embarrassing speech given by a close family member.
At first it appears that Justine is in post-wedding bliss. She and Michael exchange adoring smiles at one another as they laugh about their predicament of not being able to make it up the road to their own wedding reception. As the reception begins and family dynamics start to play out, it becomes clear Justine is not quite right. She is withdrawn. Her husband tries to comfort her but it’s no use. Her sister confronts her and asks Justine to not ruin a beautiful celebration. The night wears on and Justine withdraws from everyone in ways that lead to odd, selfish behavior which has long term consequences. All the while, those surrounding Justine seem to want her to simply move on, to be happy and live life to its fullest, ignoring the direness Justine feels and her actions begin to display.
Some time passes and Justine returns to Claire and John’s place. She is a zombie. She sleeps all the time and is barely coherent. Her depression is on full display. No more empty smiles and attempts at laughter. Claire does her best to tend to her sister while she herself obsesses over the possibility that Melancholia is going to smash into Earth. John, who is fascinated by astronomy, assures his wife that scientists believe the two planets will not collide and life as they know it will continue. Despite the assurances, Claire is anxious. She has a sister lost in the depths of depression and can’t escape the thought that the end of the world is only days away. She pours herself into helping Justine get better, encouraging her to ride horses, eat meals with the family; stay active. At the same time, Claire also purchases medicine for an apparent suicide. Justine seems unconcerned about the end of the world. She welcomes it. Claire fears it yet makes plans for ending life on her own terms.
The theme of depression and anxiety set to the impending doom of the planet Earth is interesting if not ultimately fatalistic. From opening with an apocalyptic montage to jumping into the relative mundaneness of a wedding reception, the contrasts are jarring. And while the opening and closing of the film are as cinematic as any, the bulk of the film is shot in more of a run-n-gun style, with the camera zooming in and out in ways that are unusual for most feature length films. Contrasts are everywhere and yet one consistency throughout the film is how Justine’s depression and Claire’s anxiety are handled by those around them. For the most part, they are treated as “this to shall pass” and not taken seriously. It’s as if friends and loved ones want to give pat answers so no one needs to get bogged down in the messiness that is the desperation and fear the two sisters feel.
Not a feel good film, Melancholia does succeed at conveying the entrapment felt by those who suffer from from depression and anxiety. The story never goes beyond a loose narrative, just enough to keep forward progression and allow the actors to lead the way all while a mysterious blue planet careens towards Earth. Subtle it is not.