Harriet Vickers: Psychiatry to save the world: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia

Harriet VickersLars von Trier has made no secret of the fact he’s suffered from depression. At the beginning of 1997 he was hospitalised with the condition, saying it left him incapacitated for six months. Whilst the film he wrote during this period, Antichrist, was an explicit nightmare borne from the experience (genital self-mutilation, graphic torture, talking foxes) his latest film, Melancholia, is a more contemplative look at the disease.

In two chapters, the film not only portrays the outward expression of the condition and the impact it has on the depressed Justine’s family, friends and husband (through a much lauded performance by Kirsten Dunst), but the hopeless, doomed and perceptively unreal world the disease has taken her into.

Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) is Justine’s sister, and in the first chapter (titled “Justine”) we see her pulling Justine through the extravagant wedding party she has organised for her. Justine at first appears a cheery, privileged, and content bride, but as the evening wears on we see her façade dissolve. The party is tediously scheduled and highly orchestrated, with the newly weds expected to perform. As the long evening wears on, tension grows between the sisters’ estranged parents. Her boss is determined to extract an advertising tagline from her, even hiring a young man to follow her around “to catch the moment inspiration strikes.” Claire’s braggart millionaire husband, who’s gracelessly shelled-out for the party, won’t let her forget it. Everyone is questioning her on why she’s not happy.

As the pressure builds up, Justine’s depression becomes apparent. She wanders in and out of the party – going to take a bath, falling asleep, necking whiskey, driving around alone in a golf buggy and coldly shagging the young man who’s been hired to tail her on the lawn. She tells Claire that she’s “wading through this grey mud, it’s clinging to my legs, it’s heavy to carry on,” the image of which von Trier beautifully gives us within a montage of ideas from the film at its beginning. Later Justine breaks down in front of her mother, sobbing that she’s “so afraid.”

In the second section -“Claire”- it’s Claire who is struggling in Justine’s world, as we’re taken into Justine’s depressed experience and psychosis. Here the world is about to end, as the un subtly named planet Melancholia progresses in its collision course with Earth. Staying with Claire to recover after becoming severely unwell, Justine is calm and accepting of the apocalypse; after all she says she knew this was coming and “the earth is evil, nobody will miss it. All I know is life on earth is evil.” Her sister however becomes frantic and hysterical; here it is she who is “so afraid.”

The photography in this chapter also draws us into Justine’s mind – the sequences are slow and sensual. In one sequence she and Claire are in the garden picking berries when it inexplicitly begins to snow. The noises from the garden are heightened, and the camera lingers on the flakes brushing against Justine.

The end of the film is the end of the world, in Justine’s unreality there is no part for Bruce Willis or Will Smith. But if there were, they would be a good psychiatrist.

Harriet Vickers is multimedia assistant, BMJ.