The Heritage of Depression in Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA

The first time I saw Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany, 2011), I didn’t fully appreciate its complex representation of depression.  Despite the lush imagery, Shakespearean references, and the threat of the end of the world, something about the portrayal of the protagonist, who suffers from a debilitating depression, seemed amiss.  Rather than a realistic depiction of depressive behavior, the character’s behavior seemed more in line with that of the (stereo)typical hysterical female so often seen in fiction.  After some consideration and research, my regard for the film has improved greatly, with one key realization: Melancholia’s characterization of depression is not meant to be clinically accurate, but is instead the culmination of a long tradition of how we represent the illness in literature, art, and most recently, in film, and specifically as we see it in cases of female characters.  These depictions draw from our historical medical understanding of depression, which have in turn affected even our modern sense about the condition.  Depression is often surrounded by mystery, romanticism, and at the same time, shame.  While the portrayal of depression this way in some art may be the accidental product of our culture, I think that von Trier does this deliberately, and, I now have to admit, does well.

As with most of von Trier’s films, it is presented in chapters.  In the first of the two chapters, we see the wedding celebration of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), who slips into erratic behavior as the night progresses, losing interest in her groom and ultimately ending the marriage as the decadent reception draws to a close.  In the second, we find that Earth is being threatened by the approach of a large, blue planet named “Melancholia,” the advance of which is observed from the family country estate by Justine, her sister Claire (von Trier regular, Charlotte Gainsbourg), Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), and son, Leo.  While it would seem the fate of the Earth would be the most important and consuming element of the story and its characters, it is not.

Melancholia references historical understandings of depression, as is made clear by the title itself, an allusion to the archaic term for the condition.  In the second century, Galen of Pergamon (AD 129 – c. 200) attributed “melancholy” to an imbalance of the humors, especially black bile.  According to Galen, the humors affected both sexes similarly, although the womb was considered an occasional complication.  It was believed that if women were not sexually satisfied, the black bile would be burned up and the menstrual blood not properly expelled.  For this reason, women were considered lustful, seeking male fluids to maintain the necessary balance of heat and moisture (Lawlor 48-49).  Robert Burton (1577-1640), author of the leading text on melancholy in 1621, noted that melancholia may be found “of sexes both, but men more often; yet women misaffected are far more violent, and grievously troubled” (Burton 154).  In his description of “Love Melancholy” (1610), Jacques Ferrand listed a series of symptoms, adding that, “woemen are farre more subject to this passion, and more cruelly tormented with it, then men are [sic]” (Jackson 359).

This concept of the erratic, lustful woman certainly finds its representation in the character of Justine, whose libido is, on the one hand, decreased in response to her new husband, and yet increased for a complete stranger that she meets and pursues sexually that same night.  Justine is not the only hypersexual female character in von Trier’s oeuvre.  In some of his other works, including Antichrist (2009) and Nymphomaniac, Vols. I & II (2013), von Trier has been criticized for his harsh (read: misogynistic) portrayals of women.

Despite this censure, which is debatable, he is not the sole offender in the tradition of the irrational depressive woman.  In her essay on the portrayal of female depression in narrative, Kimberly Emmons argues that the depiction of women across the genres of Western media has resulted in “the commonplace of the emotional woman.”  She asserts that it is widely assumed that women feel more emotions than men and feel them more strongly, that these emotions often descend into “female” mental illness (hysteria and premenstrual dysphoric disorder, for example), and that “these emotions define femininity itself” (112).  The common denominator in Melancholia does seem to be womanhood; in the second act, while Justine’s condition improves, Claire becomes increasingly hysterical and panicked at the danger posed by the planet Melancholia.  Her husband John, on the other hand, is the sole adult male character present at this time and provides a logical, scholarly foil to the two emotional sisters.

Justine as Ophelia

Justine as Ophelia.

To solidify Justine’s role as the symbol of depressed women, von Trier presents her as Shakespeare’s Ophelia, a metonym for women with mental illness.  In an image used as the poster for the film, Justine appears floating in water on her back dressed in her wedding gown, clutching a bouquet of flowers.  Although Ophelia is not the only “mad” female character in literature, the reference may be due to the sympathetic nature of her character.  In Hamlet, Ophelia harms no one but falls prey to the conspiracy of the other characters, descending into a lovesick insanity.  It is clear that her demise is beyond her control, making her an innocent victim.  Von Trier may be communicating the same guiltlessness in Justine, who behaves as she does not because she is evil, but because she is sick.

The planet Melancholia and the moon.

The planet Melancholia and the moon.

While being female may be to blame for much of the problem, we must not forget that the true threat in Melancholia is a rogue planet.  However, even this planet is linked to femininity by the associations between the planet Melancholia and the moon.  Although the viewer is made to understand that the planet Melancholia is not the moon, the appearance of the planet is very moon-like, often appearing in a parallel position to the moon, emitting soft light at night and appearing to be of similar size due to its greater distance from Earth.  Traditionally much depressive behavior has been attributed to the lunar cycles.  In his listing of factors that lead to a predisposition for depression, Burton states,

“Such as have the moon, Saturn, Mercury misaffected in their genitures… that have a hot heart, moist brain, hot liver and cold stomach, have been long sick: such as are solitary by nature, great students, given to much contemplation, lead a life out of action, are most subject to melancholy” (154).

The connection between the mind and the moon dates back to Pliny the Elder (AD 23-AD 79).  While the sun was considered the superior heavenly body, much attention was devoted to describing phases of the moon, resulting in the idea that the moon was somewhat capricious (Beagon 75-76).  Because the moon moved the tides, it was also believed that it exercised control over the brain, which was considered the moistest organ in the body.  The popular notion that the moon affects behavior continues today, as seen in expressions such as “it must be a full moon out” when observing outrageous behavior, although the scientific veracity of this belief has been disproven.  And of course, the word “lunatic” maintains a lexical connection between the moon and mental illness.

Of these beliefs, the connection between the moon and the behavior of women has been especially strong.  In most of Western culture, the moon has been considered female.  In Greek mythology, the moon was represented by the female deity of Diana.  In Pliny’s writings, the sun is referred to with masculine pronouns, while the moon is always feminine.  “She” is the object that we most clearly see reflect the light of the masculine sun, a quality that may also be interpreted as feminine passivity.  Perhaps most obviously, the connection may be owed to the similarity between monthly lunar cycles and menstrual cycles, which may also be accompanied by changes in mood.

Because of Melancholia’s large size, the characters experience a series of strange phenomena as it approaches.  The most notable of these is the increase in gravity in both the dream sequences and in the characters’ reality.  In the dreamlike opening montage, we see a series of images, so slow they appear as motionless tableaux, all of which depict the characters being burdened and pulled down: first Claire, struggling to carry Leo, as her feet leave deep imprints in the grass.  Next, we see Justine in her bridal gown, struggling to walk as she is entangled in grey yarn that holds her back.  Another image shows a horse falling to the ground, seemingly pulled down by some force.

Justine as Bride

Justine as Bride.

These images foreshadow later struggles in film.  The sight of Justine struggling in her wedding dress suggests the feeling of entrapment that her short-lived marriage brings her.  In addition to the grey yarn (a color associated with sadness), even the gown, a representation of wedding celebration, seems to be an added encumbrance.  While she and the image are beautiful, she is trapped and unable to function.  As we later see on the night of the wedding, Justine seems to immediately find married life a struggle, abandoning it in short order.

Claire Sinking

Claire sinking.

The image of Claire struggling with Leo in her arms is a scene that does take place in the second act of the film.  In the case of the sister, she is burdened by a child.  In the repeated, waking version of the scene, she fights in vain to carry him to town, eventually setting him down helplessly as hail beats down on both of them.  While Claire seems to be a doting mother for much of the film, it is possible that this image illustrates the burden of motherhood, a laborious task even for women who desire the role.  In each of these cases, we see the symbolic physical burden carried by women in two common roles that link the sisters: a wedding dress for the wife (Justine), a child for the mother (Claire).  However, the added weight of depression makes the tasks impossible; in both scenes the women struggle, unable to make progress, eventually abandoning their duties and remaining helplessly in place.

Another archaic idea pertaining to depression that appears in Melancholia is that of “inspired madness,” the belief that with melancholy one also experienced “true dreams and prophecies” (Jackson 32-33)  This theory lasted into and flourished in the Renaissance.  In the introductory poem to his Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton describes it as a time of creativity and “musing” of “castles in the air,” going so far as to say, “All my joys to this are folly / Naught so sweet as melancholy” (29).  His joy soon fades, however, and he finds the other side of the condition to be painful, turning the sufferer into a “monster” (31).  This Aristotelian mode considered the depressive person to also be prone to genius.  An alternative view, the Galenic mode, took a more skeptical view, and focused instead on the hardships of the illness.  In either view, however, the depressive was both “gifted and sick” (Lawlor 42-43).

Justine shows signs of this inspired madness, with an unexplained ability to “know things” both trivial and important.  She is the first to notice a missing star in the sky, indicating something is amiss.  Later in the film, as the two sisters discuss the approach of the planet, Justine states with certainty that the world will indeed end.   She goes further, saying that there is not life anywhere else in the universe and that “the Earth is evil… We don’t need to grieve for it.”  When Claire protests, demanding to know how Justine can be certain, Justine says simply, “Because I know things.”  She proves her ability by stating the number of beans in the jar at her wedding, an estimation game that she had originally rejected as a foolish ritual and the answer to which had never been revealed to her.  Claire retorts, “Well, perhaps.  But what does that prove?”  “That I know things,” Justine replies.  “And when I say we’re alone, we’re alone.  Life is only on earth, and not for long.”  The significance of this exchange is that not only does Justine “know things,” as she says, but also that in her privileged knowledge she has assessed the value of life as being worthless.

While the concept of the “inspired genius” is in many ways misguided and ignores the difficulty of depression, it is not unique in considering depression to have some benefit.  The Social Model of Disability, a theory originating in the 1960’s, argues that the ideal of “normality” is repressive and damaging to those who differ from that norm in any physical, emotional or intellectual way.  While individual factors may result in a person having altered ability to function, the Social Model argues that it is society’s failure to care for people that results in them being “disabled.”  Caroline Bainbridge notes that in several of von Trier’s films, Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000), and The Idiots (1998), the issue of “difference” is central (122).  She credits Paul Darke for his identification of The Idiots as aligning with the Social Model of disability by pointing out the hypocrisy of “liberal, bourgeois” society, saying, “His [von Trier’s] perspective appears to suggest that society values structures of sameness over difference and that it will do anything to maintain the boundaries that this entails” (123-124).

In Melancholia’s first act, we see something of the social structure of the world that von Trier creates and subsequently destroys.  As Justine descends into her depression, the various rituals of the wedding reception are made to seem increasingly ridiculous, suffering damage at both her hands and those of her equally unstable parents.  This misbehavior infuriates the wedding planner, who provides some comic relief by claiming, “She [Justine] ruined my wedding.  I will not look at her,” proceeding to hold objects between his face and the bride for the duration of the evening.  At the end of the night, Justine stands on a balcony for the bouquet toss, flowers in hand, staring blankly into space as the guests wait below in anticipation.  Finally, Claire impatiently snatches the bouquet from her hand, dropping it over the edge unceremoniously.  While the actions of the family are odd, they serve to point out the absurdity of the rituals themselves, undermining the importance society places on such tasks as guessing bean quantities or throwing a bouquet.  In light of the Social Model of Disability, we might go so far as to say that these arbitrary tasks are damaging; it seems that the pressure of the wedding and the expectation to perform as an ideal bride is partially to blame for Justine’s decline.

While Justine’s depression is certainly a hindrance with regard to her romantic life and career at the end of the first act, in the second it proves to be a source of strength.  It seems to equip her to emotionally grapple with the approaching apocalypse.  In contrast, the non-depressed members of the family are unable to cope.  Claire is thrown into a panic as the planet approaches.  On several occasions she is left short of breath both due to emotion and as a result of Melancholia taking part of the Earth’s atmosphere.  She is hysterical at other points, demanding reassurance from her husband and her sister.  Her husband, John, is calm and collected until he learns that the planet will in fact hit the Earth, at which point he commits suicide.  Justine is stoic throughout these events, frustrated by her sister’s foolishness but seemingly untroubled by the fate of the planet.

Jonathan McMalmont observes that Justine’s ability to face the end of the world with such calm shows that depression can inspire fortitude.  He argues that the end of the world amounts to “just another depressing thing to be taken on board whilst trying to function on a day-to-day basis,” even saying that, “the end of the world might actually be a depressive’s playground.”  This argument is logical when one considers the depressive mindset versus that of a healthy person.  If faced with apocalypse, the non-depressed person must come to terms with not only the end of their own life, but also the destruction of human history, without hope for any continuation.  The depressed person, however, has likely thought about the possibility of their own death, as well confronted and come to terms with the meaningless nature of the world around them.  This detachment from the world enables them to meet the end bravely, at least according to this theory.

In Melancholia, Justine manages to not only face death fearlessly herself, but also assists Claire and Leo in finding the strength to maintain their calm, even as the planet comes crashing down.  Rather than wait helplessly, she encourages Leo to help her to construct a “magic cave,” a teepee-like structure they erect from sticks.  The tragically fragile and short-lived barricade is as unlikely a shelter as the unstable Justine is an anchor to her family.  Gathering them inside, she carefully replaces the last stick in place, and sits with them in a circle, holding hands, eyes closed.  Her ability to bring unity to the remaining fragments of this deeply divided family is a heroic feat.

Magic Cave I

The “magic cave” that unites the remaining family.

This moment of hopelessness coexisting with astonishing strength encapsulates the picture of depression that von Trier paints in Melancholia.  It is as beautiful as Ophelia floating on the water and as crude as Justine squatting on a golf course in her wedding gown.  These images and references are more than mere allusions to history; they are ingrained in how we have thought and continue to think about this struggle we have within ourselves.  As multi-faceted as this condition is, Melancholia manages to portray the highs and lows of depression in a palpable, sensual way, without once mentioning the word itself.


Works Cited

Beagon, Mary. “The Curious Eye of the Elder Pliny.” Pliny the Elder: Themes and Contexts. Eds. Roy K. Gibson and Ruth Morello. Leiden: Brill, 2011. 71-88. Print.

Bainridge, Caroline. The Cinema of Lars Von Trier. London: Wallflower Press, 2007. Print.

Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Ex-Classics Project, 2009. Web. 30 November 2013.

Emmons, Kimberly. “Narrating the Emotional Woman: Uptake and Gender in Discourses on Depression.” Depression and Narrative: Telling the Dark. Ed. Hilary Clark. Albany: SUNY Press, 2008. 111-125. Print.

Jackson, Stanley W. Melancholia and Depression: From Hippocratic Times to Modern Times. New Haven: Yale University, 1986. Print.

Lawlor, Clark. From Melancholia to Prozac: A History of Depression. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

McCalmont, Jonathan. “Melancholia (2011) – The Misery of Coherence vs. The Mania of Incoherence.” Ruthless Culture. 25 Nov. 2011. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.

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