The arts in mental health: The film committee on “Melancholia”

This poster for Melancholia has a few layers of symbolism. It references Millais's painting Ophelia. The lilies of the valley traditionally represent (ironically) a return to happiness.

Depression is something I understand very well–at least my own experience of it. I’ve suffered a few bouts that have shaken me pretty badly. I hope to never feel that way again, but the odds are against me since the risk for another depressive episode increases with each episode a person goes through.

I have to be mindful of the thoughts that pass through my head, and even take care to monitor and process my daily experiences. So, because of my personal experience, I was drawn to the film Melancholia–but I didn’t want to handle it on my own. No problem there: I recruited some movie-loving friends, snacks, and beer for the world’s most depressing movie party! Happy Friday night!

Actually, it was amazing. Metaphor can be a powerful tool in counseling. Melancholia is basically the world’s longest metaphor on the process of depression. I’m not going to type up a plot synopsis because you’ll find a better one here. Basically, it follows the path of new bride Justine’s depression through to (literally) the end of the world, as the rogue planet Melancholia collides with the earth.

I say “process” because the director, Lars von Trier, treats depression as much more of a process than an emotional state. We don’t see Kirsten Dunst’s character, Justine, emote very much, perhaps reflecting the emotional flatness (alexithymia) that can accompany depression. Instead, we see her actions. The first tiny fingers of depression start to grip her, causing her uncertainty at her own wedding, followed by rejection of her family and new husband, then depression so deep she can barely stand. As the planet Melancholia hurtles towards Earth, she realizes that the end is near and faces it with calm acceptance. During these stages, we see Justine lose her family, friends, and job because they cannot understand her sadness, as well as her hopes for the future, in the form of a new husband and a beautiful plot of land on which to build a new home.

Of course, this is only Justine’s view on depression, and it seems like old hat to her. The planet Melancholia brings out additional ways that people can experience depression as it makes its way towards Earth. As Justine grows more calm, knowing that the end of her pain is near, her sister grows increasingly fearful, and to maintain the balance in their relationship, Justine becomes the caregiver. Justine’s brother-in-law, who has excitedly followed the path of the planet until the end, suddenly kills himself as he realizes the inevitability of the situation and his inability to control it. I think Von Trier is saying that we all have the capacity for depression–as one of the characters points out, Melancholia has been hiding behind the sun for the whole time.

To convey depression on a level beyond the subject matter, the director structures and paces the movie so that the viewer can get a sense of how depression feels in time and space. An evening-long wedding reception feels like it drags on forever, and although the approach of Melancholia can’t be that far after the reception, it feels like another eternity. The viewer gets a sense of the intense slowing down that can accompany depression–Justine’s world feels like it exists without time.

We also experience Justine’s increasing isolation. She begins surrounded by people at her wedding reception, and as she grows increasingly depressed, they abandon her one by one as they realize they cannot help her. Only her sister, brother-in-law, and nephew remain. The family maintains and lives at an inn, but the rooms are empty and the spaces large and vacant. No other characters are introduced in the second half of the film.

I would be remiss not to mention the music that Von Trier selected, which is the Prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. This piece features one of the most famous chords in Western music history, affectionately known as the “Tristan Chord:”

Volumes have been written about this chord, and the speculation surrounding it is so technical that I don’t need to go into it here. (Also: I don’t understand all of the theories behind it!) Basically, this chord (highlighted above, listen here) doesn’t function musically as it should. The chord’s combination of intervals doesn’t pull a particular way, meaning that it sounds ambiguous. In Wagner’s day, it was so revolutionary that it sounded dissonant and outlandish. Almost 150 years later, our ears have adjusted, but when you break it down on paper, it’s still bizarre. In addition to a good portion of the prelude played at the beginning, Von Trier uses the four measures above over and over again throughout the film. There is so much meaning associated with this chord and with Tristan und Isolde in general, but I think part of the draw in a film about depression may be in how the chord manages to function at all.

The various elements of Melancholia combine to form a film that is slow (in a good way), surreal, and disorienting, much like depression itself. Both the director and Kirsten Dunst have faced depression, and I think they bring their personal experiences to the movie to make it so rich.

The film was, surprisingly, not outrightly depressing–there’s something hopeful about it. Perhaps this is because we take the journey through depression together? My friend Mike pointed out that it’s very different from Von Trier’s other movies, which I guess are graphic, upsetting, and bizarre. In all, though, it’s a great commentary on depression and a way to open dialog about it.

Overall, we enjoyed Melancholia, as much as we can a movie about a serious mental disorder. Louie might have dozed a few times. Mike was saddened by the distinct lack of talking foxes in this film. (Sad day! That would have added so much to the ending! I KID.) I got pushed off the couch by a 5-pound dachshund who wanted his spot, goshdarnit, and Sarah got home from work late because she was driving a Porsche around a racetrack. So maybe we didn’t FULLY absorb the whole movie…but we still appreciated a new perspective on an age-old issue.

However, I think our next movie night is going to involve a BBQ, some seriously bad B movies, and no thinking!

Photo source.

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2 thoughts on “The arts in mental health: The film committee on “Melancholia”

  1. Bravo!!! The mix of setting, story telling, cinematography, deep acting…. Then Wagner’s (or uncle Lizt’s) chords and music propel this art film to an intentionally hard battle to endure. Beautiful write up!!!

  2. I really relate to what you’re saying. I have dysthemia (chronic low-level depression), and it can really affect my thought patterns. I have to watch out for that on a daily basis.

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