‘Melancholia’ (2011) and How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Planet

In 2011, Danish auteur Lars Von Trier released Melancholia, the second installment in his film series entitled the ‘Depression’ trilogy, which also sounds eerily like life in quarantine. Sandwiched in between Antichrist and Nymphomaniac, the sci-fi film starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg may be Von Trier’s most personal, and has newfound relevance almost a decade later when the end of the world seems more imminent than ever before. Rewatching the film in 2021, the overall concept reminded me of another era-defining film— Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Released in 1964, smack-dab in the middle of the Cold War, the film feeds off the audience’s own real fear of a nuclear attack. The title in and of itself suggests the idea of accepting a fate you can’t change, which is a central theme in Melancholia. The biggest difference in Von Trier’s film is that the protagonist Justine (Kirsten Dunst) doesn’t need to learn, as she has been preparing for mutually assured destruction her entire life. 

When you think of the happiest day of your life, what comes to mind? For a lot of people, their answer would be their wedding day. Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) make it their duty to ensure Justine has the happiest day of her life. After all, Justine is marrying someone she loves— certified massive hunk Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). They fork out an ungodly amount of money so Justine and Michael’s wedding reception can take place at a gorgeous, castle like estate, surrounded by an 18-hole golf course. In the beginning, you can feel the couple’s excitement and love through the screen. Their limo gets stuck on the narrow, winding road up to the house, making them late to their own party, but that could never kill their mood. They’re madly in love, they’re married, they’re about to start their lives together. As the newlyweds approach the mansion, Justine looks up to the open countryside sky and notices a glowing red star, slightly bigger than those around it. “What star is that?” she asks. “Antares. The main star in the Scorpio constellation,” John answers. It’s always nice to have some Scorpio representation in film, and though it is never confirmed, Justine is so obviously one.

They enter the reception, being showered with love and well wishes. The party is ravishing, with crystal chandeliers that line the ceiling, and all their loved ones dressed to the nines. And just when the night can’t get any more perfect for our bride, Justine’s boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgård) makes a speech. He lauds Justine for her work as an advertising copywriter and her ability to come up with golden taglines at a moment’s notice. Then, he tops it off by promoting her to her dream position— art director. Any guest there would fawn over how lucky Justine is and how perfect this night must be for her. Justine’s father (John Hurt) notes that he has “never seen her look so happy.” On the other hand, her mother (Charlotte Rampling) doesn’t share the same sentiment, telling her to “enjoy it while it lasts.” For someone like Justine, an ugly and passive comment like the one from her toxic mother is all it takes to turn her night upside down, so she becomes visibly upset. 

While the film starts on the evening of her wedding, the audience can infer from Justine’s conversations with those around her that a dark cloud of depression has been lingering above her head for long before we meet her. “We agreed you weren’t gonna make a scene tonight,” Claire says to her. Everyone who loves Justine has rallied together to make this one good thing happen to her— one great night— because she deserves it. But for someone suffering from depression, it can never be that simple. Justine’s mood shift is partnered with a tonal shift in the film, as the audience can feel her struggle to just be present and happy. She walks out onto the vast green alone, hopping in a golf cart and driving out to a gazebo with a huge telescope. She looks at the stars, homesick for another life. Antares. 

Justine goes back and forth between the reception and the metaphorical pits of despair in her mind. She listens to Michael’s speech, proclaiming himself the luckiest man on earth, only to immediately retreat to her nephew Leo’s bedroom to shut her eyes. Claire comes to wake her, and on the brink of tears, Justine explains, “I’m trudging through this gray, wooly yarn pulling my legs. It’s really heavy to drag along.” It doesn’t take a poet to unpack the metaphor here, as Justine’s struggle is palpable. Whether or not the feeling is shared with the audience, it is understood. Michael and the rest of the wedding guests wait downstairs for Justine to help cut the cake, but like any depressive would on their wedding night, she takes a bath. John retrieves her and brings her downstairs, and she and Michael cut the cake, but Justine can barely force a smile for the camera. 

Justine trudges through a forest wearing a wedding dress. As she walks, black vines hold her back.
Image Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Sweet Michael can sense Justine crumbling and takes her aside to give her her wedding gift— an apple orchard he just signed the deed for. He says that if she is having a sad day, the apple trees will make her happy again. Understandably, this brings up complicated feelings for Justine. She is endeared by his gesture and albeit somewhat naive thoughtfulness. However, the reality for her is that she simply cannot see her future that far ahead— she never has. “You better be goddamn happy,” John tells Justine. “I should be. I really should be,” she replies. She is experiencing something all people with depression are acquainted with— when you are trying your damnedest just to feel something other than hopelessness, but it’s impossible to fake. She practices her smile in the mirror before going back downstairs. “Happy?” Justine’s father asks her. It’s a question that’s never been more loaded. She sits coldly and watches her guests dance, detached and dissociated from it all.

At this point, there is nothing that will lift her out of this trench. That looming emptiness that Justine is feeling is not generally something that can be cured by love. Depression is an inherently selfish disease, and there is a level of narcissistic destruction that can accompany its mania. So keep that in mind when I tell you Justine would rather have sex with Tim (Brady Corbet)— some innocuous kid that her boss brought to the wedding to pull a tagline out of her— than consummate her marriage with her hunky new groom. She follows that by going off on Jack, calling him a despicable, power-hungry little man, and then quits her job. Michael leaves her, assuming he found out about Tim. Her dad leaves. “Sometimes I hate you,” says Claire. And just like that, over the course of one evening, Justine goes from having everything to having nothing. “I tried, Claire,” she moans. And we believe her— we saw it. Depression is a fickle, fickle disease. As the events of the last six hours dawn on her, Justine looks up to the sky and notices a change, “The red star is missing from Scorpio,” she says.

Until part two of the film, the audience can assume the title is only referring to Justine’s state of mind. Boy, are they wrong! “I’m afraid of that stupid planet,” says Claire, referring to the titular planet of Melancholia that is rapidly travelling through space, posing the risk of colliding with Earth. John— who is some kind of know-it-all expert on every topic— assures her that it will not, just like it did not collide with Mercury or Venus. “Melancholia is going to pass right in front of us and it will be the most beautiful sight ever,” John claims confidently— so confidently that you can’t help but doubt him.  A couple weeks have passed since the wedding, and Justine arrives back at the estate to join her family for the astronomical anomaly. She is more unwell than we have ever seen her and her hair is now cut to her shoulders, which is never a good sign. She sleeps for hours on end, and is still tired when she is awoken for dinner. Claire makes her favourite meal, meatloaf. “It tastes like ashes,” Justine cries. Young Leo (Cameron Spurr) shows his aunt the path of planet Melancholia, which is inching closer. Claire wants no mention of it. Some viewers of the film have argued that Claire’s reaction to the news of a probable Armageddon represents anxiety, partnered with Justine’s depression. I would argue, however, that Claire’s reaction is actually just a neurotypical response. Any person in their right mind would panic upon learning the earth is days away from potential destruction. Worry, paranoia and anxiety are all reasonable and expected reactions. On the flip side, John is excited at the spectacle he and his family are about to live through, while also doomsday prepping on the off chance they survive a fatal disaster. Justine is, well, impartial. “If you think I’m afraid of a planet then you’re too stupid,” she says. I get it, she is too deep in throes of depression to even get excited about the prospect of death. But scared? Absolutely not. Bring it on.

Three people stand in front of a shadowed castle that stands in front of a cloudy night sky that shows three moons. On the left is a woman wearing a wedding dress. In the middle is a child wearing a suit. On the right is a woman wearing a purple dress.
Image Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

In the dark of the night, Justine and Claire observe the big blue planet beaming its tint onto earth, sitting parallel to the moon. Enamored, Justine strips nude and basks in Melancholia’s glow, harbouring its power. Claire is disturbed by her sister’s seemingly sexual connection to the giant death rock billowing towards their ozone. To educate herself and likely to validate her fears, Claire doomscrolls on the internet. She lands on a webpage entitled ‘Earth + Melancholia: The Dance of Death’ that uses images and graphs to demonstrate how likely it is of their paths overlapping. Claire goes into town the next morning and returns with a bottle of prescription pills, this is her way of doomsday prepping. She mistakes Justine’s glum energy as fear similar to hers, and tries to comfort her. Claire tells her the planet will pass them by, but really she is just trying to drill that narrative into her own head. Justine’s response perfectly encapsulates who she is and who the audience has been trying to understand. “The earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it.” No one will miss this floating mass of poverty and hatred, and neither should Claire. She doesn’t stop there. Justine prophetically insists there is nothing else out there, “Life is only on Earth and not for long.” Is she a real prognosticator? Or are depressed people just more in tune with their existential reality? 

The fateful night has arrived. Justine, Claire, John, and a sleeping Leo sit outside on the terrace and watch as a blue hue rises over the horizon. Captivated, they observe as the giant sphere reveals itself. John asks Claire if she is afraid. “No, it looks friendly,” she replies. As John predicted— and he can prove with his homemade pseudo-scientific metal-death-planet-measuring-device— Melancholia passed by and is now moving away from Earth. They toast to life, or whatever. Claire calms down, now able to enjoy and revel in the remarkable miracle they just witnessed. She tells Justine to be happy it didn’t kill them all, and that she has it so easy. While Claire loses her mind imagining the worst thing possible, Justine remains stoic, because for her, the worst thing possible would be the best thing possible.

Claire doesn’t get the chance to revel in relief for too long because by the next morning, John is missing and Melancholia is back, edging closer than ever before. She scrambles looking for him and thinks to check the bottle of pills, only to find it empty. Claire hears the high pitched sound of horses in panic in the nearby stables and races to check inside. There lies John, dead from an overdose. She covers his body in hay and lets the horses free. Melancholia has now filled up the sky. A storm brews, cars won’t start, hail pellets fall from above. Claire— who is carrying Leo— gives up trying to escape after she realizes there’s no way out. She climbs back to the terrace where Justine waits, docile. Auntie of the year steps in to comfort Leo. She suggests they should build a magic cave of protection, dropping the first hint of humanity we’ve seen in her since minute one. They collect sticks and stand them up teepee style. All three of them sit in the magic cave, Claire takes her son’s hand for the last time, and then her sister’s. It happens faster than you’d think— in seconds the sound of planets colliding boom over the orchestral score and a blue cast overflows the screen. Melancholia fills the atmosphere and crashes into Earth, engulfing the cave and all three of its inhabitants in flames. Cut to black. Credits roll. The ending should feel bleak, but instead there’s an overwhelming sense of peace. Justine— a character with murky morals and an untrustworthy narrative— was right. Not only was she right, she was empowered, shooting literal beams of electricity from her fingertips, sourced from total annihilation. 

In front of a giant moon that takes up most of the blue sky, three people sit on the top of a frosty hill, underneath a bunch of sticks that have been tied together to create a
Image Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

I don’t know who hurt Lars Von Trier, but whoever did unintentionally planted a seed within him that eventually became this film. If you watch the rest of his ‘Depression’ trilogy’, you might find that Melancholia is the most intimate, hopeful, and sanguine of them all, despite what the title implies. Those who suffer from depression struggle to find substance in anything. We watch Justine attempt to find it in many different places in the first half of the film, only to come up empty. Catharsis comes from watching her find it in the second half, even if it is from carnage. There are rarely any real life situations where depression isn’t a complete hindrance, but what Von Trier is able to do here is give us a situation in which depression is not an impediment, but a superpower. This concept is what brings me back to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. There comes a time when attempting to find normalcy and rational thought just becomes wasted breath. In both films, we follow the protagonist on their journey of blissfully accepting their fate. Both films end with massive, catastrophic explosions that feel more like a firework celebration. The biggest similarity these movies share is their ability to provide myself— and hopefully, lots of others like me— comfort in times like these. In times where the end feels closer than ever, where devastation is a daily occurrence all over the world, us folks who are already consumed with dread need a little something to identify with. For us, Justine is Iron Man. 

Header image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures