Thoughts on Melancholia: Control Flanked by Depression and Anxiety (spoilers)

Quick Context Summary: Melancholia is a film about a failed wedding on the eve of the end of the world to be caused by a head on collision with another planet.

The organization of Melancholia is interesting. It is strictly divided into a prelude and 2 parts with lots of foreshadowing and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde acting as a motif of doom. The first part details the failed wedding of Justine while the second part deals with the lead up to the end of the world. The film is not necessarily enjoyable but it is an experience.

I found the camera work and lighting to be very destabilizing and anxiety producing being composed of a lot of close ups as well as shaky handheld camera work and visible focusing of images. This was the style of filming for the majority of the film though not all of it. Several sections, notably the prelude to part one that shows what shall be the conclusion of their reality, are meticulously composed and glacial in their motion. The end of the world is beautiful while life is empty and repugnant as Justine more or less expresses in the film.

Anyway, the wedding. What does a wedding symbolize? The construction of a new socially sanctioned unit, it is the birth of a new state of being. And yet, here, this wedding is constantly collapsing upon itself with the anxiety of its own pressure to perform happiness and unity. The first problem comes immediately and ridiculously with the limo being too long to be properly driven up to the reception. A problem that somehow delays the couple two hours and begins the film with the first of many partial collapses until the final collapse. The camera work performs the internal anxiety and sense of facade that later becomes manifest in the figure of the bitter mother whose enunciative statements during the toast seems to transfer to Justine her pessimism about the viability of marriage. In a matter of fact way she tells Justine to enjoy this farce while it lasts, and in saying so hastens its destruction. This negative energy seems to possess Justine after this moment no longer allowing her any enjoyment in the fantasy which must now be destroyed because it can no longer be sustained. Consequently, Justine destroys her hours long marriage by betrayal as well as her promotion to a new job.

The first part thus seems to perform the destruction of a birth and brings Justine into the fullness of a depression. In part two, we see her no longer able to do much of anything for a little while, so detached and broken that her sister is now caring for her.

In part one, we see Justine’s sister Claire as the strong and competent sister. The one who knows what she’s doing or the “normal” one as some reviewers have put it. Her husband is the supremely rich controller who knows. In part two, these characters are developed further to the point where I believe they become clear concepts as opposed to full characters. This is why I find it interesting that Claire would be characterized as “normal” for in part two she is nothing if not the embodiment of total anxiety while the husband is the embodiment of the fantasy of control. Claire is always already running around worrying and trying to fix problems, many of which can have no solution while her husband is always ready to reassure her with money or information as modes of control. When the end of the world finally comes we get to see clearly that Claire cannot let go and cannot accept the end of everything, frantically running around as if something could be done. Meanwhile, her husband kills himself once the reality of the demise becomes clear to him as if unable to tolerate this total loss of control in reality except by, at least, controlling his own death. Justine can accept it, having already shrugged off her life earlier, she already performed her end of history and has nothing much to lose any more.

We thus seem to see a juxtaposition of strategies of living versus dying. The depressive Justine has lost her ability to live but has gained an ability to die meanwhile her sister and brother-in-law have invested so much in life that they cannot tolerate death though inevitable it may be. The rational actors in the wedding become the irrational actors on doomsday, showing the empty terror that underlies the way they live their lives in anxiety and control.