Whether depression or something more serious, mental illness has typically been portrayed in a way that is either exploitative, stigmatising or both: most reprehensibly, perhaps, it is still often used as a catalyst for violence, such as in Todd Phillips' recent Joker (2019).
But, amid all these problematic portrayals, arguably no film has been more profoundly compassionate in its depiction of a mental crisis than Lars von Trier's 2011 film Melancholia.
Ten years ago, this month, the film premiered in Cannes and was immediately mired in controversy when, in the press conference following its first screening, Von Trier said he was a Nazi, causing him to be banned from the festival for seven years.
However, now the dust has settled, it deserves to be recognised as an enduring masterpiece, one that came ahead of the cultural discourse's current reckoning with our mental health crisis, and depicted how mental illness can transform the human soul with full-bore cinematic power.
In fact, Melancholia is the second in Von Trier's so-called depression trilogy, which also included Antichrist and Nymphomaniac: through all three, he purported to be exploring different manifestations of his own experience of depression using female alter-egos. "A psychological disaster movie" and "a beautiful movie about the end of the world" is how Von Trier described Melancholia at the time of its release. It centres on a young woman, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) – Von Trier's surrogate – who experiences a debilitating depression just as the literal end of the world is nigh, with a blue planet, the titular Melancholia, looming in the sky and set to hit Earth.
The film is divided into two parts. The focus of "Part One: Justine" is Justine's wedding day: as the film opens, we are in a stretch-limousine with Justine and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), both giggling as their driver tries to make an impossible turn on a narrow country road. Justine and Michael eventually arrive two hours late to their reception.
From here, everything goes downhill as Justine's depression engulfs the day to the heartbreak of Michael, dismay of sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and cold incomprehension of filthy rich brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). However 'Part Two: Claire' flips the script: now, with Melancholia coming ever closer and an apocalypse imminent, the focus is on Claire's mounting anxiety, which contrasts with Justine who, in the grip of depression, calmly accepts their fate. "The Earth is evil.
We don't need to grieve for it," she says. Her lucidity stems from her despair, which in the face of imminent obliteration, scans like existential courage and a capacity to face the truth. Meanwhile John reveals himself as a coward – the situation, it is suggested, has shaken the truth about everyone to the surface.
What makes it especially unusual for a film that is centrally about despair is its visual splendour. As the film's cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro explains, some images for the film were storyboarded by Von Trier in painterly detail, homaging other artworks – like Millais' Ophelia, in a vision of Justine floating in a stream in her wedding dress – or arising from its creator's dreams. These were dubbed "Wagner moments" by Von Trier, a reference to the Richard Wagner opera Tristan & Isolde used to deeply moving effect throughout the film, and most strikingly in its prelude, which is comprised of a series of breath-taking micro-scenes all shot in super slow motion, around 1000 frames per second: Dunst-as-Ophelia; a close-up on Dunst as birds fall out of the sky; Gainsbourg running across a golf course clasping her child; a horse sinking backwards into the earth; Dunst in a wedding dress straining against grey wool that binds her to a tree. This visual splendour confers a majesty on the state of depression that conveys, from Von Trier's perspective, its perverse richness as a condition – that people sinking into the quicksand of their own minds and bodies can feel things in extravagant depth. They just often can't communicate it.
Claro tells BBC Culture he had initially been concerned that the movie would be "too beautiful", with its setting at Tjolöholm Castle in Sweden. "Sometimes you read a script, and have a feeling this is going to be what I call 'cinematography candy'. You have a big wedding at a castle, you have the world going down. When you have a setting that is so spectacular, often you fall in love with the setting, instead of falling in love with the characters." However Claro countered this by mostly glueing the camera to Justine and Claire, rushing at their heels like a loyal hound, capturing every expression that flickers across their faces. Then, when there is a wide shot of the surroundings, or a moment of painterliness, the beauty surges in again like a sudden rush of music.
Why it is so powerful
It is a film that, over the decade since its release, has become a kind of talisman for film fans who have experienced depression, such is the visceral power of its depiction. It is so powerful because it refuses to do what people in the grip of mental illness are often pressured to do: make the pain small. There is a defiance to making the pain so big that it literally prefaces the end of the world. The combination of high-concept science-fiction and realistically nuanced characters and relationships is melded together seamlessly.
Undoubtedly, above and beyond the mastery of Von Trier's filmmaking, Dunst's performance as Justine carries the movie. It's a virtuoso achievement, as primal and physical as it is emotional and sophisticated, and it won her the best actress prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. On the press trail for Melancholia, Dunst referred to her own experience of depression, which she sought help for in 2008. It's an experience that seems to live in the muscle memory of her body.
Part of what makes Melancholia so special is that it continues to serve as an antidote to the poor record of film and TV when it comes to portraying mental health issues. A report into mental health depiction in film and TV published in May 2019 by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that the prevalence of mental illness in the top 100 films of 2016 was way out of step with the real world. Out of 4,598 speaking characters, only 18 or 0.4% were depicted with depression, whereas 21.4% of Americans experience a mood disorder in the course of their lives. What's more, in cases where depression was depicted, it was most often shown as having an identifiable cause – like the death of a loved one (Collateral Beauty, Manchester by the Sea) or a physical disability (Me Before You, Miracles from Heaven) – where, in reality, it does not always have a dramatic trigger. The study also showed how it is often included to express signature story themes involving stigmatisation and suicide. In other words, it is still instrumentalised for the sake of a broad narrative beat or sweeping social point. By contrast, Melancholia doesn't use depression as a device: it is instead part of its very texture.
Someone for whom its exploration of depression resonated is journalist and project manager Julie*. Now in her mid-twenties, she saw Melancholia and casually enjoyed it as a teenager but was retroactively awestruck by the parallels when she rewatched it in 2019. Like Justine she had married in a castle, and as with Justine in one particular scene, she found herself at the time of her wedding in a bath, motionless with emotional pain. When Part Two opens, Justine is the walking dead, a state that Julie remembers from her own experiences of depression. "I was catatonic in the sense that everything that I was doing was completely removed from reality to me. It was a very dreamlike state. Whenever I could, I would go back to sleeping or a sort of cocoon." What also stands out for Julie are Justine's moments of impulsiveness, most notably when, after being unable to face sleeping with her husband, she runs outdoors onto the golf course and has sex with a wedding guest she has just met. Julie understands the logic here. "You're abandoning all sense of control and surrendering yourself to the state of not knowing and not understanding what's going on with you. You just want to feel something. You want to feel like you're part of this moment in space in time."
Jamie Graham is another film writer for whom watching Melancholia was incredibly raw; now Editor at Large of Total Film magazine, he recalls first seeing it at its Cannes premiere in May 2011, while privately in the grip of a depression that lasted three to four years. "I can definitely remember having that sense that the person who had written and directed this had that first-hand experience," he tells BBC Culture. "It was a way I hadn't seen depression shown in other films. So it felt very personal to me. Then it made sense when I found out that Kirsten Dunst had also suffered from it because that performance feels so lived in and authentic.
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