Possessed Fever Nightmare: Melancholia (2004), dir. Lars von Trier
The essence of an essay always contains a certain element of clinical distance, something to make it easier to continue.
Me from a year ago dreamt of the bottoms of lakes. When she and her family moved, she wanted her new bedroom to be a deep blue-green, and it calmed her to let the color slowly fill her field of vision as she rolled the thick paint onto her walls. Wherever she was, whatever was happening, it was profoundly comforting to know that she would ultimately find herself surrounded by an endless, undulating wave of teal, one way or another. It still is, sometimes.
Me from a year ago lay underneath these walls of blue and went absolutely batshit, losing herself to wild hysterics. She had to call in sick on a Thursday once because she had barely slept 7 hours the whole week, she spent so long letting her nerves spill apart at night. Sometimes it was because she wasn’t even a person, stretching her hand out towards the ceiling; others it was because she missed someone who no longer spoke to her. The fact that it was a stupid way to be was usually just another reason to keep crying, a self-regenerating market.
Me from a year ago had a system, for those late nights spent staring at the lonely houselights burning outside. It was never a concrete list of questions, nothing so formulated or organized. But she would ask herself, time and time again, to wonder about death; with such a serious undertaking, one has to be sure, after all. One has to envision it in full detail, to ask oneself night after night whether the answer is yes or no (the number of consecutive ‘yeses’ necessary for further action has never fully been determined, though it has been speculated to be anywhere from 3 to 14), one has to have a plan (or several) and an understanding and a journey. Whatever my journey was, it would always end with gently pressing, peaceful darkness.
The essence of a personal essay, really, is being stuck in the wrong genre. But I’ve tried to be a poet, and trust me, I don’t have the guts for it; believe me when I say that if I could somehow adequately describe to you the complexity of thinking about my past self, as I stand here now, the hollow depth of it, the pity and respect in equal measure, the quiet, vibrating horror, I would. Me from a year ago existed on a different plane, one I’ve somehow long drifted away from. (I find it helpful to think about people living in terms of planes, infinitely stretching up and down; everyone is collected in the same universe, and anyone can glance down and wave hello to their next-door neighbor standing just a few feet or yards or miles away, but some folks just find themselves in a deeper state than others.) Point is, there used to be a pressing, indescribable dread behind it all - brain, body, consciousness - which I’ve since all but forgotten. When I do manage to remember, or at least come close to it, it feels like crying with every part of my body without any tears: skin encasing cold lead.
Oh! But then, of course, there’s what this essay is actually supposed to be about: me from a year ago also absolutely fucking hated Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.
…Which is weird, a lot of people think, and makes me come across as an incredibly disagreeable (I probably am, anyways) teenager throwing a temper tantrum over nothing (see previous aside). It’s weird because Melancholia is literally drenched with swamp green, and weepy-eyed Kirsten Dunst is a “depression icon,” and besides, there’s just so much symbolism going on there, you must’ve just not “gotten it.” Honestly maybe I didn’t; I can’t lay any claims to knowing what goes on in Trier’s head (and I don’t think anyone can).
All I know is this: Kirsten Dunst’s character, Justine, seemed to be anything but, well, just. When I posted my shoddily thrown-together “review” on Letterboxd - because let’s face it, the pure stream-of-consciousness blocks of text I post on there hardly qualify as salient analysis - it was supported solely by a bitter, venomous anger towards her. My original words read:
“what kind of person, mentally ill or not, isolates themselves and then gets immediately upset that theyre isolated? who yells at someone and gets immediately hurt that theyre upset? …point is, when a depressed person hurts themselves, its because they want to fucking hurt… this is exactly why i call this a fever nightmare, because the whole first half is filled with dunst being shat on by the people around her while she exacerbates her own pain. thats, like, over an hour of self-perpetuating emotional pain. over an hour of illogical behavior. over an hour of that nightmare, where nothing changes, and she just has one futile interaction with someone after another. all while the camera bounces around the frame like a college student on adderall.”
I also called Justine a “self-pitying wet mop of a woman.” So uh, yeah, not exactly my humblest moment. If I had to more adequately summarize, though, what exactly was - and still largely is - my big issue with her character, wet mop or no, it really would be this: she digs herself into a hole, and then freaks out when she finds herself face-to-face with the dirt. Justine tanks her job, pushes away the man she was supposedly going to marry, and lashes out at those around her, then has the gall to get upset when her job is compromised, her marriage severed, her relationships not right. It’s as if some alien force is possessing her to take action against herself, all while her “real self” can do little more than sit back and snivel at the ensuing devastation. And while some non-mentally ill folks - those occupying the higher planes of our shared existence, as it where - may, from an outsider’s perspective, believe that this is what depression really is, that it’s some sort of dark Babadook possession that fights against your inner, light-bearing self, which is still hidden away inside somewere, begging to get out… In the various experiences I have gathered, from others and from myself, that sort of framework has usually been pretty far from the truth. No matter what hurt depressed folks had done, what pain we had caused, there was always a grace period, no matter how large or small, where we were at least partially satisfied with those actions; otherwise, why were we compelled to complete them at all? To alienate a depressed person’s actions by blaming them on that dark possession is to remove the humanity of being mentally ill, of the way it affects the way you live and think.
And listen, I’m not blind to the fact that Lars von Trier has often cited his own depression as an inspiration for his films. I’m not blind to the fact that many mentally ill folks find resonance with his work, Melancholia in particular. As I previously wrote in my now infamous rant, I’m not the Lorax, speaking for all of the depressed trees in the universe. (Hell, I was never even officially diagnosed myself, if that’s a metric you like to apply in these sorts of things.) And I know that many people regret what they do when mentally ill, wonder about how they could act so irrationally; but I still refuse to believe that there wasn’t even a fraction of a second where some tiny part of them wasn’t satisfied. In remembering my own experience, where I rationally philosophized why and how I should die, where what little solace I found in my pain I achieved by logically understanding that life was inevitable suffering, to see Justine exhibitionistically (literally; remember her under the moonlight?), illogically tear herself apart like that feels like nothing short of a betrayal.
But here’s the thing, now, if we want to return to actual film analysis: Dunst, Gainsbourg, the rest, they’re not really playing characters. They’re playing attitudes, or, if you’re one of those enlightened cinephiles who knows better than us simple peasants, they’re playing philosophies. Or or, if you’re even more enlightened, they’re symbols/conduits/allegories. Two questions arise, then: 1. what is Justine’s “attitude,” really? and 2. does Lars von Trier really need a whole hour (the first part is 66 minutes, to be exact) to establish said philosophy?
At the end of the film, it becomes clearer that Justine is meant to channel a resigned apathy, an acceptance and incorporation of the end of the world into oneself, as contrasted with Gainsbourg’s Claire, who continues holding on tightly to the mortal world even as it is doomed to shatter into mere splinters. With this fact revealed, any shrewd reader would probably like to complain about having just read 4 paragraphs on how Justine is a poor allegory for the depressed experience, since now all of a sudden we’ve decided that she’s not an allegory for the depressed experience at all, thank you very much, and they’d be partially justified: my greatest gripe with the movie does partially contend not with the film itself, but with everyone else’s rabid insistence on labeling Justine a “depression character.” In truth, however, I find that my critique still holds: after all, my main allegation is, in a way, that she cares too much. There’s a part of her that protests against her own self-mockery, a significant part that still wants the world around her to hold still (again, why else would she be so angry when her life falls apart?). There’s nothing apathetic about her character past a few shots of a weepy-eyed Kirsten Dunst staring soullessly at her lover, standing listlessly in dim hallways, etc., which seem more like artistic flourishes than actual grounded character moments, if I’m being honest.
The only redemption I can find for her behavior is to lean back on the aforementioned “possession” frame of mind - maybe she’s “possessed” by the meteor/mini-planet/whatever heading towards Earth, maybe her own self-destruction is a forced channel for the impeding apocalypse - but we can all realize at this point that I have a personal disinterest in that narrative.
As for the second question, spoiler alert, the answer is a resounding “No.” How long does it take to establish a single attitude, a single frame of mind? Even if it is being adopted by the film’s primary character, even if there’s a sense of obligation to give Dunst as much screen time as possible, I can’t imagine needing an entire hour to make it clear to the viewer the apathy that she represents. As a result, the first half is entirely punishing, self-indulgent, and sadomasochistic by way of exhibitionism: a fever nightmare of increasing intensity that never ends.
Big whoop, most of you must be saying, Trier’s films are sadomasochistic. Jesus (Anti-) Christ, stupid, that’s the whole point; you’re running in circles only to hit against the same points, again and again. …And yet again, what is the precise nature of the sadomasochism in Melancholia? Is it the same sadomasochism of depressed self-harm, or is it, as I’ve tried so emphatically to state before, something more? It’s not even Trier’s usual sadomasochism, not the same purposeful self-denial in the way he agonizes over his work and his deliberate use of Automatization. The first half of the film, carried on Justine’s sagging shoulders, implodes in on itself in the cinematic equivalent of two overlapping temper tantrums, both trying to beat the other on how infantile they can be. Me from a year ago fell apart in tears and reveled in an understanding of it, some secret knowledge that made sense to her on that plane that she then occupied, but this film just cuts into itself and then cuts its hand for holding the knife, then looks around in bewilderment at its own ruined form. Me from a year ago rationalized, she made lists and plans, she knew where she was headed, but Justine? Justine acts in pure irrationality, she causes herself hurt without any pleasure in it. She’s pure impossibility, truly a force working against herself, because it is impossible, truly impossible to direct any action towards yourself that you do not feel even the tiniest inkling of rejoicing for. It’s an urban myth of sorts that you could bite your finger in two just like a carrot, that your brain has some engineered fail-safe mechanism to keep you from self-destructing like that. Imagine for a moment that that fact really was true, and imagine that you wanted to best it, and then imagine that you somehow managed to break through the fail-safe: would there truly be zero satisfaction? Or would you, like Justine, somehow rend your finger to bits with total passivity? ‘Passive rending’ - another impossibility, mind you…
But then, what is my critique exactly? That I forced myself into my self-imposed pain while Justine seems to fall into it, that my self-flagellation was different from hers?
Well, yes, I suppose. That’s certainly an angle, and it’s one that’s very present in all that I’ve written thus far. And it is a weakness, one that I’ll accept (unlike Justine), because at the end of the day every critic should, to at least some greater or lesser extent, just fuck off and leave the director be with their vision. Except that maybe, just maybe, this personal vendetta of mine has drawn me closer to a grander conclusion, one that isn’t just ‘local huffy film critic thinks their experience is the end-all be-all of human existence.’ Even I can’t escape, as begrudging as I may be, that the one consistent narrative thread in all of this mess has been a throwaway aside that just won’t let me be: the goddamn ‘possession’ theory. Because if Justine is ‘possessed’ by Melancholia (as in the fictional planet, not a fancy way of saying ‘melancholy’ with a capital ‘M’ - I’m not quite that pretentious yet) then everything clicks into place: she’s struggling against herself, against a forced, nihilistic meaninglessness that crafts this pointless absurdity.
This is not a glorifying film, meant to revel in Justine's state of mind. Rather, it is a piece of horror, displaying a woman consumed by an alien, unrelenting grief. Finally, the extended temper tantrum of Part One makes sense, because it isn’t so much an inner conflict as it is two warring forces trapped in one life, explaining Justine’s hurt and rage. The two parts, in fact, are not only a transition from Justine to her sister, but a shift between struggle and acceptance, a progression in Justine’s character.
A blissfully satisfying conclusion, to be sure, even if I’m not certain it’s really what von Trier intended. Though it does, however, transport us from the realm of depression-genre films to philosophical allegories, and that gives me a whole new suite of things to complain about (where was that Camus again?)…
Keywords: Lars von Trier, Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst, character analysis, drama, mental health, depression