SPOILER WARNING: Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
Bleakness is the word of the day in Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011). While the depressed and despondent Justine (Kirsten Dunst) slowly unravels on the night of her wedding, her seemingly much more calm and composed sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) does her best to keep her world from unraveling. But what the audience, and also Justine in her own way, already knows that all of this is for naught, as the world is on a literal collision course with its own destruction. Herein lies the key to the film. If nothing really matters in the end then what is the point of continuing on? Melancholia seeks to answer, counter, and justify this concern by giving is audience a point of human reference. In this case, it is Justine, whose bleak outlook on the world runs parallel to the larger global narrative that is taking place. Melancholia gives its audience a compact and human perspective on total bleakness, and because of this the ultimate tragedy that is the complete end of the world is made to be perfectly comprehendible.
From the perspective of Justine, nothing matters in the world. Suffering from crippling depression, her world slowly unravels on what is supposed to be the happiest night of her life. She is surrounded by those that are useless to her, her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) and her new husband (Alexander Skarsgård), and those who’s intentions serve little more than themselves, such as her own mother and father (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt, respectively). Claire is the only one around Justine that seeks the betterment of her sister, but even she cannot resist stating that she hates her at times. But none of these people really matter to Justine, as she is concerned with little to nothing, including her loved ones.
Even though she does not yet know that the Earth is on a fatal collision course with the rogue planet Melancholia, Justine behaves as if this knowledge is already ingrained in her at her wedding reception. Her world is already coming to an end, as the prospect of her own marriage and future is perceived to be what provokes her. Her mother, Gaby, reinforces her fear by telling her that she would be afraid were she in Justine’s place. Her father decides to leave his daughter when she needs him most, playfully calling himself “stupid” in his too little, too late goodbye note. The only one that has any sense of Justine’s need is Claire, and even she cannot bring herself to fully comprehend what she needs to do. The first section of the film concludes with Justine alone, perhaps as alone as she always has been, as she has severed the few ties that she has and been abandoned by almost everyone else.
The second section of the film switches its focus to what has been portrayed as a steady force in the character of Claire. But as this latter section of the film continues it becomes increasingly apparent that Claire’s steadiness can only be maintained when it is not her insecurities that are on display. Composed and determined when she deals with the now nearly nonresponsive Justine, Claire’s concerns steadily grow as the possibility of the end of everything becomes increasingly real. Claire, justifiably concerned for the safety of her family, cannot grasp her own helplessness. But as she begins to disintegrate as fear and hopelessness set in, Justine begins to once again awaken and become more functional than her sister. As Melancholia grows closer, its affect is markedly different on the two sisters. Claire begins to exhibit the behavior one would expect when someone is faced with the end of the world, while Justine becomes as capable as she was prior to her wedding. Essentially, nothing has changed for Justine. Her world has always been ending, and now that the end is apparent, she is more equipped to face it than those around her.
With nowhere to run or hide, Claire and Justine must reckon with how to handle their own demises. While Claire wants to “get it right,” Justine is less concerned with the ceremony and more with the actual event. The end is the end, and Justine has the clarity to see the ultimate uselessness in any sort of ceremony. Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) opts out of all of these issues by committing suicide mere hours before Melancholia’s arrival. Having always shown near-complete faith in science, John cannot handle the possibility that everything has failed him or is simply useless. His decision to end his own life serves little in the grand scheme though, as all it ultimately accomplishes is hastening Claire’s breakdown as well as denying her a path that she had reserved for herself. Left with no choice but to live out her hours on Earth, Claire ultimately has to follow the lead of Justine, as she loses her formerly steady grasp on the world. Justine does not fill this role as much as she simply acts and others follow her lead. She is the rare, or rather only, calm force in the latter third of the film, and despite the fact that she has long since accepted her demise she appears to be the only levelheaded person in sight.
Justine’s acceptance of the end is the force that ultimately allows her to function in the face of the end. Melancholia does not congratulate Justine on this, just as it does not condemn Claire for her own breakdown. Instead, the film simply shows its characters in two different situations, which are the same scenario in many ways. Justine’s outlook never changes, whether she is at her own wedding reception or sitting with her sister and nephew as the world ends. When she is faced with nothing, not the end of the world or her own personal end, Justine is at her most despondent. Claire is her inverse though, as she is at her best when her sister is at her worst. Though she does not always know how to best handle Justine’s mental state, she is still determined to do the best she can for her. But as Melancholia approaches, it is clear that Clair does not know how to function in the face of the inescapable end. Opposed to Justine, whom literally basks in Melancholia’s light, Claire is still determined to maintain her status quo and as this becomes impossible her entire character breaks down. Justine does not swoop in to save her though. Instead, she simply plays out her behavior and allows Claire to do her best to follow suit. Utter bleakness has adverse effects on the two sisters, and Melancholia does not reward or condemn either of them for their respective behaviors. Instead, it allows them to play out until the end of themselves so that the full effects of Melancholia can be examined.