The Human Condition in Melancholia

Melancholia is one film with two, intertwining narratives which both support each other thematically and visually. Through the focus on the two sisters, the disaster plot versus depression, and the unique visual style, Lars von Trier paints a dark picture about the frailty of mankind. This personal page from the director’s diary allows him to fully embrace the emotions behind an “end of the world” film and ground it in universal concepts that apply to humans’ daily lives.


Because the film is divided into two separate acts, Melancholia provides differing outlooks on the value of life and how to respond when faced with the idea of certain death. Justine is bi-polar and already struggles with maintaining functionality in everyday life, so she views the end of the world and man’s existence quite differently than those around her. Just as the opening visuals reveal the slow ending of the world, Justine shows her trek into depression through her actions at the wedding. When the wedding scene first begins, Justine is happy, joyful, and expressively in love with her soon to be husband.

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However, this is only the outer layer of her being, a facade for someone who deeply struggles with depression and the heavy thoughts of a manic-depressive personality. This false sense of security is mimicked by the harmless appearance of the planet Melancholia which is first taken to be a star in a constellation by Justine and her brother-in-law. As the night progresses, Justine slowly slips into a conflicting sense of being, as she smiles and dances at one point, and then disappears for hours on end at another. The planet Melancholia acts in a similar fashion as it the closer the planet is to the main characters the more ominous the situation becomes for life on earth.

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Even though the film is shot through the perspective of Justine for the most part, the audience can also relate to the helplessness felt by her sister Claire. No matter how hard Claire tries to make Justine happy or normal, she can physically do nothing. She knows that her sister’s depression is an innate trait that cannot be fixed, but only treated. In the midst of this inability to affect her sister, Claire still struggles with all her might to help and never gives up. Her determination and false sense of control is dynamically related to Justine’s depression and acceptance of earth’s demise. As the foreign planet looms closer to earth, Claire grabs her son and tries to escape to some other part of the earth, which is useless but reveals man’s constant urge for control and inability to accept death. The irony of this situation is that Claire, who has so far been the most rational and stable of the two sisters, is acting the most irrational, as it is impossible to escape the doomed planet. Von Trier shows the ups and downs of a manic-depressive visually through the actions and reactions of the sisters. Claire and Justine act as polar opposite ends of one character, almost as two sides of the same coin. Without Claire’s frantic escape plans and emotional response, Justine’s acceptance of death would not seem as unnatural.

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One of the strongest aspects of the film is the comparison of the initial wedding scene and the second act which focuses on the collision between Melancholia and Earth. The wedding seems very awkward and bi-polar, as it quickly cuts from Justine being happy to her being depressed. Using the shaky camera gives the feeling almost of a documentary and that the audience isn’t watching an end of the world type film, but the last few days of a family on earth. This sense of truth allows many of the characters to relate to the audience and appear as though they are a premonition of how humans may act if the end of the world were to ever come. The documentary style coupled with the science fiction idea of the world ending at once heightens and decimates the conventions of realism on which those genres depend while simultaneously acting as a symbol of Trier’s personal struggles. This film is hard to put in a genre, however, due to the imagery of the opening scene, the subject matter, and its two act format. The images from the beginning are surreal both visually and conceptually, which not only draws attention from the audience to the aesthetics of this film, but also to the true point of this film. By showing the world ending through a series of beautiful slow motion images, von Trier sets the tone and reveals that the actions of the characters that the audience is about to see really have no meaning. This extends to von Trier’s own struggles with depression as he coped with understanding the meaning of life, why things happen the way they do, and the overall purpose of mankind. Having the world suddenly end as the film wrapped would have made many of the character’s actions much more meaningful, but they weren’t supposed to have meaning. Knowing the world ends makes the frivolous spending for a wedding, sitting around waiting for events to happen, and even the idea of companionship seem pointless and unnecessary.

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Justine words about the earth ending seem to be the most relevant to someone, such as von Trier, who suffers from depression or issues with existence. She mentions that the world ending didn’t matter because there is no one else out there that cares or is affected by it. The large, cold universe goes on even without the survival of mankind, so she cynically questions the superiority complex that humans have had since the dawn of time. Her words and dead pan delivery appear to be straight from von Trier’s diary as he ponders the worth behind his work and the point of it all since he, as everyone else, will one day die. This is one of the main reasons that Melancholia works as a compilation of genres and ideas instead of simply a “end of the world” thriller or study of depression. The film is a personal expression from a filmmaker that discusses questions that every single person has thought about at least once in their life, making Melancholia actually more about human existence than about human death.

The end of the world is something snowmen experience every year. 

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~ by Joseph Thomasson on April 30, 2012.

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