Melancholia tells the story of Justine, a young woman crushed by crippling depression, as a microcosm of the earth being destroyed by a collision with the planet Melancholia. In the first half of the film, Justine unravels under the weight of her depression; in the second half of the film, as the apparently capable and in-control people around her fall apart in the face of impending cosmic disaster, she regains clarity and strength.
Kirsten Dunst’s performance is, quite simply, revelatory; I can’t believe she wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. She conveys the strain of Justine’s attempts to force herself to be happy on her wedding day at the beginning of the film. We sense the massive effort it takes for Justine to put on a happy face, to try to convince herself that after all, she has every reason to be happy. Ms. Dunst skillfully telegraphs the tiny shifts in Justine’s mood as the joy seeps out of the day, as she withdraws and turns increasingly inward. It’s not a matter of will; she wants to able to take joy in her new husband’s love, in their beautiful wedding day, but the depression makes her physically incapable of it. The film crystallizes Justine’s helplessness under the weight of her depression in a later scene in the film: Justine’s sister Claire attempts to coax her out of near-catatonia by preparing one of Justine’s favorite meals for her. Claire hopes that this simple pleasure can make a small crack in the wall of Justine’s depression. After a few expectant bites, Justine breaks into tears and says despairingly, “It tastes like ashes.” Ms. Dunst makes clear that this isn’t for lack of desire – Justine wants the food to taste good, to bring her joy, to serve as a lifeline out of the blackness, but she is powerless against the strength of the depression.
Yet somehow, as the planet Melancholia continues on its collision course with earth, Justine slowly comes out of her catatonic state. She seems able to accept, without panic, that the world is going to end. In fact, she seems to know it as a certainty. That certainty allows her to prepare her sister Claire, who until now was the capable, strong one, for the end. The film contrasts Justine’s trajectory specifically with that of her brother-in-law, John. Throughout the film, John is matter-of-fact to the point of being almost ruthless, with a pragmatic arrogance in his own abilities and rationality. When Claire buys poison to ensure a painless end for her family in the worst case scenario, John chastises her for her weakness. However, when it becomes clear that the Melancholia is indeed going to hit, John crumbles and takes all the pills himself, abandoning his family and robbing them of the option of a quick death. Justine seems to come into her own as disaster nears. I hesitate to facilely attribute a “purpose” to depression, as though it’s some sort of gift in disguise, but, in the film at least, Justine’s depression, her experience of being crushed by hopelessness and a sense of the futility of it all, actually prepares her for the same experience on a cosmic scale.
Early in the film, as her depression closes in on her, Justine wanders around the garden distracted and disconnected from her surroundings. One night during her slow recovery, she enters the garden again, this time to lie down naked on the earth and bask in the moonlight. Justine radiates tranquility, somehow connected with and grounded in her environment. Justine revels in her body and in the moonlight in an echo of an earlier scene in which her mother performs the “suryanamaskar” yoga pose, welcoming the sun. The sun-moon juxtaposition both connects and contrasts Justine with her mother, identifying each of them with two different elemental energies. The film identifies Justine with the moon, which, with its 28-day cycle, evokes the female menstrual cycle. So the film associates Justine with a symbol of womanhood, of shared female experience. Claire is also part of this sororal community because she’s an observer in this scene, watching in silent awe as Justine basks in the moonlight like a sylvan goddess.
This image of female community contrasts with the circle of men in Justine’s life: her irresponsible, passive-aggressive father; manipulative, overbearing boss; arrogant, ultimately weak brother-in-law; and her adoring yet inadequate husband. Justine frees herself from her boss and her husband, is abandoned by her father and John, and yet ultimately emerges the stronger for it. Melancholia privileges Justine and Claire’s sororal, empathetic relationship over the ruthlessly pragmatic or ineffectual masculine relationships.
Their feminine community is not about excluding men (their circle includes Claire’s son), but about a different way of caring, based not on patriarchal hierarchies but on nurturing collectives. This feminine empathy is also not about false comfort – Justine never pretends that Melancholia is not going to destroy the Earth, and she rather harshly dismisses Claire’s suggestions to romanticize the end with wine and music. Yet she loves Claire enough to support what is ultimately the most important thing for Claire – Claire’s son. Justine lovingly and calmly takes care of her nephew as the end approaches. They build a “magic cave” of tree branches together and, with Claire, await the end in its sheltering embrace. Justine makes it possible for the boy to feel calm and safe even as death approaches. Thanks to Justine, he faces death with the assurance of being loved and protected. This turns out to be the greatest gift she could give Claire, since Claire’s deepest sorrow is for her son. Justine is able to provide Claire with that gift because her depression, her sense that her life may as well end, prepares her for the actual end of the world.