Melancholia (2011) – Approaching Death via Depression

The film Melancholia [1] begins with a lengthy prologue, set to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, as the screen overflows with lush slow-motion images of life on earth and views of another planet. This sets a mood of celestial harmony, but also a foreshadowing of doom because, as we learn shortly, earth might be threatened by a near collision with the planet (named Melancholia). Scattered throughout the film are many similar scenes reflecting haunting combinations of beauty and despair that I found reminiscent of films by the Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky.

This film can be appreciated and interpreted from many perspectives, including as a metaphor for impending disasters such as global climate change. However, what I want to focus on here is an interpretation of the film from a psychological perspective that relates to depression, specifically the role of depression as a coping mechanism for dealing with the realization of the inevitability of our own death.

The two main characters in the film, Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) are sisters. For purposes of our discussion, they can be thought of as representing two separate aspects of a psychological Mood Disorder, Depression (Justine) and Anxiety (Claire).

These are diagnostic terms used to classify mental illness, but mental states are more appropriately thought of as falling along a continuum instead of as binary categories contrasting normal from abnormal. All of us experience some amounts of depressed and anxious states at times during our lives, and both mental states provide us with potential coping mechanisms for dealing with stressful situations. When confronting a stressful situation in which specific actions on our part might be able to eliminate or reduce the impact of the stressor, anxiety can arouse us to take action. On the other hand, if there is nothing we can do to eliminate or reduce the impact of the stressor, it is perhaps more adaptive to focus on trying to accept the situation and staying calm, or in other words, entering a mild depressed state.

Ordinarily these two psychological responses to stress, anxiety and depression, work in tandem and are adaptive. Only when one or both of these responses becomes ramped-up out of proportion to the response needed to respond to the stressor, or when the response cannot be turned off even once the stressor is gone, is it appropriate to label either an anxious or a depressed response as a psychological disorder.

But what if the stressor is impending death? In this situation, is it really appropriate to label any magnitude of response as a disorder? And which approach to impeding death, anxiety or depression, is the “best/preferred” one? These are the psychological questions dealt with in the film Melancholia. And since the screenwriter and director, Lars von Trier, has stated in interviews that he suffers from both extreme anxiety in the form of Phobias, and bouts of Depression, we can expect that his own personal experiences underlie whatever insights the film offers regarding these questions. [2]

In the first half of the film Justine is getting married at the home of Claire who was responsible for planning the wedding. In this situation, Claire clearly comes across as the psychologically better adjusted sister. Her anxious personality drives her to take charge of every situation, making sure the smallest details are covered, and when unexpected problems arise, handling each as fast as they come up. Justine on the other hand appears unable to cope with much of anything. Her depressed personality traits, characterized by neuroticism, hysteria and suicidal thoughts, are not up to the task of being a bride. During the wedding celebration she exhibits bizarre behaviors, acts irresponsibly, and falls into a severe bout of depression. Her new husband abandons her, and she ends up despondent and living at the home of her sister.

The second half of the film takes place sometime after the wedding. Justine is still depressed and living with her sister and brother-in-law. The planet Melancholia is approaching on a course that scientists say will allow it to pass near the earth. However, Claire’s anxiety is rising rapidly because she has seen reports on the internet that the planet might actually collide with the earth instead of passing closely by. Her husband (representing a rational, scientific point of view) scoffs at this notion, and eagerly anticipates the opportunity to observe the event. Justine appears to be too depressed to care.

Eventually it becomes clear that Claire’s worst worries were warranted. The planet is on a collision course and the characters are confronted with the question of how one should live during the final few days before the destruction of Earth. At this point in the film the rational scientist brother-in-law commits suicide and a role reversal of sorts takes place between the two sisters. Unable to do anything to stop the impending disaster, Claire can no longer control her anxiety and falls apart psychologically. Justine, on the other hand, perhaps enabled by her lifelong experiences of contemplating suicide while depressed, rises to the occasion, and calmly prepares to meet death.

Ron Boothe


1. During the month of November the Tacoma film club watched and then discussed three films in which the main character was confronted with impending death. The separate ways the characters approached death in these films can be associated with three psychological terms, Depression, Denial, and Delusion. The current commentary is for Melancholia (2011)
The other two films discussed this month are:
Synecdoche, New York (2008) – Approaching Death via Denial
Birdman (2014) – Approaching Death via Delusion

2. Lars von Trier refers to this film along with two others, Antichrist and Nymphomaniac, as his depression trilogy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s