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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

Melancholia

A Radiant Time Capsule About The Beauty Of Impending Madness

Chaos has a real simplicity to it. Whether it’s our own suffering or the suffering of others, some of us are so used to the destruction that by the time things really come crashing down on a wider scale, we almost feel relieved. There’s no more waiting, no more dread of what’s to come. You can just close your eyes, exhale and embrace the beautiful mess that you’ve come to see as something that’s come to wake up everyone else.


Melancholia is a radiant time capsule about the beauty of impending madness. Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg dominate the screen as two sisters whose personalities completely switch over as the date of an event one of them is freaked out over gets closer. Melancholia is divided into two parts. Part 1 is called Justine, Dunst’s character. Part 1 begins with Justine and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) arriving late to their wedding reception at the luxury estate of Justine’s sister Claire and her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland).


Justine has been battling severe depression for years now and her new marriage is the closest thing to normalcy she has. Michael represents sustainability to her that she isn’t sure is real. A sense of togetherness that she realizes she can’t fake. She cares for Michael but it’s very clear that he courted her and she went along with the relationship because she saw no reason not to.


It’s nearly dark out by the time they arrive and throughout her wedding night, Justine’s facade of happiness shows several cracks. There’s a family drama with her bickering divorced parents, self-serving manipulation from her boss (Stellen Skarsgard), and her nervous dynamic with Claire. Dunst captures Justine’s quiet panic as she feels trapped and confused and vulnerable. At a certain point, she shuts down and operates like a robot.


Depression makes you feel dirty about yourself. It can actually make you feel filthy and Justine sneaks upstairs in the middle of her reception to take a hot bath. The close-up of her staring into space as she lays naked in the wide clawfoot tub is haunting. She has such a profound stillness to her in this scene. She honestly looks dead. A pale porcelain corpse submerged in still water. Depression does kill people and as the evening turns to night and night turns to morning, Justine realizes she must allow everything to crash and burn to relieve some of the pain. Not long after dawn, Claire and Justine go outside. Everyone has left by this point and the marriage has been called off. Claire knows Justine is suffering from something painful but she can’t help being infuriated at her and embarrassed at having made such a grand event so fake knowing she never even asked her to.


Justine: … (Quietly) I tried Claire… I really did try.


Claire knows that this is true and the responsibility she has for Justine makes her feel superior but also saddens her and fuels her with a lot of confusion and resentment. Justine tells Claire that a particular kind of light the two of them saw the day before is no longer in its place. After standing still for a moment of unease, Claire and Justine go inside ending part 1.


Part 2 is called Claire. Months later, Justine’s depression has gotten worse. It’s gotten so bad that it’s started to affect her physically and she can’t live on her own anymore. She moves in with Claire who seems to have genuinely softened towards her. Justine has become frail and cannot even bathe herself any more. She collapses nude in front of the tub and can’t lift herself up as Claire tries to help her. It’s scenes like this that we desperately need more of in cinema. EVERY SINGLE DAY, there are people whose lives have made them sick and this becomes the reality. It doesn’t have to be a particular kind of person, it can happen to anyone and people can pass as being ok when they are not.


The missing light soon resurfaces and from its return comes a revelation of something that will happen in 5 days. I’m not going to spoil what this is but for Claire, it’s the worst possible outcome imaginable and she can’t stop it from happening. John tries to reassure her that while it will happen, it won’t happen the way she thinks it will and they won’t get hurt.


As the week moves forward, Claire starts to unravel and Justine starts to rise from the ashes. In her heart, she knows that what will happen will be how Claire thinks it will happen but she sees it differently than Claire. She sees that what’s coming is the result of necessity, not revenge. She sees it as a miracle that is the most beautiful loving friendly thing to ever happen. The stress and fear of it have Claire deteriorating while Justine remains calm and posed. She’s still very quiet and calm but in a stoic way. Depression still exists in her but she doesn’t feel alone anymore. What’s coming she sees as something that will save her while Claire sees it as the end of everything.


Towards the end of Melancholia, Claire looks far out into the distance and sees a silhouette of what’s coming slowly getting closer. She freaks out and gets in her car to leave. Justine refuses to go. Claire leaves her property only to return when her transportation breaks down. She walks back to her home defeated and sees Justine calmly waiting patiently for her. The two go inside and Claire accepts defeat. Justine remains calm but inside she’s infuriated that Claire doesn’t have it in her to see why what’s coming is a good thing.


Claire: (Tearfully) Help me, Justine. I want to do this the right way.


Justine: Better do it quickly.


Claire: A glass of wine together, maybe.


Justine: You want me to have a glass of wine on your terrace?


Claire: Yes, will you do it sis?


Justine: How about a song? Beethoven's 9th? Something like that? Maybe we could light some candles? You want us to gather on your terrace, to sing a song, have a glass of wine, the three of us?


Claire: (Her eyes soaked with tears and her nose sniffling) Yes. That would make me happy.


Justine: Do you know what I think of your plan?


Claire: No. I was hoping you might like it.


Justine: … (Calmly) I think it’s a piece of shit.

Claire: Please Justine. I just want it to be nice.


Justine: Nice? Why don’t we meet on the fucking toilet?


Claire: Then let's not.


Justine: You're damn right let's not.


Justine gets up to leave


Claire: Sometimes I hate you so much, Justine.


Dunst is so calm and gentle in the delivery of her lines here but that's what makes her blows towards Claire hit so hard. I understand both their perspectives. Justine can’t stop remembering how broken and worthless and traumatized she was for so long and for something that she sees as a great thing to finally happen only for Claire to be upset about it absolutely breaks her heart. Claire knows Justine's version is not correct but she’s so desperate to be ok that she tries to make it nice and gets completely shut down. They are both stranded at a crossroads. These are two people who have both been through so much together and are now in a situation where they should be able to find some common ground and they’re just so unable to. They have both completely shifted in their dynamics. Justine is now the strong one and Claire is the broken one. Melancholia is a form of sadness but it’s also the name of what Justine sees as her savior.


Melancholia has 2022 written all over it and the film which came out in 2011 loses itself in the beautiful madness. Maybe Justine had it right all along. Something has to give at some point. Everything is madness. The madness outside, the madness inside, the madness we’ve seen, and the madness that’s coming.




Stolberg, Shael. “FILMbutton Friday Review – Melancholia.” PUSH THE BUTTON, 20 June 2014, https://filmbutton.com/filmbutton-friday-review-melancholia/melancholia-poster/.

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