A lot of films about mental health, especially those that feature lead characters who are suffering from depression or anxiety, tend to focus on solely the internal struggles and conflicts that the characters face. These characters are lost souls until a major problem appears, and are then suddenly put on a path to overcoming their pain all on their own. Finally the point of catharsis comes when they can escape their personal sufferings by pushing themselves out externally and instantly taking up an active role in society, and there you have it! The character has realised that it was all in his head and now has regained his sanity.
The entire film takes place in a swanky mansion placed in the middle of a golf course. Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) is about to get married but there seems to be something else on her mind – a glowing celestial object in the sky called Melancholia that seems to have her captivated, while others are either indifferent or absolutely terrified. The sci-fi angle to this drama is the analogy that we need, to take something actually very common much more seriously because we would rather focus on things that seem alien to us, as opposed to taking care of things in our immediate surroundings.
Justine is getting married, and yet she can’t seem to get anything right, despite always having a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eyes that almost resembles the star in the sky. She seems too lost in her head to see how her husband seems awkward around her, that her sister is furious at her careless attitude towards the big day, and that her parents are much, much more detached from her than she thinks they are. She isn’t reckless as much as she is just a little too tired to think so hard, so she laughs off her mishaps and shortcomings, much to the disapproval of others. It is obvious that she is trying very hard to be what one may call an optimist, which is unfortunately considered to be synonymous with naiveté. She lives with this makeshift hope, but not for long.
We follow Justine as she wades through the crowds at her own wedding, avoiding eye contact but desperate to be noticed. Every single person who is there, is there because they love her. They love her so much and can’t stop reassuring her of that that it begins to look like a bargaining chip to threaten her into conforming into this game of human interaction where there are no winners and no losers.
She is chided, dismissed for acting out, and is yelled at. People are trying to get to know her, but she can’t seem to communicate. She is trying hard to stay stable, but all she comes across as is out of her mind. The film takes us through all of this as if it were a sitcom dipped in an existential crisis. There are times when you can’t tell if the film is being funny or not, and it leaves you appropriately nervous.
While realisations creep up on Justine very slowly, in its eerie pace, it kicks in a change in Justine where she has gradually transformed from waiting to be engulfed by harsh reality, to embracing everything that comes with Melancholia like a new dawn, a new day. The twinkle in her eye is replaced with an eclipse.
Her sister Claire, who comes across as bitter, is always snapping at her clumsy sister, but continues to stay resilient and by her side whenever she breaks down. Her bitterness hides a side of her own self that is utterly anxiety ridden. It is as difficult to witness that unfolding just as it is to see Justine turn into a stone-cold, jaded, and numbed wall flower while Claire continues to tremble and scuttle around panicking about Melancholia.
Finally, the opening sequence of the film is worth mentioning because the tableaux inspired surreal, moving, and classical music laden sequence seems translated from visual poetry to an immediate narrative upon completion of the film.
It is unusually relieving to see how such a delicate issue can be portrayed without romanticising it, and Melancholia has tactfully proven that cinema can convey things that a lot of people struggle to convey in their day to day life. But, this should also be seen as something that can provoke us into thinking about how shocking it is that the reality that this film is conveying is disturbingly universal as well.