The Story of Melancholia

Kirsten Dunst as Justine, 'trudging through grey woolly yarn' in Melancholia (©2011 Zentropa Entertainments ApS27)

What is melancholia? In Danish writer and director Lars von Trier’s latest film Melancholia, it is a planet. The planet is, perhaps, in turn a metaphor for melancholia. Which brings us no closer to an answer. The film has been described by one critic as ‘one of the strangest, most beautiful things in recent cinema’, while another called it ‘entirely ridiculous, often quite boring’. Regardless of its entertainment value, however, for anyone with a scholarly interest in the emotions Melancholia raises some questions worthy of consideration. Von Trier suggests that the idea for the film came from his psychoanalyst, who told him that ‘melancholics will usually be more level-headed than ordinary people in a disastrous situation, partly because they can say “What did I tell you” … But also because they have nothing to lose.

In von Trier’s film, Melancholia is the name of a rogue planet that crashes into earth, causing its destruction. The story depicts the lives and relationships of a handful of people in the lead-up to this Armageddon. It centres upon the sisters Justine and Claire, who are portrayed as each other’s conceptual and visual opposites; from disposition and outlook on life to hair colour and accent. We see Justine sink further and further into the throes of what is presumably meant to be ‘clinical depression’. Claire tries to care for her, a frustrating task. Meanwhile, the planet Melancholia moves closer to earth. Claire’s husband John assures his wife and their son that the planet will pass the earth by. The ‘fly-by’ will be a spectacular sight, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but the planets will not collide, Melancholia will continue on its way and all will be well. But Claire is anxious and scared. John eventually discovers that he is wrong and proceeds to take a lethal overdose of pills rather than face the end of the world. Justine, who has been barely functioning, remains calm as disaster strikes. The world is evil, she says, and does not deserve to continue.

It has been suggested that the script grew out of von Trier’s own experience of ‘depression’, but calling the film ‘Major Depressive Episode’ would not, perhaps, have had the same artistic and melodramatic ring to it. What, then, is ‘melancholia’ meant to convey to the viewer? How important is the choice of word here? Is the film trying to describe the experience of that which medicine calls depressive illness? Melancholia does not feature as a medical diagnosis in either the ICD-10 or the DSM-IV-TR, yet the term pops up every so often in both popular and medical writings. It is evident that the word has no simple, clear meaning.

‘Melancholia’ has been used to denote a vast number of things throughout history. Once upon a time, it was a disease resulting from an excess of black bile in the body. The word has also (and sometimes simultaneously) been used to describe a raving madness, the pain and torment of male artistic genius, and profound religious guilt. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, and particularly during the second half, melancholia was a mental disease frequently diagnosed among British asylum populations. One prominent late-Victorian physician defined this illness as ‘mental pain, emotional depression, and sense of ill-being, usually more intense than in melancholy, with loss of self-control, or insane delusions, or uncontrollable impulses towards suicide, with no proper capacity left to follow ordinary avocations, with some of the ordinary interests of life destroyed, and generally with marked bodily symptoms.’ The medical diagnosis melancholia began to fall into disuse in the early twentieth century, though it has continued to emerge in psychiatric literature from time to time until the present. In recent years, a group of clinicians have been working for a reinstatement of melancholia as a medical diagnosis separate from depression – a more severe mood disorder characterised by ‘vegetative dysfunction’ and ‘psychomotor disturbances’, and ‘verifiable by neuroendocrine tests’.

Meanwhile melancholia has served many uses in literature and poetry, and even in political writings. It is perhaps particularly useful as a semantic device in English language writing, where few nouns exist to describe a state of mind which is at once calm, fearful, despairing, brooding, restless, hollow, and longing for something inexpressible. Von Trier’s Melancholia appears to attempt to capture this emotion, or set of emotions. However, there is also a strong undertone of the medical in the film’s narrative. Justine’s illness (it is referred to by her sister as illness) plays out like a textbook case of severe depressive disorder: retarded physical movement, hypersomnia, excessive sadness, refusal to eat, and indifference to the world around her as well as to her own personal hygiene. It is interesting that what is performed is more a medical description than an individual experience. We get little access to Justine’s emotions and virtually no invitation to identify with her state of mind; we are merely observing her the way a physician might observe a patient. Only for the briefest of moments is Justine’s ‘illness’ communicated in her own words, when she describes to her sister the feeling of ‘trudging through this grey, woolly yarn’.

What Melancholia succeeds in conveying more than anything else is that the term has no simple, single meaning, nor has it ever possessed one. The film also (though in all likelihood unintentionally) highlights the uncomfortable relationship between depression and melancholia as two (or several) disease concepts with very different histories, but which we nonetheless often want to see as synonymous. This is particularly the case with psychiatric texts which look to the past for evidence of mental illness as historically universal. But the emotions, as historians of this fascinating topic (or topics) are aware, are steeped in, indeed produced by, the language available for their expression. Thus ‘melancholia’, a word with a long and conceptually colourful and varied history, can never be simply a more eloquent or dramatic stand-in for ‘depression’, a word (and a concept or concepts) with its own historical trajectory.