Directed by Danish Film Maker, Lars von Trier, Melancholia is a Science Fiction that tells us a story through the perspective of two sisters while a mysterious planet is threatening to collide with Earth. We see Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Kiefer Sutherland in the leading roles. Let’s get straight to business and go through the plot and get to that ending, oh my, that ending. Plentiful spoilers ahead, do give it a watch before reading further. Here’s the film Melancholia explained.
Also, you can check out the explanation for Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built here.
Opening Sequence: The Slow-Motion Montage
Okay, so, let’s get the one massive thing out of the way, that blue planet Melancholia, well, there is no metaphorical implication, that planet actually happens to collide and obliterate our tiny little Earth. That opening montage shows us The End. However, the visuals we see are not all things that really happen. Part of it is a depiction of how Justine feels things are unraveling. Now Justine, played by Kirsten, is suffering from a terrible case of depression. It is revealed at the end that she seems to be clairvoyant too. While the movie doesn’t tell us if this is part of the reason for her depression, it might as well be.
- A sorrowful Justine looking on as birds drop dead behind her.
- Her sister, Claire (Charlotte), running on the golf course with her legs sinking in.
- Justine standing alone as insects fly upward.
- Justine, Claire and her son standing in the middle of the golf field with three celestial bodies in the sky.
- Justine standing and looking at light emanating from her fingers.
- Justine running with roots stuck to her legs.
- Justine floating in a stream of water.
The above are things that Justine, with her abilities of perception, is feeling. She doesn’t understand how, but she knows that life exists only on Earth and nowhere else in the universe. And that this too is short lived and will all come to an end. Justine also feels terribly trapped with her approaching marriage and doesn’t really want to go through with it.
- The horse collapsing.
- The giant planet, Melancholia, passing by Earth.
- Claire’s kid cutting up wooden sticks.
- Melancholia destroying the Earth on its return path.
- These above things do happen, and it ends with our world’s demise.
With this in place, let’s go through the plot. The first part is called…
We see an apparently happy Justine heading to her marriage party with her husband, Michael. While things appear dandy on the surface, as it always is with depression, Justine is struggling to lead a normal life. Claire and her husband John (Kiefer) have arranged a massive party for her at their humongous golf estate; it’s a super expensive affair. Justine and Michael arrive late because of their stretch limo, and they have a quick conversation about the star Antares being the main star in the Scorpio constellation. As they enter, the wedding planner is putting together a little game where people need to submit their bids against a random number of beans in a jar. The importance of this comes later on, we’ll get back to it.
The sisters have a messed up family. Their mom and dad are separated and go to the extent of fighting at the reception. Justine is upset, and while it initially appears to be because of the parents fighting, it’s actually because of her inner struggles. Just then, Justine’s boss is being a complete assh*le and trying to get her to finish up on doing some work for him; he announces her promotion as well. Claire takes Justine away and tells her to keep her cool through the party.
Justine’s Depression Surfaces
Justine offers to put Claire’s son to bed and goes up and begins to snooze. She’s woken up by Claire, and she says “It’s clinging to my legs. It’s really heavy to drag along” This is the scene we see in the opening montage with the roots. It’s how she feels – weighed down. Justine eventually tries to “be happy” and comes down to cut the cake.
Michael tells Justine how he’s bought them a plot of land where they can grow old and lead a happy country life. However, he’s thinking far too ahead, and Justine asks him to stop. Michael is quite aware of Justine’s condition and truly loves her. Justine’s boss continues being a b*itch and tries to get some ideas out of her for an ad campaign of his. He assigns his nephew to draw it out of her. It’s now clear that Justine is not one bit happy about the wedding, and Claire confronts her. While she understands Justine’s condition, she’s still emotional and angry because Justine is lying about being happy. Justine tries talking to her mother to say that something is gripping her with fear, only to get a cold response asking her to run away.
Justine Bails From The Marriage
At the end of the party, Michael takes Justine to the room and tries to make love to her, but she leaves and has sex with her bosses nephew; she’s self-destructive. She approaches her father to have a conversation, but he too seems distant. It is clear that no one is really aiding Justine with her condition, everyone is busy feeling bad for themselves. Her boss continues being an assh*le and Justine resigns. Michael finally ends the marriage and leaves as Justine explains to him that this is all that would have ever come of trying to be in a relationship with somebody as broken as her.
Next morning, the sisters go on a horse ride, and Justine looks up at the sky to note that Antares is now missing. What’s happened is that the planet Melancholia is in the pathway and hence is hiding Antares. This takes us to the second part…
Months go by, and Claire has become obsessed with the approaching planet. While John is confident that it will be a fly-by and beautiful sight, Claire feels that the internet articles might be correct about the collision. Justine’s now consumed by depression. She’s unable to function on her own and is sent to be with Claire. Claire prepares meatloaf, which is Justine’s favourite dish, but in her condition, Justine finds it to taste like ash.
As the days pass and the planet approaches, Justine begins to feel better. As they get closer to doom, she becomes normal, she’s always been preparing for the worst, and the worst is here. Justine tells Claire that she’s clairvoyant and that she knew the exact count of the beans in the wedding jar. She also says that life exists only on Earth. That life is evil, and it will all soon be gone. As the days pass by, it is Claire who is now a mess reading up about the “dance of death” Melancholia is going to perform before smashing Earth up.
Let’s pause for a minute on that diagram. This is something that the end-of-the-world fanatics have drawn up. Neither does this make sense in terms of physics nor does it happen this way at the end of the film.
They lose power. I believe this is a result of the proximity of the planet, interference causing the effect of an electromagnetic pulse. John promises that the planet is not a threat and is only going to be a visual treat. On the night of the fly-by, the family sits on the lawn to witness the giant planet rise in their sky. John admits that there was a small call for panic because there could have been errors in the calculation when dealing with objects of this magnitude. However, he proves to Claire that Melancholia is now moving away.
Next morning, we see that Justine is almost entirely normal; it’s D-Day, and she finds calmness in the chaos. John realizes that Melancholia is now on its approach path to Earth. At some time in the night, the planet has slowed down and has started moving in the reverse direction towards Earth. No “dance of death”. It’s just that Melancholia came too close to Earth and they got caught in each other’s gravitational field.
John Commits Suicide
John is unable to face his family after his many promises. He commits suicide unable to deal with what is to come. Claire confirms that the planet is now approaching Earth. She finds John dead in the stables and sets her horse on the run to create an alibi to say that John’s gone riding. Claire is panicking now and tires to make a run for the village, but there is nowhere to run. She returns and in desperation suggests that the remaining three of them head to the terrace, have some wine while listening to music. Justine finds it to be a pointless way to go and ridicules the idea.
Claire’s son sees the horse alone and realizes something has happened to his father. He says that the planet might actually strike Earth and that John said that in that case there would be nowhere to hide. Justine tells him that she can build him a magical tent. Together they collect sticks and set up a rudimentary tent. They all sit inside. Justine is calm and is waiting for the moment, she does feel bad for the kid. Claire is terrified and is crying hysterically. Her son believes the tent is magical and closes his eyes. The two planets collide, and Earth is destroyed.
Ending Explained: What It All Means
Here’s the thing about the second part of the film. The helplessness, fear, anguish, and a constant feeling of the impending “end of their world” are the nature of emotions that people with depression go through. The only difference being it’s inexplicable as to why they are feeling this. Justine gets to a state where she’s unable to function anymore because of the state of her mind. As they get closer to the chaos, she’s able to be normal. We see how Claire is slowly consumed by her fears and becomes hysterical at the end. We witness how John is unable to face his fears and opts to die. The reason for the fears that Claire and John experience is tangible (the planet). This helps the audience feel their fear. Justine’s suffering from depression is intangible hence we don’t relate to her sense of fear and grief. If a planet were to collide with Earth, a lot more would happen before the impact – tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, cosmic waves, and finally, a melting earth. We are not shown all of these because this film’s focus is not the accurate portrayal of a scientific event. Instead, the director has used an apocalyptic event to help perceive the emotional turmoil that someone with depression goes through.
Barry is a technologist who helps start-ups build successful products. His love for movies and production has led him to write his well-received film explanation and analysis articles to help everyone appreciate the films better. He’s regularly available for a chat conversation on his website and consults on storyboarding from time to time.
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