Cue the prelude to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde as beautiful, Romantic-era images grace the screen. In tableaux-like slow motion, birds fall from the sky as a woman stands transfixed; a bride struggles to run through woolly grey vines ensnaring her legs; a woman marvels at her hands as they emit sparks; a horse sinks into the ground; a large blue planet crashes into Earth.  Prior to the narrative beginning we have been given a glimpse of what is to unfold in Lars Von Trier's film Melancholia.

This psychological apocalypse film, and portrait of depression, seems aptly introduced by a pastiche of still images perhaps representing a nameless dread, an internal state devoid of words. Von Trier said the film was made "with a state of mind as my starting point." Viscerally we experience this state through Justine, the melancholic, whose descent into a deep depression seems non-verbal (or perhaps pre-verbal), terrifying and all-encompassing.

In Chapter One of the film, "Justine," we witness Justine implode on her wedding day as her sister struggles to support and hold her together, to no avail. Chapter Two, entitled "Claire," is about Melancholia's rapid collision and destruction of the Earth. It's as if Justine summons the planet Melancholia; her internal state is mirrored in this planet's course toward Earth and destruction. Her narcissistic retreat from the world in an attempt (according to Freud) to preserve a lost object through identification and narcissistic regression renders her unable to cathect anything or anyone and becomes all consuming.  

Having already surrendered to melancholia, she is then relieved, even emboldened, by the coming apocalypse. She surrenders to her own depression and ultimate wish to die. Ironically a role reversal takes place in which Justine, who has suddenly regained her appetite, becomes the strong, calm one. While her sister descends into panic and existential fear in the face of death, Justine is self-possessed and serene.

Reality adjusts to Justine's inner world in this apocalyptic way. Justine's melancholia is suddenly adaptive. In her detachment she has no need for attachments.  In Freud's words, "The ego wants to incorporate the lost object into itself, and, in accordance with the oral or cannibalistic phase of libidinal development in which it is, it wants to do so by devouring it." Symbolically, as this internal mechanism is activated in Justine, external reality also complies, as Melancholia devours the Earth.

Jane Reingold, MFT
Impulse Staff Writer