For week two of the excellent Cinematic Representations of Mental Illness course at my local cinema, the lovely Crouch End Picturehouse, we explored three distinctive movies that had been selected for their varied portrayals of depression.
Relevant to the film choices and therefore called out in the introduction to this week’s session was Sigmund Freud‘s 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia“, in which the father of psychoanalysis argued that both states are responses to loss. In the case of a the natural process of mourning that loss is something specific and definable, whilst melancholia is less tangible and therefore the process is unconscious and considered pathological.
Melancholia is the second of auteur Lars von Trier’s so-called Depression Trilogy that also comprises Antichrist (2009) and Nymphomaniac (2013). Von Trier suffers with depression, and there are autobiographical elements to this trilogy. The core concept for this film came from one of his own therapy sessions, as he revealed in an interview about the film:
My analyst told me that melancholiacs 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.
The movie opens with a stunning, surrealistic overture of apocalyptic imagery that features the two sisters at its heart, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as well as a devastating celestial collision, soundtracked by the dramatic prelude to Wagner‘s “Tristan und Isolde“. It leaves the viewer in no doubt that the film is careering towards the end of the world, and sets a dream-like quality and tone that is eschewed for much of the remainder of the film but returns occasionally, including in its final moments.
Categorised by some as a psychological disaster movie—a sub-genre that appeals to me, as I am quite taken by the notion of the apocalypse becoming personal—its backdrop is the somewhat implausible but symbolically interesting idea that a newly discovered rogue planet, Melancholia, previously hidden behind the sun, is potentially on a collision course with Earth. There is a doom-laden symbolism in this manifestation of complete destruction that has emerged from behind the life-giving force that is the sun, one that will inevitably devour our entire world.
Dunst’s performance is the stand-out in an excellent cast that also boasts John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling (as Justine’s bitter, morally deficient mother, another recurring and autobiographical von Trier motif), and Kiefer Sutherland. The first part of the film that follows that extraordinary opening sequence is titled for Justine, following on what should—according to popular custom, at least—be the happiest day of her life: her wedding day. It is a lavish affair, but Justine finds herself unable to engage in its rituals due to her depression, absenting herself throughout the reception. There is a sense of cruelty as her dysfunctional family and entourage seek to subject her to the rituals of the occasion, whilst her state of mind and behaviours feel authentic in spite of the heightened sense of drama and theatrics. The wedding therefore exemplifies what Freud argues is one of the hypocrisies of civilisation, seeking to unite people in a way that can ultimately lead to isolation and psychological pain. As von Trier explains, though, in spite of herself Justine wants the day to be a success:
She wants to end all the silliness and anxiety and doubt. That’s why she wants a real wedding. And everything goes well until she cannot meet her own demands. There is a recurring line: “Are you happy?” She has to be, otherwise the wedding is silly… And they all try to bring her ashore, but she doesn’t really want to be part of it… Slowly, melancholia descends like a curtain between her and all the things she has set in motion… In a way, she succeeds in pulling this planet from behind the sun, and she surrenders to it.
The second part of the film is titled for Gainsbourg’s Claire, a character with whom von Trier states he identifies more given her doomsday anxieties. Her growing sense of panic contrasts with Justine’s acceptance of the end of days, and a key message underlying the film is that a melancholic perspective on the world has more truth to it than blind optimism.
I was interested to learn that von Trier almost exclusively chooses female protagonists for his films since he thinks women are afforded a richer emotional life than are men, and that it would therefore have felt inauthentic to portray a male lead character. This is an idea that interests me as I feel it reinforces gender stereotypes, and it is a stance I firmly think needs rebalancing, both in art and in life.
However deliberate, there is something jarring about the mix of personal and universal threats in Melancholia, but—by some margin—this was the most effective choice of films for me on depression: a strange but deeply affecting experience that has the ring of emotional truth to it.
The Girl on the Train is a mystery thriller adapted from novel of the same name by author Paula Hawkins. It tells the tale of Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt), an alcoholic divorcee who rides the train to and from New York every day even though she is longer employed there, fixates upon the lives of people she glimpses on her travels, becomes embroiled in the case of a missing woman, and even comes to believe she may have been responsible for her death.
Truth be told, there was little about the film’s somewhat pulpy plot that really held my interest, but on reflection—notably given Mary’s commentary on the film—some of its representations of depression are indeed noteworthy. Rachel’s apparent willingness to accept the blame for the circumstances in which she finds herself embroiled is a characteristic often seen in depression, stemming from anger and criticism directed inwards as she mourns the loss of her marriage, this aspect of her mental state becoming central to the movie’s dramatic tension. And, whilst the film itself did not leave a lasting impression upon me, Blunt’s performance goes some way to communicating her sense of isolation and emotional stagnation, her alimony payments being used to pay for—literally and figuratively—”tickets to nowhere”.
Three Colours: Blue is another film from a trilogy, this representing the first instalment of Kieślowski’s three films titled for the colours of the French flag and loosely themed around the French Revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. It follows Julie (Juliette Binoche) as the sole survivor of a car accident that kills her husband and daughter, mourning their loss and seeking to break ties with her former life as she struggles with her grief.
Music plays an interesting role here, Julie’s husband having been a noteworthy composer who left his latest commissioned work incomplete. Julie seeks an emotional freedom from her grief and the painful memories of her former life, but is thwarted in her efforts, the recurring musical motif from the unfinished score haunting her. The titular colour blue is another recurring motif, reflecting Julie’s mood in various contexts.
A recurring stylisation in the film is a mid-scene momentary fade to black, a device I found confusing at first but which seems to portray Julie’s sense of dislocation and disconnection. She attempts suicide in an early scene and self-harms in another, but is unable to release her internal pain, although a shift towards acceptance of her circumstances does lead her towards some modest progress in this regard as the film closes. There is a pervading sense of melancholy throughout, not just through its visuals and soundtrack but also in its pacing and the sense of stillness and dislocation portrayed by Binoche’s understated yet effective performance.
I’m continuing to really enjoy and learn a lot from this six-week course, and I will repeat my recommendation that readers of this blog follow lecturer Mary Wild on Twitter and also check out the Projections podcast, co-hosted by Mary and which discusses different movies around the same six groups of mental illness covered in this course, as well as more besides. Next: three films that explore psychosis.