Mental Illness in Families, in Film
by Marin Sardy
by Marin Sardy
Since renowned auteur director Lars von Trier’s feature film Melancholia opened last fall, much has been written by critics and bloggers about its creative approach to clinical depression. In what is ostensibly a sci-fi movie about a rogue planet that might be about to crash into Earth, von Trier uses the planet, named Melancholia, as a metaphor for the eponymous malady. Taking its title from an archaic term for the illness, Melancholia grew out of one of the director’s own bouts with depression. Yet while a number of reviewers have weighed in on the film, none that I’ve come across have considered it in the terms that made it most interesting to me—that beyond being about one character’s chronic mental illness, it closely observes how mental illness has shaped and continues to shape an entire family.
It’s not surprising that the film’s preoccupation with mental illness in a family framework slipped under nearly everyone’s radar. I suspect that most reviewers had no idea what they were looking at. But, as activist Katelyn Baker has said, “Mental illness is like air. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.” And in families, it can be like the unseen hand tugging all the puppets’ strings. From this perspective, the film’s greatest strength is that it tells the story of depression from two sides, which sometimes align and sometimes directly oppose one another—that of the sufferer and that of the caregiver. In this case they are two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), who has the illness, and her older sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who fretfully looks after Justine while also trying to deal with bigger problems.
In the first half of the film, as the situation is established, we the audience experience the action through Justine, following her as she avoids participating in her own wedding reception by sneaking upstairs for a nap and a bath. After she makes an appearance and is admonished for disappearing, we watch as she escapes again onto the adjacent golf course, hauling the mountainous tulle skirts of her spectacular white gown across the grass to just be alone. Meanwhile, we meet the whole clan, from Justine and Claire’s flighty father and brutal mother to Claire’s husband, John, who plays the part of the practical man who is fed up with this family’s bullshit. Claire, too, seems fed up, but for a while we don’t see why. When, in a moment of exasperation, Claire declares, “Sometimes I really hate you, Justine,” it sounds shockingly harsh.
But then, as we watch Justine unceremoniously throw away her new marriage and her prestigious job, cheating on her husband and then verbally assaulting her manipulative boss with a kind of thrilled abandon, we get our first inkling of what Claire is talking about. Justine is so irrational and seemingly callous toward the people who love her that it’s hard to keep forgiving her missteps. Yet, almost immediately afterwards, Justine turns up in awful shape, so depressed she can barely open a car door. Kirsten Dunst portrays her character’s depression painfully well—the actress said in an interview that she has herself had a serious bout with it—and for a while poor Justine looks so wretched, so hobbled by her illness, that it’s easy to sympathize with her. Even her favorite food—meatloaf—brings her no joy. When she takes a bite, specially prepared by Claire, she slowly stops chewing and breaks into devastated tears, saying, “It tastes like ash.”
In the second half of the film, as we watch Claire try to help her deteriorating sister, we begin to see the extent of her role as caregiver. Yet Justine can’t return the favor, emotionally or otherwise. With Melancholia approaching ever closer to Earth, Claire, with a devoted husband and a young son, has much more to lose than Justine. While Justine calmly awaits the end, Claire panics, exhausting herself until, defeated, she turns to her depressed sister for support, suggesting that they seek comfort in a glass of wine on the porch. But Justine, from the depths of her depression, sees Claire’s effort to cope as laughable, and now it is her turn to be harsh. She looks at Claire with contempt and says, “You know what I think of your idea? I think it’s a piece of shit.” This time, when Claire again says, “Sometimes I really hate you, Justine,” it sounds like a reasonable response.
Although the film turns on the contrast between the two sisters’ perspectives, its examination of depression in families probably wouldn’t work without the complexities introduced by supporting characters, which bring the film fully to life. The sisters’ mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), a ferociously blunt misanthrope who seems bent on ruining everyone’s good time, just comes off as inexplicably mean until it becomes apparent that she too deals with the kind of depression that plagues Justine. This point is driven home when we realize Justine sounds just like Gaby when she rebuffs Claire so ruthlessly, in words that seem exactly like something Gaby would say.
Is Justine’s depression behind her mean-spirited words to Claire? Or is her unsympathetic response a habit she picked up from Gaby? In that case, is Gaby’s depression the cause? Where does brain chemistry end and family dynamics begin? And is there any point in trying to parse them? Von Trier seems to know not to try. Instead, he paints depression into a rich human landscape where it intertwines with relationships to the point that it is inseparable from them—coloring them, shaping them, destroying them sometimes—and is experienced differently by each individual.
On the other end of the spectrum, Claire’s practical, successful, short-tempered husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), is a sort of regular-guy foil—the type who is utterly unable to accept depression as a legitimate force and interprets its outward signs as selfish decadence. In the face of Gaby and Justine’s antisocial behavior, he loses his temper again and again, repeatedly muttering “Unbelievable!” in response to actions which, given that he is perfectly aware of Justine’s illness, ought to be easy enough to believe. He is crucial in revealing how stigma, ignorance, and simple human frustration can multiply the layers of suffering involved in an already painful affliction.
As we see all this in action, we’re reminded of the director’s message by the looming planet Melancholia. Justine basks in its moon-like glow; John carefully tracks its movements with his telescope. The film’s premise, that Melancholia is on a collision course with Earth, makes an elegant symbol for clinical depression, but it could stand in for any chronic mental illness. The symbolism has been criticized as over the top, but it seems to me that only something this extreme could capture the abject helplessness you can feel when caught in a mental illness’s orbit. Swooping past closely once, Melancholia remains unpredictable as the characters wonder whether it will swing back around and take aim again. I’ve never come across a better image for the experience of living with mental illness in the family—feeling that you are never fully safe, even when it seems to be heading the other way, and you can’t escape the sense that it could still destroy everything.
As a look at mental illness in families, the film strikes the right notes. In a few spots it seems a touch contrived—or maybe just a little too extreme. But for many people who have witnessed what mental illness can do, this might make it ring all the more true. What makes me most unhappy about Melancholia, actually, has nothing to do with the film itself. It is that Dunst, despite a jaw-dropping performance that won her a Best Actress award at Cannes and a half-dozen smaller prizes, was not even nominated for an Oscar. Once again, a film that approaches mental illness with compassion, complexity, real understanding, and genuine curiosity could not seize mainstream attention in America.