Cinematic Depression: How Lars von Trier Distorts Time & Space in 'Melancholia'
Film is an art form in which time and space are its main sources of expression, but what happens when these concepts are distorted through the lens of depression?
One film that explores this warping of reality is Lars von Trier's Melancholia, a film that is basically the cinematic form of depression and anxiety. Evan Puschak, also known as The Nerdwriter, digs into how the Danish director represents this mental disorder in the film's protagonist, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), by using cinematic techniques to give viewers distorted senses of time and space.
Lao Tsu famously said that if one is depressed they're living in the past, and if they're anxious they're living in the future. It's only when they're living in the present that they find peace. Now, even though this is a simplistic, anecdotal way to describe not just one, but two very complex and shockingly misunderstood disorders, it does offer a framework for contextualizing the themes in Melancholia.
Von Trier has built the latter portion of his career upon his cinematic study of depression, representing it visually in stunning, dreamlike fashion. This is clear when watching the montage sequences in not only Melancholia, but the other installments in his "Depression Trilogy", including Antichrist. At the beginning of his essay, Puschak talks about a commonly reported symptom of depression, the warping of an individual's sense of time. The Huffington Post explored this phenomenon back in 2015, citing a 2009 study that was published in the journal of Behavioral Processes that attributed this to two factors: a slowing down of an individual's internal clock and an inability to enter into a "flow" state of consciousness.
So, time flies when you're having fun, but when you're depressed, time seems to slow way, way down as you ruminate and obsess over negative thoughts. This is why the slow motion montages in von Trier's films make so much sense. In the opening sequence of Melancholia, we see several super slow motion shots that distort our sense of time, like Justine floating in a body of water, an homage to Sir John Everett Millais painting of Ophelia.
We see this in the opening sequence of Antichrist as well, except instead of it being a visual expression of the protagonist's depression, it acts as an inescapable harbinger for the depression that is to come.
The past, present, and future are concepts of time, but they can also represent spaces in which time takes place. In Melancholia, von Trier uses rooms in the mansion to stop or interrupt not only the flow of the diagetic and non-diagetic events of the film, namely the reception, but also the flow of Justine's consciousness. We've talked about this cinematic technique of "interruption" before in the work of Luis Buñuel, but von Trier also uses it 1.) as a visual metaphor for Justine's depression, 2.) to further disorient the audience, 3.) to inspire real feelings of restlessness and anxiety in the audience.
We want her to stay in the reception hall and participate, and we become frustrated every time she leaves. Why? Because the reception hall is a clock that keeps perfect time with reality and she is a shattered watch face with hands that tick wildly and without reason. So, every time she exists this room, our sense of time and space is disrupted.
We're watching the festivities in the reception until Justine leaves to sit on a stack of chairs or bathe emotionlessly in a bathroom — and we know that the reception is still going on, but we can't see it. We're forced to follow her as she ruminates alone within a dream, outside of reality, far from where time and space make any sense to us.
Melancholia may or may not have accurately communicated visually the symptoms of depression for you, but Puschak certainly makes a very interesting case for the film. Furthermore, he's absolutely right when he says that in a society where mental illness isn't often talked about (and even demonized), maybe art is where we can look to find earnest discussions about it.