Melancholia: Nightmares, Colors, and the Failures of Wealth

In Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia, a rogue planet (named “Melancholia”) suddenly appears from behind the sun and hurtles through space on a collision course with planet Earth. I’ve written about the film’s connections with the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche in another post, but here I just want to discuss some random things about the movie that struck me as I was watching it.

My Own Nightmare

Since my teens, I have had recurring nightmares wherein I am walking down a random street in a random, peaceful neighborhood, and when I look up into the sky, I see a horrifying and vivid scene: another large celestial body, usually another planet, ripping open the blue sky of our atmosphere as it rams into our planet. In these dreams I am filled with existential dread, and the planet is usually violently aflame. These dreams took on increased regularity during my loss of faith in god in my late teens, and, later, during episodes of anxiety that I struggled with in my early and mid twenties. The high definition visual details of these dreams are perhaps the most disturbing aspects of them; I see it all so clearly…

Melancholia is the only movie I have ever seen which visually depicts these nightmares of mine almost perfectly (in my dreams, however, the planet is never the calm, serene blue that it is in the film).

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Justine’s Eyes and Hair

In a particularly beautiful scene, Justine and Claire walk out onto the terrace at night to see the incoming rogue planet Melancholia at such a distance that it appears to be the same size as the moon, which is full and beaming in the sky along with Melancholia. The moon shines a beautiful, ghostly white, and Melancholia shines a deep and penetrating blue. The bodies of the sisters are therefore lit up with these colors as they stare, entranced, into the sky.

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It might just be a coincidence, but I did notice that the main character, Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, has bright blue eyes and bright white hair. This reflects the color scheme of the night sky. What does this mean? That Justine’s eyes reflects the hypnotizing blue of Melancholia, symbolizes her own melancholy depression?  Does it signify her acceptance of the situation? Or, perhaps, its merely coincidental and just happens to add to the aesthic beauty of the film. It is worth noting that towards the end of hte film, Justine claims to be able to “see things” and tells her sister confidently that Earth is the only planet in the universe with life on it. When asked by Claire how she could possibly know this, she responds with something to the effect of “I just know things”. So do her bright blue eyes reflect that deeper, intuitive ability? I don’t know…

However, as I argued in my previous blog essay, this film is influenced heavily by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. One of Nietzsche’s famous quotes was:

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

Perhaps this could give insight into the meaning of Justine’s bright blue eyes…

As she stares into Melancholia, Melancholia stares back into her.

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Wealth Can’t Save You

The entire movie takes place at a huge mansion which sits on an 18 hole golf course, totally detached and isolated from the rest of society. In fact, Von Trier has exactly zero scenes where he depicts the outside world; the entire film is confined to the estate. It seems counter-intuitive that a film about the end of the world would not dedicate *any time at all* to exploring the societal reaction of such doomsday news. But by confining the film to one isolated estate, and a small handful of characters, Von Trier creates an intimacy, a specificity, and a psychology that the film would otherwise lack if he had decided to “zoom out” and examine civilization as a whole. That would have cheapened the movie, in my opinion.

It is also worth noting (and maybe this is the Marxist in me) that there seems to be a point being made about wealth and its ultimate futility in shielding the very rich from the events of the rest of the world. In one scene, Claire’s husband John brings in a truck load of supplies that can be used to get by in case of any power outages as Melancholia flies-by (John is convinced that science has proven the planet will not collide with Earth, but merely pass by our planet safely, giving us nothing more than a wonderful spectacle as it continues its path into the outer solar system). He is leveraging his wealth to ensure him and his family will be taken care of in an otherwise destabilizing situation. In the real world, with our currently absurd levels of wealth inequality, this seems to be true of rich people generally: they view their wealth as a safeguard against the rest of us. Events that effect us all, like climate change or social unrest, can be kept at bay for the ultra-wealthy, because they can retreat into the sheltered comfort of their isolated estates, or even more radically, as some rich people are already doing, building huge underground bunkers to protect themselves from any sort of social unrest.


Ultimately, this sense of security is an illusion. Rich people are still inexorably tied to the rest of the world, and their wealth can only protect them from chaos for so long. In the film, it can’t protect them at all. The King and The Servant share exactly the same fate… The hyper-wealthy elites in our world would do well to remember that.

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Overall, this film is rife with symbolism, heart-wrenching depictions of mental and emotional un-wellness, philosophical themes, and scenes of truly moving beauty…

Go watch it.