Time. It’s our human instinct to fear it, to be cautious of it, to fight it. Our entire existences are dominated by time and influenced by change, so it’s not surprising that these themes show up repeatedly in cinema. Lars Von Tier’s Melancholia follows Justine (Kirsten Dunst), as she attempts to cope with her severe depression. From her wedding night to the end of the world, Justine is plagued by her illness, preventing her from living fully. But when the newly discovered planet Melancholia (a metaphor for the intrusive oppression of depression on one’s life) starts to plummet towards Earth, the uncertainty of time and change dominates the characters’ lives. Von Tier explores human mentality and stability through his characters, using them as allegories for the human desire to control time, despite it being inescapable.
Melancholia explores humans relationship with time by looking towards the future. In Melancholia, the future, which is symbolised through the looming death caused by Melancholia, dictates the three characters — Justine’s, John’s (Kiefer Sutherland), and Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) — relationships and reaction with time and change. Due to her mental illness and inescapable depression, Justine, unlike the other characters in the film, knows that the future is uncontrollable and can’t be known. Like Melancholia, she herself is an uncontrollable force. Despite everyone trying to dictate her behaviour and forcing her to conform to social norms, she breaks free and follows her own path. Melancholia, also ungoverned by habits, can’t be tamed or known. Justine is able to understand and accept the fate of her impending death by Melancholia because she knows that it can’t be stopped or controlled.
John, as the antithesis to Justine, is unable to accept the unpredictability of change and the unknowingness of the future. His obsession with technology and the ‘scientific explanation’ of Melancholia’s trajectory illustrates his lack of acceptance for change or the possibility of an unknown future. He desperately tries to control the future and to force it to follow the social order he has been programmed to follow. Yet, his inability to control the uncontrollable eventually results in his suicide. Whereas Justine is able to come to terms with the uncontrollable future, John is not, which results in him taking his own life before Melancholia can.
Claire, on the other hand, projects a similar desire as John to control the uncontrollable: at the wedding, Claire is insistent that Justine follows the established social codes that are expected of her; at breakfast, she breaks down because they can’t have a ‘normal’ breakfast. But what separates Claire from John is her willingness to accept the future, even though she fears it. Claire learns from Justine that one can’t control the uncontrollable, and, instead of killing herself like John, she allows the future to come, despite her desperate desire to stop it.
John and Claire’s acceptance of the future comes in the form of fear: John’s means of accepting the inevitability of destruction is to kill himself and Claire, although accepting of the eventual future, is horrified by her eventual death from Melancholia. Yet, Justine, who is understanding of the uncontrollability of the future, truly accepts the fate of Melancholia. Rather than allowing the future to terrify her, she embraces it without fear and builds a magic cave to produce a new world in this deteriorating one. In the end, Melancholia killed them all; John and Claire died with fear and anxiety, but Justine is able to die with a sense of euphoria and acceptance.