One of the most striking scenes in Melancholia comes when Justine and Claire step outside the mansion to see the sky lit up by two large heavenly bodies: the moon and the planet Melancholia. Claire suddenly notices that Justine is missing, and when she finds her, Justine is splayed out nude, basking in the uncanny light. This is a striking contrast to Justine’s previous behavior — during the wedding sequence, she can muster up no desire for her new husband, and when she takes aside a young man and has sex with him, it is more an expression of dominance and spite than lust. In the second half of the movie, she has difficulty sustaining any kind of affect whatsoever, recoiling from a warm bath and declaring that a favorite meal tastes like ashes. Yet here she is, responding to the prospect of the world’s annihilation with unmistakable erotism.
This scene serves, for me at least, as a kind of “quilting point” tying Melancholia to the story of Antigone. In Sophocles’ play, we see Antigone similarly rejecting normal erotic attachments and even life itself, while declaring Hades and death to be her true husband. Once we see this connection, the parallels multiply: Claire becomes the conservative Ismene, constantly trying to keep the peace. The Creon role is played alternately by her boss (whose son she is marrying, just as she is engaged to Creon’s son in the play) and by Claire’s husband. Her father is figuratively blind to her needs and is accompanied by two women, as in Oedipus at Colonus — and as in the play, Antigone (Justine) pleads with her father to stay with her, but he abandons her. Indeed, the incestuous overtones are reinforced when her father leaves Justine a note addressing her as “Betty,” the name he had given to his two dinner companions. The “cave” in which Justine dies evokes Antigone’s cave. I could go on.
The key divergence is that there is no brother to bury, no ostensible goal for which she martyrs herself — but here, too, the film is faithful to the play, in which Antigone seems ultimately to insist on her very insistence itself, to embody a pure death drive inaccessible to the space of reasons. If the play represents a shift from mourning to melancholia, the film skips straight to the latter. In that context, when our Antigone ramps up her insistence, it destroys more than her family — it destroys the whole world.
But perhaps this is too simple. I have left out a crucial character: Claire’s son, Leo. Justine appears to have a special connection with her nephew, who mysteriously calls her “Aunt Steelbreaker” and who refers to a game of “building caves” together. She leaves her wedding to put Leo to bed, and it is for him that she builds the figurative cave in which they assemble to meet their doom. Like the brother-sister relationship, the aunt-nephew relationship is “indirect,” mediated by other, more primary relationships (in this case, Justine and Claire’s relationship, which itself is mediated by each sister’s relationship to their parents). If Leo is filling in for Polyneices, though, that still represents a significant shift in the Antigone motif, insofar as Justine must usher Leo into the realm of the dead in a more radical and painful way than Antigone.
The film reinforces this shift with the name of Justine’s beloved horse: Abraham. This is the horse that, even before the planet Melancholia is visible, will not allow her to leave the estate. It is also the horse that Claire’s husband John claims, non-commitally, to have “taken for an occasional ride” — yet it remains Justine’s horse, just as the responsibility for Leo remains Justine’s after John kills himself. We can hear an echo of “God will provide the lamb” when she enlists Leo to help build the magic cave.
Thus we can see that Justine enters into the greatest extremity marked out not only by the Greek tradition (Antigone), but also into the most enigmatic space of the biblical tradition (Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac) — all in the face of something that neither tradition can quite envision: the total and irrevocable destruction of the human world.