Melancholia and Inside Out: What Two Films Can Teach Us About Depression

Patient Expert

At their best, movies can provide insights into human nature that we can’t get out of experts or books or from talking to friends. Two fairly recent offerings turn their cinematic eye on depression, and are well worth downloading.

The first is a European art film, the second a Pixar cartoon. Let’s take a look …


Set to the haunting music of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the film begins with a sequence of images resulting in the earth getting blown away by a rogue planet. We then cut to the wedding reception of Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst). The bride comes across as both self-absorbed and on the brink of falling apart. Her antics alienate her entire family, sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsborg), in particular.

The story fast-forwards to Justine in a catatonic depression, being cared for by sister Claire. Our rogue planet now enters the picture, as a distant object that is projected to bypass earth from a safe distance. Throughout, Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) is the voice of reason and authority, as well as the father-knows-best to their son Leo.

Family dynamics turn upside down once it becomes evident that the rogue planet will crash into earth. Claire is unnerved. John loses it and commits suicide. Justine is the calm one, poised and in control, the choreographer of their last moments. We see her in a field, sister and nephew huddled into her, calmly awaiting their fate.

According to Wikipedia, writer and director Lars von Tier’s inspiration for the film came from his insights he picked up from his own depression. A therapist informed von Trier that under intense pressure, people prone to depression people tend to act more calmly than others. One reason is that they already expect bad things to happen.

This type of behavior corresponds to depressive realism. Nassir Ghaemi, in his 2011 book, A First Rate Madness, uses Lincoln as his depressive realist poster boy.

Inside Out

I’m guessing most of you have seen this. The drama takes place inside the brain of 11-year-old Riley, who is experiencing a major emotional crisis triggered by a move to a new locale. Manning the controls are five personifications of emotions, including Joy and Sadness.

Sadness is the unwelcome presence in the control room, prone to erratic behavior and a clear hazard to Riley’s well-being. When she and Joy are sucked out of the control room and into the recesses of Riley’s mind, all seems lost. Riley literally has to drag her hapless companion through a labyrinth.

Everything changes when the two encounter a grief-stricken Bing Bong, Riley’s abandoned imaginary friend. Only Sadness is able to identify with Bing Bong’s distressed condition and offer comfort. Once safely back in the control room, a chastened Joy allows Sadness to take over. In the healing and cathartic final scene. Riley is allowed to give free reign to her sadness. Her emotional crisis resolves.

To conclude …

I cannot overstate the insights that the creators of these two films brought to the big screen. Please do not hesitate to dial up Netflix or iTunes and treat yourself to a small screen viewing.