This weekend I watched a very strange film and I read a very strange book.
Shirley Jacksons’ We Have Always Lived In The Castle and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia are a surprisingly similar pair of works. Both stories focus on pairs of sisters from extremely unconventional families and both are set entirely in beautiful old houses that are isolated from the rest of the world. Both stories also have an exceptionally high body count, with one family living in fear of a planet that may or may not crash into the Earth and the other living in the aftermath of a gruesome mass murder. I’m going to try to talk about them without spoiling anything because I really enjoyed them and it’d be neat if this post inspired anyone to make the same comparison!
Younger sisters Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood and Kirsten Dunst’s Justine both show obvious signs of mental illness. Justine suffers from depressive episodes which are heartbreaking to watch and only get worse; while Merricat makes ritualistic burials of her family’s old artefacts and fantasises about stamping on the corpses of her enemies and flying away to the moon. The condition of the two women occupy very different spaces in both works, with Justine at the centre of Melancholia for most of the film and the audience made to feel the deepening separation between her and the other characters. We identify (or at least sympathise) with her but mostly we look at her helplessly as her depression isolates and overwhelms her until she stops caring about everything else. On the other hand, Merricat is often cheerful and charming and soon feels like a friend. There’s a sense of order in the way she sees the world that makes it all the easier to be persuaded and seduced.
What both characters have in common is a sympathetic bond with nature. Merricat feels safest in her little den on the edge of the Blackwood’s estate, surrounded by wild bushes and the creek and Melancholia opens with long shots of Justine getting tangled up in vines, shooting lightning bolts out of her hands and sinking into rivers. It’s not a stretch to say that both women are characterised as distinctly witch-like. Each of them has a particular special pet with whom they share a unique relationship – Merricat’s cat Jonas and Justine’s horse Abraham – like a familiar, a companion animal that would supposedly communicate between a witch and Satan. Both women can be malevolent and spiteful and we never understand the full extent of the rules that they live by. Neither of them make any reference to Christianity or any other religions. These characters may scare us but in this day and age we’re more likely to see witches as misunderstood women who failed to fit in to their communities and received disproportionately cruel punishments for it: this more sympathetic view is also applicable to Justine and Merricat. They create their own magic in response to horrible circumstances.
Both Merricat and Justine are in protected by their respective older sisters Claire and Constance. They both embrace domesticity – Claire runs a hotel and Constance is an enthusiastic and talented chef – but they’re in touch with the same dark streak as their sisters – Claire openly tells Justine “I hate you sometimes” and Constance passes on to Merricat an extensive knowledge of poisonous mushrooms in an attempt to protect her. Both pairs of sisters can communicate without speaking, they can read each other’s looks and rely on each other when they face terrible things.
Melancholia and We Have Always Lived In The Castle are very dark stories, but they’re also very original. They’re intimate family dramas disguised as myths about life and death and punishment and sadness. They’re worlds you can explore and indulge in at the same time that they repulse you. I guess that’s why I ended up writing hundreds of words on them! If you’re familiar with either of these works I’d love to know what you think! I think later on I’m going to try to draw a picture of Merricat when she’s dressed only in the checkered tablecloth and gold curtain tassel.