The Lay of the Land: Geography in ‘Melancholia,’ ‘The Descendants,’ and ‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’

A little while into Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Turkey’s entry for last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, the small police caravan stops at what the murderer thinks is the location of his victim’s buried body. It’s very late, maybe two o’clock in the morning. The murderer and a few of the police officers walk down the hill by the road and disappear into the night. The rest of the group stays by the cars. They talk some, then the doctor walks off to relieve himself. He wanders over a hill or two and comes to a little valley next to some rocks sticking out of the hillside. I think it’s also raining, or threatening to. He starts his business and after a few seconds of stillness there’s a flash of lightning, revealing the distinct shape of a face in the rocks next to him—a face made of the rocks. The doctor starts, or maybe I remember that because I did. In a movie built on moments of quiet resonance, this was the one that stuck with me.

Image 1. The face in the rocks, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

The first half of Anatolia is some sort of existential parable, which has to do with the title, about a man who confesses to a murder, tells the police he’ll take them to the body, then can’t remember where he buried it. The movie is set in the endless hills of Turkey, so there’s plenty of area to search. The man thinks he recognizes a tree, so they stop wherever they see a tree. He remembers there was a fountain, so they visit all the fountains scattered throughout the countryside. There’s something in there about a search for meaning, trying to locate yourself in a vast wilderness. There are towns and small villages that the people live in, but between them are huge expanses of green and brown space and lonely roads. You feel how the people are connected to the land, how their existence is part and parcel of where they live. It takes time to get places. Man-made landmarks are often the only way to judge distance and location. The land is something greater than the people, akin to how in sailing movies the ocean is nearly a living thing that sailors take their lives into their hands to traverse. Scenes with poor villagers suggest that the land is not exactly hostile to the people, but it is something to be challenged and persevered against. It’s something on which to stake out a living. The face in the hillside ties in to this: it’s the image of a human that’s inscribed on the land. It’s a symbol, maybe a response or an acknowledgment, that the land is aware of what lives on it.

The Descendants might be thought of as the story of the people who live on the land several generations after Anatolia and halfway around the world. They’ve conquered the land, mostly, built houses and roads and hotels and airports. People in The Descendants own the land, literally and figuratively, in ways that the characters in Anatolia would never dream of. They move over it at will with their vehicles, they buy and sell it. Matt King’s family members own a large chunk of land through their connection to the royalty of old Hawaii. The big question in the movie is what to do with the land, whether to sell it for development or lose control over it in the near future. King wants to be respectful of the land; he’s even a little incredulous that they own it at all. I think he says something to that effect, something like, “How is it that this huge piece of property somehow belongs to us?” The people of Hawaii tell him they hope he won’t sell it to developers. They know its value. So does he, but he has his family’s financial security to think about.

Image 2. Matt King and his daughters looking over the land they own, The Descendants

The other plot line of the movie is King dealing with the death of his wife and the emotional distance between him and his daughters, but I’m more interested in posterity, blood lines, family possessions, ownership. I’ve seen a lot of open land in the last year while crossing the U.S. on trains and buses, and the thought I’ve kept coming back to—a theme in the foreground of Anatolia, in the background of Descendants, and overhead in Melancholia—is that despite occupying, owning, and passing down whatever land we have, we’re not in control of anything. At the end of the day the world is left in darkness for 12 hours and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We can turn on lights, but that doesn’t stop the sun from setting. Outside, beyond the walls of the lit-up houses we’ve built to survive in, it’s going to be dark all night.

The other movie is Melancholia, and the thing about land in Melancholia is it’s restricted, which narrows the focus of the movie almost unbearably. Other than the shots of planets moving in space, the only time we leave the estate of John and Claire is very early in the movie when Justine and her fiancé are trying to get the limousine up the impassable road (now there’s a metaphor). I saw the last hour of 2012 on TV around the time I saw Melancholia. What struck me about 2012 was its attempt to capture the entire world in its scope—it’s about disaster affecting everyone everywhere. Melancholia is about the world ending for one family, and the movie is way more terrifying for it. There’s a kind of carnival spectacle to 2012 and how it wants to destroy the Earth. Melancholia destroys the Earth, but through the collective lens of the golf course estate’s small population. In fact, if not for the wedding scenes, we would hardly even know any other people exist. Melancholia is a planetary event happening to one family, a cosmic disaster affecting four people. And in a world as strange as that estate in the movie, it might not be a stretch to suppose that the estate somehow is the entire world.

Image 3. The estate, Melancholia

What if the movie is metaphorical? What if the Earth were not literally being destroyed by a planet named Melancholia? What if the movie is a kind of existential family drama penned in by the estate’s borders, with Claire and John as the main characters? The marriage isn’t perfect, it’s stressful, but more stressful is the depression and the feelings of terror that Claire and Justine struggle with. They get this shared trait from their mother—they’re sisters, after all. What if the movie is about struggling with depression and feeling unsure—not whether you want to live, but if you can go on living? Claire is doing all right while she has her family, but then John kills himself for an unknown reason, it doesn’t matter what (if we’re seeing things through Claire’s eyes in the second half of the movie, she doesn’t know why he did it either). Melancholia the movie would then be the story of an emotionally fragile wife losing her mind over the suicide of her husband, and the horror and mental terror of it all is enhanced tenfold by Claire’s terror of Melancholia the planet. John was such a strong personality that he kept her together while he was alive, but in his absence she only has her son—who’s a child, he obviously can’t carry her emotionally—and her sister, who has similar issues herself. The movie would then be about the blood and mental bonds of the sisters, how they are made unable to support each other, how they can’t cope with things, how that leads to, for them, the end of the world.

Think about it: When do we actually learn that, as Claire fears, Melancholia has reversed course and is headed back toward Earth? Is it after she finds John dead in the barn? Or has he only vanished when she thinks she sees Melancholia growing larger in the sky, and then she finds John, confirming, she thinks, her fears? We knew she was terrified the scientists would be wrong about Melancholia safely passing by the Earth. Either way, Claire’s emotional stability quickly spirals downward from there, Justine is unable to help—in fact, she suggests sitting and waiting calmly for the end—and the whole world, or rather their whole world, which in Melancholia are one and the same, becomes analogous to the apartment of the Mantle twins at the end of Dead Ringers: a veritable self-made prison, with the sisters as the twins, codependent and helpless to save each other. It would be like Rosemary’s Baby, where the protagonist’s subjective point of view is impossible to untangle or differentiate from reality to the point that the ending we see might not be what really happened. Because in the larger reality the planet Melancholia might well have continued off into space. But in the sisters’ reality it obliterated them.

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Author Bio:

J.M. Olejarz is a film student at UCLA and a coeditor of the Mediascape Blog. He has written two books of poetry, had a letter to the editor published in The Amazing Spider-Man #588, and won a Vulture haiku contest whose prize was Season 3 of True Blood on DVD. For more of his thoughts on movies, TV, and a glut of miscellany, see

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