Everything’s the Same, Just a Little Worse: Depression and Embodiment in Goran Dukic’s Wristcutters: A Love Story

by Christopher Venner Volume 24 Issue 3 / March 2020 13 minutes (3208 words)

Recently arrived in the land of the dead, Zia goes to dinner at his new friend Eugene’s house. Eugene’s mother explains to him that “all of us, we were always together, first in Russia, then in America, now here.” Eugene’s father adds that “Not every family is lucky like we are.” He then raises his glass and toasts “For all of us being together,” and the entire family clinks glasses. Like Zia himself, though, every member of Eugene’s family has committed suicide.

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Goran Dukic’s 2006 film Wristcutters: A Love Story is a powerful exploration of the impact depression can have on a subject and her world. Zia and his friends Eugene and Mikal find themselves in a visually desaturated land of the dead, a land where “Everything’s the same, just a little worse.” Their afterlife is a desert landscape littered with discarded furniture and half-buried cars, a world with no stars in the sky and “where you [literally] can’t even smile.” Yet its protagonists find a way to endure nonetheless.

To date, however, little scholarly attention has been paid to the film. I seek to supplement Pires (2011)’s Sartrean approach by bringing Wristcutters into dialogue with Julia Kristeva’s influential psychoanalytic work on depression, Black Sun. I argue that Kristeva’s “new morality” of melancholia, one based on enduring an intolerable present rather than hoping for a better future (Kristeva 113), resonates powerfully with Dukic’s film. The melancholic subject’s situation is bleak because she must strive to embody an impossible (and hence hopeless) task — to enunciate the “noncommunicable grief” that results from the failure of primary identification to produce a stable sense of self (Kristeva 3). Her resulting lack of access to psychologically separable objects thus forces the melancholic to use “sadness [itself to] reconstitute […her own] affective cohesion” (Kristeva 19). Her world is equally bleak, because a “variety in sadness” is her only link to other people (Kristeva 22). Her world is therefore pervaded by an “unsettling, infectious ill-being”, a generalized affect giving rise to a temporal experience where “there is no future” because there is no possible change for the better (Kristeva 258, 60).

I do not wish to abandon phenomenology entirely, however. As Kristeva herself notes, depression is a Stimmung (a vibration of the soul), and so I also argue for Martin Heidegger’s fundamental ontology as particularly relevant to Wristcutters. And while Heidegger himself mentions depression in only the briefest of terms (Heidegger 1971: 157), a rich discourse about depression has arisen in recent decades using his theory of fundamental mood (Grundstimmung) as a framework. I thus argue for a multi-faceted approach to Wristcutters, one that takes four of the protagonists’ key qualities — incompleteness, indifference, awkwardness and uncanniness — as reference points for any subject’s attempts to make a home for herself should her world lack hope.

Incompleteness

While stopped for lunch at the Hunger Strike Diner, Mikal notices that Eugene is calling his mother on the phone. “Didn’t he already talk to his mom this morning?” she asks Zia. “Yeah, but apparently that’s normal in Russia,” replies Zia. Mikal shakes her head, sips her coffee, and says “I don’t think that’s normal anywhere.”

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For Julia Kristeva, the melancholic must enact an “impossible mourning for the maternal object“ that results from a failure of primary identification, the developmental stage that “establish[es] separations and frontiers” between the emerging self and the all-encompassing Maternal (Kristeva 9, 15). Kristeva’s melancholic has thus “lost” something that is “before” the availability of objects in the traditional Freudian sense — she has lost what Kristeva calls a Thing. Having lost this Thing, Kristeva’s melancholic is thus “a primitive self – wounded, incomplete, [and] empty” (Kristeva 12). Psychologically, she was at risk of “parceling” had she not through “sadness reconstitute[d] an affective cohesion [… a] nonverbal […] support” for the self (Kristeva 19). For a subject like Eugene, then, “sadness is really the sole object“ that holds him together (Kristeva 12). And as a consequence, “The feeling of unavoidable abandonment seems immanent and as if predestined” within his world (Kristeva 241). Or as Eugene’s mother confirmed at the family dinner, “When Ivan and I came here and left our boys alone, they just couldn’t [cope].”

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Zia goes to a bar in the land of the dead. A woman approaches him and says “Listen, my friend Rachel and I, we play this game where we try to figure out how people offed themselves, and we were just guessing about you. How’d you do it?” Zia show her the scars on his wrists, and the woman calls out “Three points for me!” Yet Zia is not alone in bearing the scars of his death – the bartender has a bullet wound in the middle of his forehead, and the woman herself has a “bluish face [that shows] it’s gotta be gas.”

Tom Waits and Patrick Fugit

Kristeva’s description of the wounded melancholic self is echoed in many elements of Heidegger’s discussion of fundamental mood. For Heidegger, “attunement is […] that which gives Dasein subsistence and possibility in its very foundations” (Heidegger 1995: 67). Yet while Heidegger himself never discusses depression as a Grund-Stimmung (grounding mood), others have expanded on Heidegger’s notion that moods connect a self to her world (Sevenaus 159). From this point of view, Dasein’s Leib (her lived body) is distinct from her Körper (her body as object). A Leib inaugurates the subject’s Stimmungsraum (mood-space), with depression resulting from the subject’s inability to pick up on “free-floating” moods within her world. These free-floating moods could conceivably change the depressed subject’s own current affective state, but since she lacks the capacity to experience them, her lived body becomes körporifiziert, unable to be re-attuned in the way that non-depressed persons can be (Sevenaus 160). Like Kristeva’s melancholic, then, a körporifiziert subject experiences “a loss of oneself, since it is only within the meaning patterns of being-_in_-the-world that one’s identity can be established and one’s life carried out” (Sevenaus 161). And because the depressed subject’s mood “colors and determines their entire being-in-the-world in an unhomelike way” (Sevenaus 161), depression “weakens our unique ability to create or make ourselves” (Aho 756). Or as Kristeva herself might observe about Eugene’s family in the afterlife, “There are also rare cases of individuals who feel more ‘homelike’ when manic or depressed, regardless of whether they enjoy that state or not” (Kristeva 60).

Indifference

Zia decides to try to find his ex-girlfriend Desiree, whom he learns has also committed suicide and now resides somewhere in the land of the dead. But Zia does not have a car, and his friend Eugene does not want to drive him – finding Zia’s ex-girlfriend “is not good enough reason for me to go.” Upset, Zia responds “Listen, you know what? Forget Desiree, I got another reason for you to go.” “Give it a shot,” shrugs Eugene while sipping his beer. “You got anything better to do?” asks Zia. Eugene looks uncomfortable for a moment, sips his beer again, and in the next scene they have already departed on the road trip.

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As Kristeva observes, the melancholic subject lives within a strange temporality, one where “everything has gone by […] but I am faithful to those bygone days […for the melancholic] there is no future” (Kristeva 60). Her entire self “belongs to lost time, in the manner of Proust” (Kristeva 61).

Yet why exactly does a mood like melancholia so deeply impact the subject’s sense of time? Framed in Heideggerian terms, Dasein’s situatedness means that she always already finds herself within a mood, and it is only within the context of that mood that particular things can matter to us (Aho 754). Ontological thrownness thus pre-structures Dasein’s possible projects, the projections that might lead out of the situation in which she finds herself (Mulhall 123-124).

Depression, then, forecloses Dasein’s future focus, leaving only the (suffering) present to remain (Aho 754). Or, as Heidegger himself states it in a technical discussion of the nature of a fundamental mood, since “time and the way in which it is as time, i.e., the way in which it temporalizes itself, plays a part in Da-sein’s being attuned in general”, Dasein’s suffering can create situations where there are no longer “several nows, but [instead] fewer and fewer, indeed [eventually] merely one, a stretched one” (Heidegger 1995: 98, 125). And once “cut off from our having-been and from our future”, Dasein can find herself at “the point where all and everything appears indifferent to us,” a point where “everything [is] of equally great and equally little worth” (Heidegger 1995: 124, 137). Thus, “[w]ithout the possibility of transition, only persisting remains” (Heidegger 1995: 125). For when “the beings that surround us offer no further possibility of acting and no further possibility of our doing anything”, Dasein comes to dwell within an encompassing “emptiness [that] accordingly consists in the indifference enveloping beings as a whole“ (Heidegger 1995: 138-139). Heidegger argues, then, that such an “expansion of the temporal horizon […] does not bring Dasein liberation or unburden it, but precisely the converse in oppressing it with its expanse” (Heidegger 1995: 153). Or as a more recent commentator summarizes, because “the present moment blocks the flow of life […and so] blocks engagement with the world,” things can “no longer occupy their proper time” and so can no longer interest us (Sevenaus 159).

Awkwardness

Leslie Bibb

Looking for music to listen to on their road trip, Zia accidentally drops a box of cassettes underneath the passenger seat of Eugene’s car. “Oh shit,” says Eugene. “Anything that goes underneath that seat, forget about it.” “Is there a hole or something?” asks Zia. “Yeah… no… kind of… More like, I guess you would say black hole… or Bermuda Triangle? You know, things just disappear down there,” replies Eugene. And for the rest of trip, cigarette lighters, sunglasses, maps, and anything else that could make Zia, Eugene, and Mikal’s trip more pleasant somehow falls underneath the passenger seat, never to be seen again.

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As I stated in the introduction, Kristeva’s melancholic faces an impossible task — the hopeless project of representing something so terrible that it is beyond meaning. Referencing the work of Marguerite Duras, Kristeva calls this task an “aesthetics of awkwardness […one that for example depicts] an illness with neither tragic crisis nor beauty, a pain from which only tension remains [… this] awkwardness [itself] would be the discourse of dulled pain” (Kristeva 226).

To better understand how the melancholic embodies this awkwardness, I turn now to Heidegger’s familiar contrast between the Zuhand and the Vorhand. For Heidegger, any useful thing always occurs within the context of a larger totality; for example, a pen and desk are both “in” a room. A Heideggerian totality is thus always ontologically prior to any individual object within it (Heidegger 1996: 64). An object like a pen is therefore Zuhand, or “handy,” to the degree that it furthers the goals of the totality itself (Heidegger 1996: 65). Such objects can even form a nested hierarchy within the totality — one of Heidegger’s own examples is a needle, an object handy for making a shoe, itself an object handy for wearing on the foot. Furthermore, this handiness extends beyond the individual subject. Her world itself “is discovered as having some definite direction on paths, streets, bridges” (Heidegger 1996: 65).

A Heideggerian totality is not, however, inherently stable. Any object can suddenly become Vorhand, or “unhandy” within its current context (Heidegger 1996: 68). Such objects draw attention to themselves by becoming unusable. And as a consequence of drawing attention to themselves, the now unhandy objects make explicit the prior totality of references and connections that no longer function (Heidegger 1996: 70).

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Their road trip continues through a barren desert countryside. They pass nothing but dilapidated houses, discarded furniture, and half-buried cars. Zia naps to pass the time, leading Eugene to ironically quip that “You’re missing a lot of beautiful shit.

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For Heidegger, an object that is Vorhand changes the way that Dasein perceives her world, revealing to her its “barren mercilessness” (Heidegger 1996: 315). And this collapse of the relevance of her world in its totality is thus a major feature of his theory of fundamental mood (Heidegger 1996: 174). For example, a familiar environment which was until now experienced “as having some definite direction on paths, streets, bridges” is instead revealed to be nowhere (Heidegger 1996: 66). Dasein is confronted with the fact that nowhere is itself the ultimate foundation of any possible orientation or region (Heidegger 1996: 174). Her experience of nowhere hence “discloses the world as world” while simultaneously showing her that “The ‘world’ can offer nothing more” for her prior life projects (Heidegger 1996: 175). Or as later commentators state it, a fundamental mood like depression is aimed at “the world as a whole“ rather than simply at the subject herself (Aho 753). Indeed, “Melancholy Dasein instantiates a different spatiality”, one where things “are no longer oriented with respect to one another” because the melancholic experiences “things in their pure unhandiness” (Tellenbach 290, 293, 291, translations mine). And as meaning collapses within her world and its objects, the melancholic’s body itself becomes “clumsy and heavy, a foreign obstacle or thing that inhibits our practical engagement with the world” (Aho 754). Or as Mikal herself observes in Wristcutters, you find yourself in “a place where you can’t even smile.”

Uncanniness

The friends stop for the night at Kneller’s Campground, and Zia is amazed at what he sees. “You guys, Eugene, Mik, look at that.” “What?” asks Mikal. “That guy was just floating in the air,” replies Zia. “Floating?” asks an incredulous Mikal. “I wouldn’t pay much attention to it, happens all the time around here,” cautions Kneller. “What happens, miracles?” asks Zia. “Yeah,” says Kneller, and continues on.

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For Martin Heidegger, “[t]ranquilized, familiar being-in-the-world is [actually] a mode of the uncanniness of Da-sein, not the other way around” (Heidegger 1996: 177). As such, a fundamental mood literally “discloses Da-sein as being-possible“ at all (Heidegger 1996: 177). It strips away familiar, accumulated meanings by “point [ing] to them and mak[ing] them known in refusing them […and so] indicates indeterminately the [entire range of] possibilities of Dasein” (Heidegger 1995: 139). Or as later commentators put it, “[a]s everything in the world becomes insignificant, we become aware that we usually rely on a context of significance or a world which we take for granted and which seems to be our home, but which is on the most fundamental level uncanny” (Straehler 423). Because Dasein can “no longer differentiate between foreground and background” (Tellenbach 293, translation mine), experiencing such a mood is “a kind of announcement of the possibilities that are inactive brachliegen“ within the subject’s current world (Mansikka 261, brackets and italics in original). A fundamental mood like depression thus “shake[s] us out of pervasive self-misrepresentations by eradicating the kinds of significance that more mundane moods take for granted” (Ratcliffe 12).

In Heidegger’s analysis, then, encountering a fundamental mood lets Dasein hear the “melody that does not merely hover over the so-called proper being at hand of man, but that sets the tone for such being” (Heidegger 1995:67). Yet this melody is uncanny, because for those who hear it “nature is discovered as [not] having some [ultimate] definite direction” (Heidegger 1996: 66).

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While at Kneller’s Campground, Eugene the failed rock musician meets Nanook, a throat singer whose family has also committed suicide. They make eerie music together, and Eugene begins to perform miracles — he changes a fish’s color from blue to purple to orange to green. This is not a “planned, significant miracle,” as one camper puts it, but is a small miracle nevertheless.

I argue that Dasein can hear this melody because, as Kristeva suggests, “[a]bsent from other people’s meaning […] I owe a supreme, metaphysical lucidity to my depression” (Kristeva 4). Yet the melancholic’s lucidity is by definition uncanny, since attempting to communicate her insight to others would “have meaning only if writing [or song] sprang out of that very melancholia” (Kristeva 3). This is because the melancholic’s “wound, [is] so precocious that no outside agent […] can be used as a referent”, and so “melancholy persons are foreigners in their maternal tongue” (Kristeva 12, 53). As such, a melancholic’s affective experience is not “in” her language; “melancholy people are [only] witness/accomplices of the signifier’s flimsiness” (Kristeva 20). Melancholic expression is thus “repetitive and monotonous […] A repetitive rhythm, [where] a monotonous melody emerge[s] and dominate[s otherwise] broken logical sequences” (Kristeva 33). Yet in implicit agreement with Heidegger, Kristeva asserts that a melody does emerge, even if others can only perceive it in the blanks, rhythms and syllables of the melancholic’s otherwise “devitalized” words (Kristeva 26). Or others may hear it through the melancholic’s “gestures, spasms, or shouts” that “transpose affect into rhythms, signs, forms” (Kristeva 15, 22). Melancholics are therefore creative, even if their creativity merely “spreads the pain that summons it” (Kristeva 229).

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Zia sits alone. Kneller’s Campground has disbanded, Mikal has been taken away by the People In Charge, and even Eugene has left for the North Pole to meet Nanook’s family. Zia strikes a match and drops it, but instead of falling, it floats further and further into the sky, until it forms its own star. This is Zia’s first miracle in the film. He watches the new star, understanding now that “t only happens if it doesn’t matter. It [only then] comes without effort.

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Miracles emerge, then, only when they are no longer obscured by hope for something else. Zia lights a star in the night sky; Kristeva’s melancholic says something other than her contemporaries; and Heidegger’s Dasein follows a path not visible to das Man. These are lonely miracles. They cannot unite a group in the manner that a “planned, significant miracle” promises. They can, though, briefly free a subject from passively waiting for a better future that may never arrive. 

Works Cited

Aho, K.A. (2013). “Depression and embodiment: phenomenological reflections on motility, affectivity, and transcendence.” Medicine Healthcare and Philosophy, 16, 751-759.

Heidegger, M. (1971). “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Poetry Language Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York, NY: Harper & Row. 145-161.

Heidegger, M. (1995). Fundamental Problems of Metaphysics. Trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1996). Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Kristeva, J. (1989). Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Mansikka, J.E. (2009). “Can Boredom Educate Us? Tracing a Mood in Heidegger’s Fundamental Ontology from an Educational Point of View.” Studies in the Philosophy of Education, 28, 255-268.

Mulhall, S. (2011). “Attunement and Disorientation: The Moods of Philosophy in Heidegger and Sartre.” Philosophy’s Moods: The Affective Ground of Thinking. Hagi Kenan and Ilit Ferber (Eds.). London & New York: Springer. 123-239.

Pires, Alessandra M. “Wristcutters: A Love Story. An Anti-Sartrean Tale?” Offscreen 15.2 (March 2011), accessed on October 25, 2017

Ratcliffe, M. (2012). “Why Mood Matters.” https://philosophyofdepression.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/heidegger-on-mood23rdsep2010.pdf

Sevenaus, F. (2007). “Do antidepressants affect the self? A phenomenological approach.” Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy, 10, 153-166.

Staehler, T. (2007). “How is a Phenomenology of Fundamental Moods Possible?” International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 15, 3, 415-433.

Tellenbach, H. (1956). “Die Räumlichkeit der Melancholischen. II. Mitteilung. Analyse der Räumlichkeit melancholischen Daseins.” Nervenarzt: Monatsschrift fur alle Gebiete nervenärztlicher Forschung und Praxis, 27, 289-298.

Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006). Dir. Goran Dukic. No Matter Pictures.

Volume 24 Issue 3 / March 2020 Film Reviews   croatian cinema   goran dukic   illness   tom waits  

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