Some time soon I would like to host a double feature screening of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Both of these 2011 films are experimental, ambitious, sprawling epics by respected auteurs; both juxtapose the cosmic and the intimate; both depict the destruction of Earth, to the lush cacophonies of Germanic classic music; both debuted at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, mere days before Harold Camping predicted a real-life end of the world.
But as similar as the two films are in some ways, they also offer strikingly contrasting visions of what it means to exist in the world. Melancholia, like Tree of Life, vividly depicts man’s flawed, sinful nature and his temporal smallness in the grand scheme of things. But whereas Life offers a hopeful portrait of human potential for redemption and hints at the existence of a meaningful, grace-filled telos in the world, Melancholia offers a bleak, bereft-of-hope portrait of humanity as irredeemably self-destructive and helpless, at best deluded by idealized notions of love and purpose.
The latest film from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dogville), Melancholia opens with a stunning overture, to the music of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, depicting the cataclysmic collision of Earth and a fictitious planet named Melancholia. This sequence, which includes gorgeous slow-mo shots and painterly tableauxs, “gives away” the ending from the outset: the Earth will die, and everything in it. Our foreknowledge of this impending apocalypse colors our perceptions of the family drama that follows—which concerns sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst), Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and their extended dysfunctional family. The juxtaposition of the ridiculous, petty shenanigans of the family and the reality that everything is about to end serves as the film’s central conceit, and it works brilliantly.
Set on the ritzy country estate of Claire and her “filthy rich” husband John (Kiefer Sutherland)—an eerie, secluded mansion that evokes the offputting surrealism of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad—Melancholia is an epic in two parts: “Part One: Justine” and “Part Two: Claire.” Justine’s half focuses on her ill-conceived, slow-burn disaster of a wedding reception, where a Rachel Getting Married situation plays out as family dysfunction quickly tarnishes an otherwise regal affair. The central problem is Justine herself: she’s lethargic, misanthropic, struck by a bad case of “melancholia” (definition: a manic-depressive condition characterized by extreme depression). She leaves her own wedding reception at various points during the evening—to take a bath or to walk alone on the terrace and gaze longingly at the bright orb in the sky that she hopes will soon spell Earth’s doom. For Justine, life on earth is evil and meaningless; people are inept fools deserving of destruction. Ironically it is on her wedding night that she completely resigns herself to this nihilistic stance. [SPOILER ALERT: Before the night is through, she quits her job (her boss is the best man) and breaks it off with her husband (Alexander Skarsgård).]
The “Claire” half picks up a few days later. Melancholia is getting closer to Earth, but scientists are optimistically (and wrongly) predicting it will pass by Earth with no contact. Claire is worried, but her husband—something of an astronomy nut—insists it will be a “fly by” and nothing more. Meanwhile, Justine, more depressed and lethargic than ever, is staying at the estate. Clarie compassionately cares for her troubled sister, makes her favorite meals and tries to get her out of bed. Alas, Justine is content in her melancholia and wants nothing other than to see the arrival of Melancholia and the end of all things.
For von Trier, the contrast between these two sisters and their respective outlooks on life serves as the thematic center of the film. Justine welcomes doom. For her, it’s the logical and desirable denouement to a world marked by misery. When the end comes, she faces it ambivalently—an event as arbitrary and meaningless as anything else in life. For Claire, however, the approach of Melancholia—especially as it becomes clear that it will collide with Earth—is terrifying and tragic. She wants to live. She wants to see her son (Cameron Spurr) grow up. She enjoys the flowers, the blueberries, the horses on her estate; she relishes the making of a good meatloaf.
But will Claire—and, by implication, any of us who find meaning and hope in existence—ultimately be proven wrong? This is the provocative suggestion of Melancholia, which finds a sort of ecstatic, cathartic beauty in the apocalyptic destruction of Earth. Like Justine, von Trier seems to delight in the arrival of doomsday, portraying it as a sort of climactic, tension-releasing fourth movement to the long, arduous symphony that is human existence.
And indeed, the stunning beauty of these images of apocalypse—even for the non-nihilists in the audience—is hard to ignore. As unsettling as it is to see von Trier’s planetary version of a plane hitting a static skyscraper, its also weirdly moving. There’s a sense in which every human instinctively knows the Earth will not last forever and that fiery destruction is in some way deserved. There’s a reason why, if we’re honest with ourselves, disasters and mass calamity confront us as things simultaneously horrific and transcendent, visceral reminders of our finitude and God’s sovereignty. It’s what Malick was getting at in Life: Every human—like every dinosaur millions of years ago—is here for a brief time and then gone, terminated by a rogue asteroid, a wartime bullet, a freak accident or a wayward planet called Melancholia.
But where Life sees the position of man vis-a-vis the unpredictable universe as an opportunity to be humbled and awakened to the grace and grandeur of life, Melancholia sees it as proof that human existence is largely an exercise in futility. God is not to be found in Melancholia, at least on the surface of it; and yet it’s a film that acknowledges the existence of beauty. Where does this come from? It’s also a film in which love, true love for others, exists. [SPOILER ALERT: Beneath it all Justine loves her sister and her nephew, and fittingly it is this trio that we see in the last shot, holding hands in love and fear as the moment of impact occurs.] What happens after this? Is there some life after death, as Claire wants to believe and feels must be true? Or is Justine correct in assuming there is nothing else? The ambiguity of this question leaves open a possibility of hope that even curmudgeonly misanthropes like Lars von Trier cannot ignore.