Melancholia, and the meaning of life

Lars von Trier's latest film leaves the audience wondering what kind of universe we inhabit.

The world may be popularly predicted to end in 2012 but that’s not soon enough for Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier whose latest film Melancholia spectacularly finishes off earth and all life on it.

But Melancholia isn’t the kind of CGI-laden disaster film that rumbles the earth for kicks before ultimately saving the day (like other films like Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) as much as it’s a portrait of life from the perspective of someone so depressed that the obliteration of everything comes as a blessed relief.

In the film we follow the last dark and dismal days of planet earth through the trials of two sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), after whom the two parts of the film are named.

Part One recounts how Justine’s crippling depression manages to destroy her newly minted marriage the same day she weds her handsome groom (Alexander Skarsgaard), while in Part Two, Charlotte nurses the near catatonic Justine while trying to fend off her fears that Melancholia will strike the earth.

That’s the gloomy name of the planet that’s on a crash course with the earth. Justine first spotted it during her ill-fated wedding feast, but then it was just a red speck in the sky. By Part Two, however, it’s bloomed into a blue planet hovering on earth’s horizon, stoking Claire’s fears that it’s going to hit. John (Kiefer Sutherland), her husband and a keen amateur astronomer, insists that the planet will merely pass them by.

It doesn’t.

And so if Justine’s marriage ends with a whimper, the earth goes out with a bang in the second half of this depressive epic.

This is no real spoiler, by the way. The film opens with a series of beautiful—if chilling—tableaux that spell out how Justine and Claire await earth’s final curtain call.

We see the normally stoic Claire grasping on to her son Leo as she runs painfully slow, as if through mud, through the green of her estate’s golf course. She’s desperate to live, and fights mightily against the knowledge that she won’t—and neither will anyone else.

What of Justine? The very first shot of Melancholia shows us the heroine all limp-haired and staring dead-eyed at the camera while around her birds fall from the sky, all rigor mortis in mid-flight. It’s a memorable shot that summarises the fundamental tenets of Melancholia’s unrelentingly bleak universe: that there is no escape, no redemption, nothing.

In fact, imminent annihilation proves to be something of a godsend for the wretched Justine, who bathes naked in Melancholia’s deathly blue glow and comes back to life the closer they get to the world’s eleventh hour. A prophetess of doom, she accepts their fate. “Life is only on earth,” she says grimly, “And not for long.”

Reports that von Trier suffers from depression make lines like this sound as though they’ve sailed straight out of the tortured subconscious of the maverick filmmaker. Judging from his selection of a world-destroying planet as the most appropriate metaphor for mental illness, von Trier had (or has) depression pretty bad, and Dunst’s blistering, Palme d’Or-winning performance allows us to plumb the cavernous depths of the condition.

Melancholia is billed on its movie posters as “a beautiful movie about the end of the world.” The tagline sounds like classic grandstanding from von Trier, the kind of director who loves to court controversy, but it’s no arrogant claim. The opening shots of the film in particular—of a deathly Justine in her wedding dress floating Ophelia-like on a pond, of her white train being dragged through weeds as she strides across the screen—are both lyrical and haunting. If the world has to end, it seems, it should do so in style.

However, there’s something else about Melancholia that its posters don’t give away.

It’s something of an anti-Tree of Life. That film, which won the Palme d’Or for Best Film at Cannes the same week Dunst collected her honours, was director Terrence Malick’s dreamy and often baffling vision of life, death and everything in between.

Like Melancholia, The Tree of Life dramatises personal struggles as events of cosmic significance, using the characters’ inner turmoil to speculate on the nature of the universe.

In The Tree of Life, members of the O’Brien family cry out to God in despair in their effort to make sense of life and all its ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. God is the universal subject, if a remote one, to whom all complaints and all cries are addressed as the family mourns the loss of one of their sons.

Such existential angst, however, is useless in Melancholia—a film so downcast in attitude as to make a mockery of attempts to find meaning. Melancholia would seem to concur with Richard Dawkins’ belief in a godless universe in which there’s ‘nothing but blind pitiless indifference’—and with whom, I suspect, von Trier would agree. After all, he has Justine declare that “we’re alone”, that there’s no life elsewhere, and therefore no hope to be had.

It’s said that comedies end in weddings and tragedies with everyone dying. No prizes for guessing where Melancholia and The Tree of Life sit on this point, with the latter ending with a mystical reunion of those loved and lost, and the former offering instead a requiem for the earth.

The two films, then, come to wildly different conclusions about the kind of universe in which we live.

Melancholia is a remarkable achievement, an unforgettable viewing experience. Von Trier takes us deep into a world steeped in existential misery where nothing ultimately matters because we’re all doomed anyway. It’s a thrilling, if profoundly discomfiting ride.

And one that can’t help but beg the question of which kind of universe the audience inhabits: one in which to yearn for God to answer out of the void—The Tree of Life? Or one that appears God abandoned long ago, or where he never existed at all since we’re left alone to await our inevitable end—Melancholia?

Justine Toh is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media, Music, and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University. 

This article originally appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics.