For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by stories about the end of the world. Post-apocalyptic stuff like The Stand or Earth Abides or The Road – wherein small bands of survivors struggle to survive and maintain human civilization – are okay, but what I’m really drawn to are stories (like Last Night or On The Beach) where EVERYBODY dies.* For a variety of reasons people have always had an appetite for tales of the apocalypse, but what I’m interested in for the purposes of this blog post is my personal reaction to them. Which brings me to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Julia and I saw it a month ago and while I didn’t think it was entirely successful, it has stuck with me for reasons I will attempt to explain here.
I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to tell you that the film begins with a shot of the titular massive blue planet colliding with Earth and completely destroying it. The thing is, Melanchoia is no more about the literal end of the world than The Hit (a great film about death and how people prepare for and approach it) is about crime. It doesn’t attempt to realistically depict what might transpire in the face of the events the movie dramatizes; the astrophysics are pretty ludicrous and society’s collective reaction to a new planet that may or may not collide with Earth seems rather muted.
No, Melancholia is about depression and how people react under pressure. von Trier has said as much in interviews (naming the planet “Melancholia” is admittedly a bit of a tip-off) and states on the film’s official website that “Justine [the character played by Kirsten Dunst] is very much me. She is based a lot on my person and my experiences with doomsday prophecies and depression.” When it becomes clear that Melancholia is in fact going to strike Earth, Justine’s sister Claire [Charlotte Gainsbourg] and her husband John [Kiefer Sutherland], neither of whom are depressed, are completely unequipped to deal with the impending disaster, while Justine seems calm, if somewhat contemptuous of Claire’s rising panic (when von Trier was being treated for depression a therapist told him that depressives often act more calmly during a crisis than “happy” people because their glass is already half empty.)
Depression is something I struggle with, and while I don’t know if it’s a plus in a crisis, I can tell you that when you’re depressed there are days when you’d welcome the arrival of a rogue planet slamming into the Earth at thousands of miles an hour. Cheap nihilism aside, there are a number of reasons I think films like Melancholia (and Last Night, On The Beach, etc.) have always resonated with me.
- When you’re depressed you worry about the future a lot. If you knew exactly what the future held (and when) it would in one sense solve a lot of what you thought were your problems. In Last Night and On The Beach, many of the characters stoically accept their fate (à la Claire), and a few even seem cheerful. Feeling resigned to upcoming events one considers inevitable is also a hallmark of depression, and there is always a measure of cold comfort in having one’s dark suspicions about the universe confirmed.
- In Donnie Darko (another film about the end of the world, or universe, or…something) one of the characters states “Every living creature dies alone,” which is a profoundly desolate sentiment and something I would imagine almost everyone is afraid of. By comparison, an instantaneous global cataclysm where we all die with our loved ones by our side seems almost grand and romantic by comparison, especially if it’s gorgeously filmed in slow-motion with cool special effects and soundtracked by Richard Wagner.
- As Samuel Johnson said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” On The Beach and Last Night are full of characters who, faced with humanity’s imminent extinction, make a conscious choice to fulfill their personal and professional duties right up until the final moment. In Melancholia Justine is the one who takes charge of the situation at the very end and makes an effort to comfort Claire’s young son Leo (after Claire panics and tries to escape – to where? – with him). Depression has a way of making your range of opportunities in life seem paradoxically overwhelming and futile, so I could see how having them narrowed down to a very few stark choices in an end-of-the-world scenario just might have the kind of clarifying effect Johnson speaks of.
Please rest assured that none of this should be taken to mean that I harbour a death wish for either myself or the world at large (although I must admit I was rooting for the asteroid in Armageddon). Life, as much as it sucks sometimes, is precious and beautiful, and sometimes it takes a gigantic rock hurtling toward Earth to make us realize we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s (almost) gone.
* I think I find the choices people are forced to make when there is zero chance of survival more dramatically compelling than fights to the death over canned vegetables.