‘Melancholia’ even when God exists

“The stars, the moon, they have all been blown out… You’ve left me in the dark.”

Those are the lyrics to the Florence + The Machine song “Cosmic Love” but they almost perfectly capture the narrative knot of Lars Von Trier’s seductive meditation on sadness, “Melancholia.”

It took me some time to see the film, because, let’s face it—life is melancholia enough. Who wants to spend two rare, spare hours subjecting themselves to gloom and sorrow?

But then I read an interview with a director who talked about the value of being uncomfortable at the movies—we like to think we go to the theatre to escape the quotidian tragedies of our lives, but there is something to be said for escaping the distractions that prevent us from more deeply entering the complexity of our own emotions. So I guess you could say I was feeling melancholia enough to visit Von Trier’s “Melancholia” which juxtaposes a wedding and a cosmic collision, and which was one of the more memorable cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. Even though I watched it from my couch, a shame in itself since its images deserve the big screen. (And anyone who’s thinking ‘How could she see that anti-Semite’s film?!’ should read this.)

There is much to say about this movie. It is gorgeously shot, each frame photographic – a long take of Kirsten Dunst’s character floating down a river in all her bridal beauty evokes the painterly loveliness of Millais’s Ophelia as much as it captures the disconsolate emptiness of Shakespeare’s character. And the opening sequence, which plays supremely slow but breathtaking images against the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is a captivating and ominous meditation, introducing the film’s leitmotifs as planets and people do a “dance of death” with each other.

Von Trier has said the film was inspired by his own experience with depression. A therapist reportedly told him that depressives fare better when facing catastrophes because they already expect bad things to happen. And indeed, the crazy person at the beginning of the film is the calmest at its end – which is, incidentally, the end of the world.

Contrasting forces serve Von Trier throughout: The entire film takes place on a magnificent estate, the Tjolöholm Castle in Sweden whose enchanting grounds and stunning indoor spaces are supposed to distract from the ugliness of what’s about to happen but of course, can’t. But it is the central irony of a wedding, the locus of possibility, promise and the future, hopelessly resisting the impending apocalypse. Love, it turns out, does not conquers all—in Von Trier’s world even parents are powerless to protect their children.

Broken into parts, “Melancholia’s” opening is followed by two almost entirely distinct movies that focus on its two central characters, a pair of sisters called Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who at first unwittingly live out their final days as if nothing’s going to happen, careening through the gauntlet of emotion: anger, denial, acquiescence—and eventually, terror and despair.

How do you behave on the quiet, overcast afternoon before the world ends? What conversations do you have? What happened the night before? How do you prepare your child for an event from which you cannot save him? 

Von Trier does not bring religion into the mix at all. There are no crosses or symbols suggesting redemption is possible. No last minute confessions, prayers, or kind words exchanged. There is only cowardice and suffering. And there is absolutely no mention of God.

I think it’d be easy to argue that Von Trier is positing an atheistic worldview. His is a Godless, meaningless, existential world where pain is the only truth. But there’s another way to read the film.

There is something spiritually magical about the final scene, when the two sisters and Claire’s young son gather in their “magic cave”. The teepee-like construction of tall, thin branches serves mainly as metaphor, designed not to protect them, but to focus them in a place where they can receive the elements. And there they sit when the blast occurs and the ocean explodes, holding hands, closing their eyes and accepting their fates.

Von Trier is sophisticated enough to know that God cannot save man from the inevitability of the cosmos, any more than God can erase desolation in the human heart, shield from bodily harm or inoculate against human hopelessness.

But as flesh and blood sit on the grass together, tears pouring, hands clenched, waiting for the collision that will reset the course of human history, God is right there with them.