The Triumph Of Love In Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia”

Whether you love or despise Von Trier's moral aesthetics, which have been attacked as misogynistic (among other things), his visual mastery is generally not questioned. This beautiful image, showing Melancholia rising, is obviously not a very subtle metaphor, but it is an effective and memorable image nevertheless.
When Lars von Trier's Melancholia came out, back in 2011, it mostly garnered restrained praise, along with restrained or qualified negative comments, from critics.

Actually, the praise and the criticism sounded about the same, something like this:

“This is not a feel-good movie. This is the frigid, hard-to-embrace cinematic opposite of a feel-good movie, in fact—all wrapped in one long, dark metaphor for depression.”

And the headline of that article summed it up: “Dreary apocalyptic drama is a beautiful slog”.

And in A. O. Scott’s somewhat positive review at the New York Times: “'Melancholia' is emphatically not what anyone would call a feel-good movie.”

Well, that’s the easy, shallow, way of viewing Melancholia.

Here is what Melancholia is not about:
  • The Apocalypse.
  • Doomsday.
  • Depression.
Those things operate as props and metaphors for Von Trier's commentary, part of his ongoing critique, of the absurdity and the poignancy of the human condition.

Yes, a planet called Melancholia is on a collision course with Earth, and everyone will die. But so unimportant is this mere plot point, that Von Trier reveals that ending to us in the beginning, as if it is one of the characters, which it is.

The looming blue planet, Melancholia, hangs with a gloomy beauty in the night sky, getting bigger and bigger as throwaway, ritualized, reassurances by the rational man—the standard fool of Von Trier’s movies—are shown to be dismissive patronizing of his wife and his son.

That foolish man, John (played by Kiefer Sutherland), is the husband of Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), one of two sisters profiled in the two parts of the movie. John is convinced the mathematical uncertainties of science (i.e., the fact that scientists promising Melancholia will pass by Earth without hitting it can’t be 100% sure) would be upsetting to women and children.

So, John preaches to Claire that she should listen to the scientists and shut up bothering John (especially) with her increasingly obsessive worry that they’re all going to die. Of course, the scientists end up being dead wrong. And John bravely faces this error, and the realization that his stupid man-brain and its science cannot save anybody, by fleeing his family and committing suicide.

Claire meanwhile is more impressed by a graphic she’s printed off the internet, showing how Melancholia will appear at first to miss Earth, and then loop around and come back to smash into it. This “dance of death”, which is basically what the whole movie is, is alarming and much easier to understand, rather like the child’s astronomy tool John gives Claire, a piece of wire one sizes to detect whether Melancholia is coming closer or going away, which Claire uses to confirm her husband got it wrong.

Meanwhile, back in the land of the living, there is Claire’s sister, Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst), the heroine of the picture.

Justine’s problem (for others), and her grace and her salvation, is that she is way too depressed to take the bullshit of life seriously. The film hints at the reason for this: Justine is a seer, a real one who, as real seers would likely do, keeps her visions mostly to herself. This causes her to depressively mope about a lot, in spite of her trying to act in accord with the enormous weight of other people’s expectations.

The film’s first part deals with the day of Justine’s wedding to Jack, a sincere but vapid creature whose only apparent advantage to Justine is that he acts as if he loves her a great deal. She makes it quite clear that while others pretend to think that matters, she knows the shortcomings of mere romance. She has only to look at her mother and father to see the useless wreckage the vanity of romance can wreak on people’s lives.

Justine does everything she can, aided by her charmless mother, to make sure the huge crowd gathered at her expensive wedding party (paid for by her brother-in-law John) knows just how indifferent she is to their presence and to the whole charade of marriage. And before the night and the party are done, under the merciless barrage of Justine’s open contempt for him (as the necessary antagonist in the charade), Jack has wisely packed his bags and gotten out of Dodge.

You ask yourself—so why the hell did Justine even pretend as far as she did to care about things which she clearly considered idiotic vanities. In part, this is the surrender so many people make to public rituals of behavior, intended to make us feel safer and more acceptable—and to affirm to others they can reliably feel that way about us too.

One of the things Van Trier has done in his career is to say that safety and comfort zones are insane, poisonous, bullshit, in which any real artist cannot exist, much less flourish.

It is the role of the artist to gratingly, even to destructively, question everything—especially everything society cherishes.

Another visceral, iconic Von Trier image, the little human tribe gathered in its naked magic cave, awaits oblivion from devastatingly dangerous yet beautiful Nature.
Nevertheless, at the end of things, when there is no need or room for artifice, because Melancholia is about to collide with Earth and exterminate all the bullshit and the evil (people pushing bullshit into others’ faces), Justine cannot bring herself to tell a child, her nephew Leo, the truth about what is to happen.

Justine turns her back upon her rejection of dishonest, discredited ritual, and invents something to help a child, and her sister Claire (who has been reduced in her terror and hopelessness to little more than a child) face death more calmly. A magic cave to hide in, made up of flimsy sticks and imagination, is the alternative Justine offers in the end. It is a way of explaining to us why we create and sustain our dishonest little rituals.

In the end, it is about love and compassion for one another.

That may not seem evident in the arrogant, revolting extremes of hubris and hate demonstrated at Justine’s utterly insincere wedding party. But when it comes to it, knowing we are all doomed to destruction by the planet Melancholia (i.e. Death), it is the human way to invent magic means to ease the passage through and out of life.

Von Trier’s work asks us to consider whether these old ways are the ones we can survive fostering into the future. But he is also asking us whether any effort on our part to resist them, which seems the rational thing to do, can possibly succeed against the dreadful power of the fear of oblivion.

That fear, which if exploited can lead to terrible consequences—such as ghastly wars on terror for example—is not going away for a while. Maybe when the robots rule, it can be deleted from the human program, along with the need for art and love.