Living in the end times

Ben Lewis reviews Lars von Trier's Melancholia (Nordisk Films, 2011, general release)

Life is full of strange coincidences. After watching the hugely controversial Lars von Trier’s latest contribution to the world of cinema, I picked up my copy of the Weekly Worker and read Eddie Ford’s latest article[1] on the economic doom and despair that abounds today. “We have six days to save the world,” US state treasury secretary Tim Geithner was quoted as saying. “The asteroid is approaching,” comrade Ford added. It was as if the film was still running.

For in this extremely moving piece of cinema, planet Earth itself really has just six days to go. Melancholia, a strange planet 10 times the size of Earth, is heading our way. For some time, scientific experts, analysts and mathematicians have been carrying out numerous calculations: most are convinced that the planet will pass us all by. Others are of a different view.

We are not kept guessing as to whether the planet will hit. Any suspense is literally obliterated by the huge planetary collision of the opening act. With images reminiscent of the dream scenes in his 2009 Antichrist, von Trier paints a picture of apocalypse that is breathtaking and visually stunning. A castle and the lush fairways of a surrounding golf course provide the backdrop, with slowed-down scenes of the film’s protagonists living out the end times. All the while we are accompanied by Richard Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’. This might be the end of the world, but it certainly has something of the beautiful about it.

Claire and Justine - opposites of a loving, if seriously fraught, sisterly unity - are the main characters, to whom the film’s two subsequent chapters are dedicated. Justine, wonderfully played by the award-winning Kirsten Dunst, is a melancholic, whose depressions occasionally render her unable to do anything beyond sleep. While embodying success and even glamour, she is constantly plagued by a feeling of “nothingness”.

Her sister Claire is keen to pull her out of this malaise, using her rich husband’s money to lay on the plushest of weddings for her and her fiancé. “Are you happy?” Claire expectantly asks. Justine tries her best and smiles. But the cracks slowly begin to appear: their mother makes an embittered speech against marriage; Justine avoids most of the reception by taking a nap, and then shuns her new husband by having sex with a young colleague in a bunker on the golf course. Come night time, the marriage has failed and the new husband departs. Much to Claire’s chagrin, Justine appears beyond salvation.

With the guests gone, the rest of the film takes place in the isolated bubble of the castle and its grounds. As the planet moves ever closer, von Trier zooms in on four characters: the sisters, Claire’s husband, John, and their son, Leo.

Claire is at a loss as to how best to help Justine. When she cooks her favourite dish, Justine can only liken its taste to “ashes”. John - a man of science who is excited by what he is convinced will be the planet’s safe passing - eventually has enough of wasting time and money in an attempt to rid Justine of her gloom.

Indeed, Justine is utterly indifferent to their help. Is she some kind of incarnation of all that is bad, a harbinger of the apocalyptic doom that is soon to befall humanity? After following her sister onto the grounds one night, Claire catches Justine sunbathing naked in Melancholia’s planetary glow. She is almost revelling in its presence.

‘Looking inside’

Yet we must seek to understand Justine not in the extra-terrestrial, but in the cerebral. As the film’s title suggests, the inspiration for this film came in one of von Trier’s therapy sessions for his depression. This illness is hardly the preserve of some slightly distressed film director: it is estimated that a whopping one in four of the UK adult population will experience some sort of mental health problems within the course of a year. The most common of these is depression.[2]

Her own depression forces Justine, as von Trier puts it, to long for “shipwrecks and sudden deaths”[3] - if only because this would at least be more genuine than the family speeches, the posing for photos while cutting the cake and her hated job of inventing ‘tag lines’ in the advertising industry.

So does depression stem from unfulfilled ennui? Or is von Trier linking it to the ability to “see things” that others do not see - or do not want to discuss? Whereas the wedding guests were happy to live the lie and carry on partying regardless, Justine simply cannot cope.

At other points, von Trier appears to imply that depression results from a restless pursuit for the truth, a nagging to go beyond the appearance of things. When the new couple have to guess the amount of beads in a jar, for example, Justine’s husband rather ridiculously suggests that the figure is over two million. In fact, there are just 678 beads, something which Justine knew from the start. She never seems completely satisfied with John’s repeated assertion that “this golf course only has 18 holes”. For von Trier, Justine’s “hankering for truth is too colossal … We [melancholics] have high demands on truth”.

Whether out of a feeling of superiority or sheer desire to see the end, Justine becomes increasingly calm and settled, as things invariably go very, very wrong. However, Claire’s obsession with the approaching planet grows with Justine’s increased calm. This descent into emotional turmoil forms the second part of the film. Always looking up at the sky, Claire either seeks solace in the scientific explanations of her husband (who is all the while setting up a telescope with Leo); or in the hope that, while Earth itself may go, there must surely be life elsewhere. She is ever more reliant on the younger Justine, who seems unable to allay her fears about the future of existence itself: “Life is only on Earth … and not for long,” Justine chillingly warns.

The magic cave

The role-reversal between the two sisters culminates, as the deadly hour approaches. By now it becomes apparent that the so-called ‘dance of death’ theorists were right - the planet has indeed passed by, but it is making its way back again. Claire is out of control. Her husband’s ‘Trust me - I’m a scientist’ demeanour has collapsed. He takes his life in despair.

Claire frantically runs around, first hiding John’s body and then seeking to escape with Leo in a golf buggy. But she comes unstuck on the very 19th hole her husband swore did not exist. This is the apocalypse, but Justine is just as calm as she was when sunbathing.

She mocks her sister’s idea of spending their last moments on the balcony with a glass of wine, implying that Claire is unable to imagine life beyond the ritualised inanity of the dinner party - even at a time when that life itself is about to end. “Maybe we should all sing Beethoven’s ninth?” she scornfully suggests.

It is she who now takes the lead, suggesting to Leo that they build a “magic cave” out of sticks to protect them from what is to come. This does seem to calm all of them. And like in the opening scenes, their ending is not one of pain or suffering, but release. Hand in hand, the two sisters seem to genuinely relate to each other for the first time.

The unity of the utopian and the dystopian in their demise might indicate something about our world today: a time when the rulers cannot rule, when the supposed ‘laws’ that have governed our whole lives for so long suddenly are so evidently wrong, and when - just as we think the proverbial planet (or asteroid) has passed us by and things will improve - it crashes back into us again.

In such times of increased despair, irrationality and mysticism, von Trier broaches perhaps the most morbid of all philosophical questions: ‘If there was a switch to erase humanity, and with it all evil, would you press it?’ That this question is still posed seems to reflect what Mark Fisher was getting at in his book, Capitalist realism. For most people on earth at this time, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine a world beyond capitalism: ie, the horrific way in which we currently organise it. This holds true of von Trier too. His desire to purge humanity of all evil is such that even its obliteration seems like a desirable option.

Yet in spite of what some critics say, this film transcends the introspection and self-indulgence of a rather troubled filmmaker.[4] Whether you have already made plans for your ‘magic cave’ or not, this film cannot but leave many, many things for you to ponder, as the planetary dust settles and the credits roll. This is Lars von Trier at his quirky and provocative best. Perhaps it is his extreme estrangement from humanity that places him in such a unique position to evoke the beauty, the irony and the cruel brevity of life in equal measure. Some of the many things that make it worth living, of course …

This article was written for Red Mist Reviews



1. E Ford, ‘Big bazooka or water pistol?Weekly Worker October 20.

2. Statistics from Mental Health Services.

3. All von Trier quotes from an interview with Nils Thorsen, ‘Longing for the end of all’.

4. See, for example, Phillip French’s review in The Observer (October 2).