There is a moment during the disastrous wedding reception that kicks off Lars Von Trier‘s Melancholia that you suspect the reason Justine the bride is being so mysteriously, bafflingly, awkwardly morose, is that she is aware of an impending apocalypse, the one made imminent by a beautiful blue planet approaching the earth on a collision course. She has good reason to be so sad, so distracted, so rueful. The world is coming to an end; how do marital bliss or discord, or effusive praise, or haute cuisine, or elaborately planned weddings, or anything else matter?
A little while later, we are made to realize Justine may well be a life-long melancholic, clinically depressed, sometimes to the point of catatonia, and that she is not the only one who is aware of the proximity of Earth’s new neighbor. Still, she might be the only one who has sussed out that the absurdity of existence must now be reckoned with, and cannot be postponed or consigned to the margins as is usually done. Perhaps the depressed have always known this. Which is why they cannot allow themselves to be distracted like those around them, who rush around engaging in one triviality or banality after another. They rightly perceive these activities as mere diversions. Perhaps it is the depressed who, when the time for death is at hand, find an equanimity that all too many ‘normal people’ find elusive. The worst is here; they have felt its shadow for too long; this final reckoning is at hand.
It is no surprise then, that in the second part of the movie, Justine and her sister Claire, who is worn down and edgy after years of sibling encounters with a mentally ill person, undergo changes in personality. Claire becomes frantic and panicky; Justine is calm, matter-of-fact, serene. And Claire’s husband, standing in as the ostensibly cool, detached, skeptical and rational man of science, the one who has previously subjected his wife’s anxieties to some scorn and some invocations about the power of science to get things right, takes his own life, not deigning to involve his wife or son in this decision. The end of the world is here; what matter such niceties?
End of the world movies can emphasize both the triviality and banality of our daily lives as well as the primacy of simple human gestures and relationships; they can offer caustic commentary on our shallowness and pettiness and obsession with material reward as well as make poetic statements about the beauty around us that is soon to be consigned to the ashes. Melancholia manages to do all of this. We are reminded the world is a beautiful place, that startling glimpses of sublimity may be found all around us; we are reminded too, that such splendor often showcases conflict and discord and strife.
In the end, as Melancholia, the approaching planet, becomes malevolent, we find ourselves encountering a familiar question, one whose answer can only be imperfectly offered in the present without the actual grim reality of the end of existence upon us: How would we face such an eventuality? Would we put away pettiness and rancor? Would we remain distracted or would this concentrate our minds wonderfully?
Justine knows the answer: hold hands with the ones you love.