The humanities are by nature a tautology: humanity concerned primarily with itself. Certain genres lend themselves better than others to self-scrutiny, but the really interesting ones tend to be high concept, often science fiction, that purport to glimpse something beyond but inevitably lead back to ourselves from a vantage point of only slight remove. So it is with Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, a movie about the collision of two worlds. That’s not a metaphor; the opening sequence depicts another planet aptly named Melancholia colliding with Earth, informing viewers that this unavoidable conclusion is the lens through which to perceive the entire film.
After the prologue shows this cosmic event in excruciating slo-mo, which strikes me as inaccurate (wouldn’t the gravitational forces at work smash the two bodies together at accelerating high speed?) but permissible given poetic license, the film turns to a wedding reception and the strained relationship between two sisters, the younger of whom is the new bride. On what should be her happiest day, suggestive of a long future together with her new husband, she can’t shake a sense of impending tragedy, though the cause becomes clear only later in the film (ignoring the prologue). She is revealed to be a sensitive, intuitive type, and her depression becomes so debilitating she must be cared for by her sister as an invalid. The second part about the older sister occurs days and weeks after the wedding fiasco and dispersal of the wedding party, which refocuses wide-to-narrow from the large group to a small family (husband, wife, child, wife’s sister, and a couple servants). This reverse telescoping effect personalizes the human response to the looming cosmic event. A few news reports are seen and heard describing what is believed will be a near miss, but as viewers we already know the truth. Otherwise, the reactions of the public beyond the family are not known. The family’s isolation from the outer world is enhanced by the fact that they are wealthy, idle, and live on a private estate away from some town somewhere.
If foreboding is the mood and subject of the first half of the film, the second is concerned with the three adults’ responses to the stark realization that Melancholia will slingshot around Earth, first moving close, then away, but finally reversing and making direct impact. Survival preparations being irrelevant, the three adults must determine how they will spend their last moments, since the speed of events is startlingly quick (probably two days at the most). The depressed sister becomes lucid and calm while the older sister grows desperate to do something — anything — partly to protect her young son. The older sister’s husband, an amateur scientist who had reassured everyone of the near-miss scenario, commits suicide in the horse stables once the truth became undeniable, exhibiting an utter lack of courage or humanity. The final moments of the film are spent in relatively serene acceptance with the two sisters and the son sitting on a hilltop under a “magic fortress” as the roar of Melancholia approaching fills the air and the planet fills the sky.
Upon reflection, perhaps Melancholia isn’t such high concept after all, since many films from the 1970s disaster flicks onward depict one civilization- or Earth-destroying scenario after another. What differentiates this film is the approach, which is less concerned with the mechanisms of destruction or the last-ditch efforts to forestall it than with very personal responses in the face of sure death. In real life, too, we face this dilemma — the foreknowledge of death — though we typically can’t predict when. Indeed, this is a basic ontological and existential problem, which is one of the chief characteristics of the human condition, and the humanities are full of treatments, examinations, and interpretations. Lars von Trier offers an interpretation where concern over a truly cataclysmic event shrinks to very personal considerations, all of which will be swept away into irrelevance.
The analogy to our present-day perch atop the precipice of doom may not yet have become part of mainstream thought, nor can timing or style of descent be accurately gauged, but many of us sensitive, intuitive types have found ourselves in a deep funk over what portends and how to respond. Like the protagonists in Melancholia, timeframes shorten and we must choose what is important in a reality where practically nothing matters anymore. I suspect that even those of good character will succumb to desperation before the end. In fact, centuries of rehearsal for the event in so many varied forms may do little to prepare us psychologically. And of course, who can know what will matter afterwards?