I crawled into bed last night just before 12, shaken and very quiet. I had just returned from seeing Lars von Trier’s new film Melancholia. Many readers of First Things likely took David Bentley Hart’s advice to eschew Atlas Shrugged in favor of Terrence Malick’s masterpiece, Tree of Life. Those who did so know that Malick has produced a profound, brilliant exploration of the origins and character of life in our universe. When Tree of Life ended the first thing I thought of was Bach’s Mass in B Minor. The film seemed to me, as it still does, a work of comparable ambition, scope, and joy.
Well, I don’t know exactly what to compare Melancholia to (perhaps something by Wagner? Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy?), but I left the theater equally moved, albeit in a much different way. If the production of these two films had not been contemporaneous, I would strongly suspect von Trier of setting out to compose a riposte to Malick’s grand vision of hope. Melancholia is a dire, brave, terrifying exploration of the character of life in our universe, faced with its own annihilation. The Danish director has contrived an apocalyptic plot (the earth’s impending collision with the planet “Melancholia”) that makes death literally loom on the horizon, but viewers recognize Melancholia as a symbol of the way of all flesh.
The various ways that Mr. von Trier’s characters cope with this fact are psychologically revealing and philosophically profound. The lead character Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, is astounding—by turns tortured, cruel, crippled by despair, demonically resigned. The scenes in which her sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, scrambles, frantic and futile, to somehow protect her young son from the impending catastrophe are among the most powerful and draining I’ve ever seen in a film. I won’t attempt to adduce Mr. von Trier’s personal philosophy from Melancholia, at least not here and now, but I will whole-heartedly recommend that you go and see it, and if at all possible, on the big screen.
For those of us, like myself, who are prone to narratives of cultural decline, it is worth noting that this one little year has given us two great works of art that employ the full battery of modern cinematic technique to grapple, in very different ways, with some of the most enduring questions of human existence. If I were forced to choose, I would take Sophocles and Dostoevsky over Malick and von Trier. Happily, I am not, and neither are you. Vive la différence!