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.