Death, Depression, and the End of the World in Melancholia

A flood of critical acclaim is enveloping Lars von Trier’s latest film, Melancholia. This is one band wagon that I’m willing to jump on.* (It’s currently playing at Ragtag). Melancholia depicts the disturbing truth behind what ought to be (and Trier shows is) an utterly depressing worldview, materialism. This universe is it – there is no after life. When the earth ends, life ends too and the universe doesn’t care either way. Melancholia shows us why the only reasonable response to materialism is melancholy.

Melancholia feels like two movies. First, a wedding. Second, an apocalypse. The first half focuses on Justine, a young, successful copy writer, during the reception following her marriage to Michael, who is kind, patient, and selfless. The reception is a lavish party, peopled by the best of high society, in her sister’s husband’s mansion. It sounds like the perfect night in a perfect life, but there’s one problem: Justine is morbidly depressed.

Throughout the party, she wanders off, drives away, takes a bath, puts a child to bed, and worse, ignoring her family, guests and new husband. She wants to enjoy the wedding, but cannot escape the feeling that it’s all meaningless. She stares pensively at the stars, wondering – it seems – if a wedding really matters in the grand scope of the universe?

Trier presents viewers with all the trivial rituals that fill up a wedding – first dances, cake cutting, contests, and toasts. But he makes them all feel trivial, fake, and empty, forcing us to ask: is my life anything more than series of scripted rituals? Is there really any meaning or worth in things we live for? At every turn, Justine answers this question with a resounding “NO.”

In the second half, we return to the mansion several months later. Justine is in the depths of her depression. Nonetheless, Claire, Justine’s sister, becomes the focal point of the film’s second half, as a planet called Melancholia quickly approaches Earth’s orbit. The planet’s approach leaves Claire constantly confronted with the question, ‘Is everything about to end?

Claire’s husband John, continually reassures her that “the real scientists” say Melancholia will pass Earth and only the “doomsday” wackos claim it will collide. Justine, on the other hand, believes Melancholia will hit Earth. As Melancholia nears Earth, Justine gains life – becoming a sort of Goddess of Melancholy. She bathes in the Planet’s light, watches it, seems to come alive in it. The foreboding apocalypse it threatens is a metaphor for Justine’s depression. In the depths of her darkness, it is always as if the world is ending. She even darkly decrees to claire that she wouldn’t mind if Earth disappeared. She says, “the Earth is evil … Life is evil.”

So Claire wonders obsessively, who will be right? The real scientists, or the doomsday prophets? Trier gives an interesting response: If the real scientists are right, then the world will one actually come to an end – whether by Melancholia or some other means. And if that’s true, then the only real response is to live life now as a doomsday prophet – as one constantly treading the threshold to the end of all things – as Justine, the Goddess of Melancholy.

In the end, insanity looks sane in Melancholia. Why? If this physical world is all there is, then Justine is right, the world is evil and life is evil and there’s no greater meaning to live for, because in the end it all comes to nothing. Our lives are meaningless scripts that all come to a sad, empty close. The “true scientists” who believe only in the material world, must be doomsday prophets.

The entire second half of the film cuts off the outside world. It’s just a small family in a mansion dealing with the end of the world. There is nothing epic about this apocalypse; the story is a microcosm and that’s it’s magnificence. It forces all us to ask what our small lives really mean in the scope of an intangibly large universe.

Trier wants us to embrace the melancholy, to be evaporated into it. As Christians we agree that this is an appropriate response, if there is no God. If this is it, then Paul writes, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). Friedrich Nietzche claimed that God was dead, and famously asked what would happen “when we unchained the earth from it’s sun?” The answer is Melancholia.

But thankfully our experience reveals to us that there’s more than this universe. As someone who’s been married, I can tell you that something profoundly spiritual occurred during our wedding vows. I can tell you that the cake cutting, and feasting, and drinking, and dancing was in fact full of the fullest merriness. Yes, there were rituals, but there were far more than that. Why? Because we live in a world charged with the love of God, and in him our souls find the greatest meaning and worth.

We can live with the greatest joy, because we have the greatest reason for hope in Christ. The world doesn’t end with Melancholia, it ends (and then begins again) with the triumphal return of it’s creator.

*Please note that Melancholia contains objectionable sexual content, and several non-sexual scenes of female nudity. Please be discerning before you watch this film.


About Patrick K. Miller

Currently I am living in Columbia serving at the University of Missouri with Veritas, The Crossing's campus ministry. In December 2010 I graduated from Mizzou with a degree in English Literature. My beautiful wife, Emily, works is an Interior Designer with a local firm. I like espresso, 30 Rock, and books. My favorite old dead guys are John Owen, Augustine and Francis Schaeffer. You should read something by them.
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One Response to Death, Depression, and the End of the World in Melancholia

  1. Loco says:

    This movie can only be understood properly by someone who has gone through severe depression and got out of it. I was fortunate enough to get in and get out of a really bad depression when i was 22. It wasn’t a bad thing, it’s is more like step to growing up, it affected my life on so many levels and it affects me right now as i speak. I totaly understand Justine. I was in the exactly same state of coincuousness, and i know how feels and what she thinks.

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