Melancholia: this is the way the world ends...


You can read this.  Nothing I could say in words would "spoil" the experience of this film.

I sat down to write my way to some kind of understanding of what had just happened to me while watching this film…and I’m not sure I ever got there.  But I’m going to leave it as I wrote it.

I think you’ll “get it,” even so…

Stumble along with me.  We might all stumble into something memorable…

I suspect…it will be just like it was in the movie, the real end of the world.

Not the Biblical one, but the one that is probably inevitable but hopefully hundreds or thousands of years away, still.  The one Lars Von Trier did such a frighteningly matter-of-fact job of portraying in Melancholia, a film now in rotation on cable.

I watched it by accident—channel surfing.  And I kept wanting to stop watching it.  It was one of those movies that is like watching paint dry, except that something eccentric, shocking or puzzling happens every few minutes and keeps you there.

This film is particularly eccentric.  I didn’t know who was who or why anyone was doing whatever they were doing for most of the first half of the film.  At the beginning, Kirsten Dunst, in a stunning gown fit for a young royal, is marrying some guy she keeps running away from to do crazy things that don’t make sense until you realize that she knows the end is near. 

In fact, she is the only one in the film who isn’t trying not to know it, except her own rather unusual mother, who comes to the wedding mostly, it seems, to expound upon the futility of it all.

She’s embracing her despair like a petulant child who asks for a special dessert…and then throws it on the floor and cries after it splatters on the ground.  Sometimes she’s acutely depressed, to the point of refusing even to stand up on her own. 

She has stopped bathing.  She has stopped eating.  She wants everything.  She wants nothing.

But she does strip naked one night to lie in thrall, gazing seductively up at the planet that has become a second moon and will move closer and closer and closer until it sucks up the earth and everything else in its path.

All kinds of metaphors there.  For life, death, love, marriage—I began to really want to ride the thing out after that.  I knew there was a lot more to it than this spare little story.

Her sister is the lady of the estate.  She wants to believe that her husband…and whatever other elusive “something” that has always saved her, will save them all again this time.  She buys pills to swallow in case, but in the end it is her husband, who was so sure that his scientific calculations about the monster planet missing the earth by a hair, who gobbles them down in the stable beside his beloved horses.

They believed in their noblesse oblige.  Deeply.   And then, it’s the failing of that he cannot face—far more than the planet that makes a fool of him, it is the fact that he cannot buy or call upon science to save him, that he cannot handle.  He “should” be able to fix this.   To find a mathematical formula or…some expensive something or other, that will save his little family.

He bought himself an expensive telescope with which to see what he told himself, his little boy and everyone else was a historic even the like of which mankind would never see again.

How right he was.

And when he is made to understand his powerlessness in the face of this thing that does not care how rich or brilliant he is…he dies, alone, unable to face the family he cannot save.

His death tells us what he never tells his doting wife and son.   And so we endure with those still living, those last mesmerizing and harrowing last 10 minutes or so, when all pretense falls away—even for the viewer. 

We sit with them, watching that planet grow larger and larger—so beautiful.  And so terrible.   What would you I do, I kept asking myself.  What would I say?  How would I comfort my own child?  Would I be able to comfort my own child?  What…in God’s name…would any of us do?  When there is nothing we can do…

At the end, it is Kirsten’s emotionally decimated character who finally creates a little fairy tale about a magical safe haven, a story as fragile and yet comforting as the little “tipi” she, her little nephew and her by then nearly catatonic sister build with a few fallen tree limbs.   Neither the story nor the tipi will save them.

But they sit there in their little circle, with their eyes closed tight, awaiting a fate there is no story for.

And in so doing, they offer us one suggestion about what to do now, well before “the end.”   It is to do as they did, both in the face of great peril and perhaps even great joy.  We should be still.  We should...shut up, sit down—stop, in those momentous times in our lives.  Lives which will end just as surely end as theirs did with in that awful…awe-inspiring way. 

And so, in this story, in the last minutes, they simply sit there.  On the grounds of the picturesque country estate, in the shadow of a house straight out of Brideshead Revisited…when it begins to rain…and hail…and then…

There’s a rumbling and a burst of flame—and they are cinders, flying. 

The screen goes black.  And…I don’t remember any music or sounds.  Just silence.  Which…is what it might be like, I suppose, after.

But I think mostly Von Trier didn’t want to let us off the hook with music.  No, “Oh!  Movie’s over!  Who wants pizza?”

Nobody’s eating after this one.  Not…for a while, anyway.

I couldn’t even talk for an hour after I saw it. 

Little messages from the movie will be bubbling up for some time to come, I’m sure.  For now…I recommend that you sit down and see Melancholia, if you can bear it.  I can’t spoil it for you.  My words are nothing compared to the actual experience.

I remember…I said the oddest thing, when the fire came.  Something one of my Bible thumping elder women used to say, when they were deeply moved by sadness or "the spirit."

I said, “My Lord…”

I’m not a believer as they were.  This movie hasn’t made me one.

It did, however, deepen my belief that there are forces greater than us.  And that by ignoring them…we may fail to see the wonder of this place we somehow came to live in, for reasons we may never truly understand.

What will it be like when, like that beautiful blue planet that finally obliterates that fictional film world, those forces conspire to force us to acknowledge them?

Van Trier does not answer that question.  He simply dares to have us live it and see if we find any answers in it.

Failing that, we can at least be humbled, for a short time, by what we feel as we experience the end as he envisioned it.

I was.  I still am.

My, Lord…

Views: 256

Comment by Alan Nothnagle on September 30, 2012 at 6:03pm

An excellent analysis of one of the most powerful films I've seen in a very long time. It is incredibly rich in meaning and imagery. One scene that stays with me takes place in the library of the castle, at the wedding reception, where Kirsten Dunst looks in horror at all the modern and abstract art books on display, then tosses them to the floor and replaces them with books turned open to Renaissance and pre-Raphaelite images, including an iconic pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, a character who goes mad with melancholy and drowns herself in a stream. We later see the young woman herself, stark naked at the water's edge, enraptured by the vision of her impending extinction.

The Liebestod theme from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde reoccurs constantly throughout the film, preparing us for a genuine Twilight of the Gods. After watching the film, I finally understood von Trier's comment in Cannes that he "felt like Hitler." The film is a work of godlike creation and destruction. And despite some fantastical element, it is certainly the most realistic end-of-the-world movie ever made.

Comment by Hyblaean~ Julie on September 30, 2012 at 7:11pm

I watch movies with no sound, since Karen wears headphones (she's partially deaf and needs the sound too loud for a townhouse with adjacent walls). Only caught a bit of this movie, the wedding limo ride and some of houses and stable. The power of that slice was such that I thought about it for days afterwards. In a world of too much information coming in too quickly- even the still shots from that were enough to penetrate.

Comment by Kai on October 1, 2012 at 9:07am

I tried to watch it, but my head just wasn't in the right place.

Comment by Keka on October 1, 2012 at 8:17pm

So glad to hear from all of you.  Someone on another site mentioned "On the Beach," another quiet "storm" of a movie about the "last days."  In that case, it was about a few characters waiting for a cloud of radiation from a nuclear war to reach Australia and gradually end them.  I remember it well, and it had a similar effect on me back in the day.  Melancholia, of course, is very "now," and extremely seductive--I'm still thinking about it!  And it has been a few days...

Alan...thank you for filling in all the "blanks."  Lovely stuff!  I saw it all, but was reacting so viscerally that I couldn't remember details just...sensations...

Comment by L in the Southeast on October 2, 2012 at 3:58pm

On the Beach was a movie that profoundly affected my view of mortality.  I am searching for Melancholia on Direct TV as soon as I type the period on this comment.  Your writing remains magical, dear Keka.

Comment by Keka on October 2, 2012 at 6:35pm

Lezlie!  I've found you!  And do see the movie.  I am grateful for those "accidents" that pull me toward profound moments I would've missed had I not given myself up to something that didn't seem quite right for me at first.  Melancholia continues to reverberate through my soul.  What a gift it was.  Von Trier is a little crazy, many geniuses are!

Comment by Helvetica Stone on October 3, 2012 at 8:15pm

Yep, that movie was pretty amazing.  I wanted there to be a second ending, where they're all light and colorful and in heaven.  Like the movie "What Dreams May Come."   I mainly saw the movie as an honest portrayal of deep clinical depression.  But it was beautiful, in it's own way.

Comment by Helvetica Stone on October 3, 2012 at 8:17pm

Jan:  One thing the movie did was replace any sense of faith with ritual and art, and they lied for the child's sake.  In some way, that felt like a noble choice, in the face of very rational doubt.

Comment by Keka on October 4, 2012 at 5:31pm

I've said a few times elsewhere that the idea of building that little tipi out of tree limbs and sitting down in it together, two women, trying to stay sane enough to comfort that little boy, reminded me of what it must've also been like at the beginning of human existence, when the females of the group probably built little shelters and cared for the young in that very basic maternal way.  It's significant to me that the husband is unable to offer solace, and dies rather than face that fact.  The women...wait, and tend the little one.   And so the story ends with a scene similar to what it must've been like "at the beginning."  A little "tribe" of three, huddling together in a rude shelter as the winds raged...

Comment by sarah brennan on October 4, 2012 at 6:42pm

Couldn't finish it. Too annoyingly slow. And I thought I had a tolerance for peaceful, slow films! But I am glad to see others found it moving and thought-provoking. Ahh, the pageant of human diversity!


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