Newsletter 178: “Melancholia” and the Serenity That Comes With Being Right About Everything Being Wrong
I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from September 2019, about Lars Von Trier and people who think the world is terrible being oddly pleased with they get confirmation that it might be. Suffice it to say, it feels sort of relevant these days.
The filmmaker Lars Von Trier has had a miserable decade, struggling with a crippling depression that’s expressed in films so despairing and desperate that you honestly worry about him. The two Nymphomaniac movies in 2013 were gross to watch before the social movements of the last few years, and his The House That Jack Built is deliberately repulsive in a way that seems like a scream for help. What’s happening to him now, when you’ve followed his career, does feel like the logical, sad place this was always going. A breathtakingly talented filmmaker has degraded into the land of the schlock and snuff. It’s a bummer to watch, but you could see it coming.
His last great film is perhaps the last perfect distillation of his worldview, a worldview that has become more prevalent and, I’d argue, destructive in the years since. It’s a brilliant film with a message we need to fight against every day, particularly today.
The film is Melancholia.
Melancholia tells the story of two sisters. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has a reasonably happy life, with a caring if condescending husband named John (Kiefer Sutherland) and a cute, precocious son Leo (Cameron Spurr, a child actor who was in only one film. Imagine this being your one film!). Justine (Kirsten Dunst), clearly modeled after Von Trier himself, is a self-destructive depressive whose sulks around desultory and forlorn, which is a bit of a problem considering the film takes place at her wedding reception. Justine is a constant burden for her already-quite-dysfunctional family, and of course a burden to herself, and she spends the reception tearing everything apart, from her job to her family to her actual wedding dress to, ultimately, the marriage itself. She lives her life as it is the worst possible curse to be alive. At one point, Claire tries to cheer her up by making her favorite meal. She eats it, says “it tastes like ashes” and bursts into tears. Justine is in a dark place.
Meanwhile, something strange is happening with the weather. There are random hailstorms, odd wind patterns, sudden darkness. They are caused by what astronomers have discovered is a “rogue planet” called Melancholia that has entered the solar system and is projected to do a frightening “fly-by” of earth. The planet’s emergence frightens animals and leads to doomsayers, but John reassures Claire that everything is going to be fine while she deals with Justine’s continued meltdown. But when Claire discovers — through the Internet, natch — that Melancholia and Earth are in fact going to collide, she collapses into panic, and John kills himself.
But what’s most fascinating is what happens to Justine: She relaxes. She becomes serene. She has spent her entire life feeling that the world is ending, and now that it is, she has clarity and purpose she’d never found before. The world has become cataclysm, but then again, she always considered it cataclysm. She was constantly paralyzed by fear of the worst-case scenario, but now that the worst-case scenario is here, she is free. She was right all along.
Thus, as Melancholia bears down on Earth, Claire disintegrates, but Justine, Justine is fine. She is calm. She comforts Leo, she holds her sister close, she at last begins to flourish. When the planet is about to hit, she sits in a “magic cave” she made for Leo and waits for the end. Leo takes a cue from his aunt, closes his eyes and assumes it’s all going to be OK. Claire thrashes and wails, horrified that this could be happening. But Justine sits, collected, at last at peace — the one who was already acting like the world was going to end and therefore is prepared when it actually is. When you walk around thinking all is ashes, you are not surprised, or even all that upset, when it turns out that’s exactly what it is.
It all ends. Justine is right. She was always right.
Since what happened in 2016, there has been a rise in many abhorrent things, from outward white supremacists to daily examples of plain cruelty to that all-too-familiar sensation of picking up your phone knowing that you are about to learn some new fresh set of horrors that have happened since you last looked at it … and then staring at it for the next hour so you can find some more.
But I also now see Justines everywhere.
I see people who have long organized their value systems around their belief that the world is barren and lost and cruel, and thus have responded to this terrifying new era with a certain smug satisfaction, a I-told-you-so smirk. They have been justified, in their minds, and they are incredibly eager to remind you of it. We’re terrible. America is terrible. Humans are monsters. We deserve all of this. Believing that we wouldn’t have been capable of what is now clear we are capable of leads to their conclusion that you shouldn’t believe in anything at all. The world is falling apart. It was always falling apart. We are helpless to stop it. And — and this is the key part — you are stupid to ever think it was, or that you could ever do a thing about it.
There is a certain appeal to this worldview, not least of all because it’s partly true. The world is worse than I realized it was. We are worse and baser and more craven than I realized. There are people out there who were shitheels the whole time, sharing your workspaces, cheering for your sports teams, and now they’ve finally been unleashed and emboldened. It’s a shock. I probably shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was. I’m still a little shocked every day.
But the response to this cannot be more despair. Despair is its own privilege. Those people truly under pressure, in ways most affected by the current situation, they don’t have time for despair. There are people out there fighting to improve things, to make the world a better place, to take a stand and make clear that this is not who we are, or at least not who will we be moving forward. These people have no time or patience for your Cassandra-ism. And you owe them better.
Von Trier said he was inspired to make Melancholia after a therapist told him “depressive people tend to act more calmly than others under heavy pressure, because they already expect bad things to happen.” In Von Trier’s mind, this became a positive: If you already think the world is wrecked, why not make a movie where the hero is proven correct by being the one person who sees it coming and therefore justified in all her previous actions? See? I’m acting like this because I’m right. It’s an embrace of nihilism, a full giddy leap into the void. But the rest of us are still here. Maybe Von Trier isn’t still trying, but most of the rest of us are. And the only way we’re gonna make it through this is fighting … and sticking together.
This week, it became increasingly clear that the President of the United States is going to be impeached. It doesn’t mean he’s going to leave office. It doesn’t mean he’s not going to still win. But it’s still the breaking of a stranglehold. It’s at last a response to relentless lawlessness. Is it ridiculous that it took something so blatant and straightforward to get us to this point? That it actually required openly treasonous activities not just admitted to in the public square, but paraded about so brashly? It does not speak well for all of us that it has taken so long, or even that this still might not work. But you cannot fold your arms and recede. The fight is just beginning. The world doesn’t have to end. The only way back is through it.
I don’t know how this is all going to turn out. No one does, or can. But expecting bad things to happen does not inure you to them. And it doesn’t do anyone else any good either. It is not too late for any of us. There is some light. We can be renewed. Or, if we can’t, we can make it a little easier on everyone along the way. The thing that Justine and Von Trier get wrong is that they think seeing doom coming is somehow uniquely wise, or knowing, or comforting. It isn’t. It just makes the trip more miserable for yourself. Hard times are always coming. It’s how you react to them that matters. Maybe we can change this world, and maybe we can’t. But you can’t win if you don’t play. It only tastes like ashes if you let it.