catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 23 :: 2011.12.23 — 2012.01.05


Colliding with Melancholia

A steady stream of digital boasting has filled my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds lately. My “friends” are daily posting pictures of their sharply trimmed Christmas trees. For some, this annual activity involves climbing in the attic to find the box where the “branches and trunk” have been stored for the last ten months, for others it is a tradition-infused journey out to the country where they will channel their inner Paul Bunyan and cut down their own Yuletide timber.

And, for others, it includes parking lots, high school boosters clubs and enough twine to keep their pre-cut Frasier Fur on the car and out of the ditch. No matter where the tree comes from, what you hang on its branches or whether you have to water it or reassemble it, putting up a Christmas tree is a ritual thousands of people perform every day this time of year.

Lars von Trier’s new film, Melancholia, asks whether that ritual, or any of the countless other rituals we participate in, has any content — or if it is just an empty pattern of life.

Melancholia is a simple film. The focus is on two sisters: Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the melancholic younger sister who is getting married, and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the older sister who is trying to keep Justine’s wedding reception (and life) from falling apart due to her apathy toward everything around her. The first part of the film, titled “Justine,” shares their stories and interactions, the backdrop being Justine’s disastrous wedding reception (don’t think comedy here — this is Lars von Trier, not Ben Stiller). It becomes clear that Claire is committed to being a part of Justine’s life, no matter the cost — financial or otherwise.

Part two of the film is called “Claire.” The story of the two sisters continues post-wedding saga, but now the backdrop is that a gigantic planet named Melancholia, which has been hidden by the sun all these years, has been discovered racing toward the earth on what looks like a crash course.

The parallel between the planets and the sisters is obvious. Will the two lives/planets collide? Will Melancholia destroy life on Claire/Earth? We know from the five-minute overture at the beginning of the film that the answer is yes. This structure is actually what makes Melancholia an interesting film. The suspense of what will happen is not what keeps you locked on the screen — you know that from the start; rather, what entrances the viewer is the exploration of how and why it happens.

In this film, von Trier creates a situation extreme enough (the world is about to end) to show the full implications of the difference between how a melancholic sees the world and how everyone else experiences it. As Melancholia is about to devour Earth, Justine’s indifference is starkly contrasted with Claire’s immeasurable grief. When faced with the end, melancholics have nothing to lose.

According to an interview done with von Trier, the cosmic question orbiting the mind of every melancholic concerning life and the many rituals that fill it is this: “Is the emperor wearing any clothes at all? Is there content?” What we see in Justine’s story is that the answer is no. The rituals are empty. She tried her best to play along, to participate and feel, but it did not work. And now, seeing everything end is just as comforting, if not more, than seeing this long charade continue.

Von Trier is a self-proclaimed melancholic, which makes Melancholia a bit of a worldview film for him, and, therefore, it also makes it one of two other things. Either Melancholia is von Trier making a film that simply shares with others what life feels like for someone like him, or it is a statement that melancholics are the only people who really see the world for what it is: a string of empty rituals. When you consider a few of the subtle but profound ways he shows Justine to be the one person who really knows what’s going on (for example, she knows how many beans are in the bottle, while everyone else is just guessing), it starts to feel like maybe it’s more of the latter.

But, I’m not convinced this is the case. Von Trier has said, “If there’s some value beyond the rituals, that’s fine….  But if the rituals are empty, that is: if it’s no longer fun to get Christmas presents or see the joy of the kids, then the whole ritual about dragging a tree inside the living room becomes empty.” Statements like this make me wonder if Lars isn’t convinced his perception of life and its many rituals is accurate, and thus this film is his attempt to honestly portray his experience.

So what of the rituals in your life? Are they filled with meaning and content or are they empty practices in which you engage? Whether it’s trimming a Christmas tree, watching movies or taking the Eucharist — are the rituals that fill your life merely practices you have adopted that are ultimately void of content or are they gateways to experiencing the richness of life? Is life full of content or just form?

Which one it is will be debated for the rest of time.

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