the one where we talk about melancholia

1

I mean, we were bound to get here eventually. I think it was this past weekend, when a flood of tourists from an adjacent, still-locked-down state flooded into my open one, bragging to our local newspaper that they were “ready for a break” and “tired of it” and that there was “not a mask in sight” among their hordes, that I realized I might actually be fine if the world does end. 

Le sigh. 

Melancholia is, most overtly, about accepting the end of the world. It’s also about narcissistic, cowardly people who politicize what they can’t control, and rely on their class privilege as an insulation from facing reality. It’s about capitalism’s great lie that accomplishing enough, owning enough, and demanding enough should somehow ameloriate the potential harm of any possible existential crisis. It’s about the fact that mental illness is not weakness, that the ability to endure depression is a strength that affords sufferers an elusive and special calm to navigate profound chaos. It’s about the Earth, and how we take it for granted, and how devastating the destruction of this planet would truly be, not if, but when, it finally happens. 

It’s like my greatest hits list, in cinematic form!

It’s fitting that I talked a little bit about Tarkovsky before approaching Melancholia, as his fingerprints are all over this film, from grassy riverbanks to burning Bruegel paintings. The use of Wagner’s theme from Tristan und Isolde serves well as a sonic anchor to the film: the opera is one of the first major works to bridge classical and modern elements of composition, so it does a good job of representing the total splendor and doom of an expiring Earth. Like Tarkovsky, von Trier opens the film with a series of images which tell you exactly what the film will be about and how it will end, in varying degrees of abstraction and clarity. 

He does this so that you will not spend the film trying to solve the mystery, but so that you will spend the film accepting everything you witness for exactly what it is, letting it wash over you, like the light of an approaching star. 

2

There’s a little throwaway moment in Melancholia, right after an angry wedding host chucks his mother-in-law’s luggage out onto the driveway. He’s within his rights to be kicking her out, as his mother-in-law has just thrown a pretty narcissistic tantrum at her daughter’s wedding, and subsequently disappeared into her bathroom, refusing to come out. After the host throws down the suitcase and huffs back into his mansion, satisfied that he’s settled it, a butler appears. He dashes down to the driveway, neatly gathers the woman’s things, and trundles them back into the house. 

It’s an act that nobody acknowledges, but in the second half of the film, when the rogue planet Melancholia is due to breeze past Earth, the audience will remember it when the lady of the house complains that the butler is never absent from his duties without first giving her ample notice. And now, as the planet approaches, the butler is absent. It doesn’t occur to her that the literal end of the world is an occasion for which a member of the staff might elect to stay home with his family. His existence props up so much of her own that when he’s not on site, going about the invisible work of making her life possible, suddenly she notices and wonders about him. 

Unseen labor is a powerful theme in Melancholia. The herculean work of living with depression, for example, is continuously unacknowledged by the family, friends, and colleagues who gather around the protagonist, Justine, at her wedding. In some cases, it’s even demeaned. Her sister, Claire, can’t understand how somebody could want a splendid wedding but also be profoundly sad during its celebration. She reminds Justine that she agreed to “no scenes”, oblivious to the fact that adding a performative layer to the already exhausting work of just showing up for life is a profoundly tone-deaf request to make of a person who’s in the grip of brain fog. 

Justine’s parents, a pair of legendary narcissists, pile a heroic dose of histrionic behavior onto her shoulders, openly insulting their daughter—and each other—at her wedding. As Justine points out, she’s not the one who ultimately makes a scene, they do. And so do others. Her boss does that tacky thing that all marketing people love to do—making every aspect of their participation in a public event a reference to their work—going so far as to deliver a short powerpoint and dangle a promotion in front of Justine as part of her wedding toast. (As somebody who did time in the trenches of marketing, I found this scene immensely believable, because it never ceases to amaze me how the lifers of that industry have made what they do into a religion in order to avoid confronting how fundamentally soulless it really is.) 

Facing expectations she can’t hope to meet, and knowing that everyone clearly doubts her ability to handle something so perfunctory as a wedding, Justine ultimately succumbs to her depression. You can read the end of her wedding in one of two ways: she either torpedoes her own big day as a sort of vaguely suicidal gesture, or she finally stops fighting off the efforts all those around her who were attempting torpedo it themselves.

3

The second half of Melancholia picks up shortly after the wedding that wasn’t: Justine is now deeply in the grips of a major depressive episode, and the errant star that beamed so beguilingly on her wedding night has been identified as a rogue planet that’s spun into Earth’s orbit and entered a “dance of death” with our home planet. 

Attempts to provide traditional comforts—like favorite foods, horseback riding, and hot baths—fail to alleviate Justine’s symptoms. But what’s interesting is that the absurd and wondrous phenomena of the impending planetary fly-by do seem to stir her from her suffering in a pleasing way. She seems delighted by the sprinkling of ash from the heavens, the static electricity emanating from her fingertips. She basks in the glow of the looming star. Her appetite returns, and her disinterest in the aesthetics of the world’s end (a fixation of her appearances-obsessed sister) solidifies. 

Knowing that Earth has been given a firm expiration date is freedom for Justine: she scoffs at her sister’s suggestion they take in the implosion of the planet like a fireworks show, with wine and Beethoven on the terrace. She chooses instead to indulge her young nephew’s need for magical thinking, helping him to build a fort of sticks and branches, boughs under which they calmly usher in the apocalypse. She’s liberated from the expectations of others, released from the trap of appearances. At the start of the film she was done up like Grace Kelly at a royal wedding—by the end, in a tee shirt and jeans, she opens her arms to the firestorm. 

4

Watching Melancholia during a pandemic wasn’t as emotionally crushing as I thought it might be. It did reinforce something that people are still, even now, denying about COVID-19: that no amount of wealth or privilege can protect you from its ravages. 

Today, in People magazine, Heidi Klum posed for a photoshoot while a stylist in a mask and gloves retouched her highlights as she sat in her rose garden. It was one of the most offensive things I’ve seen in a long time—a pathetic assertion that for enough money and with enough PPE, she could justify getting her hair done. 

Meanwhile, nurses are wearing trash bags as hospital gowns and carrying their used N95s in baggies from shift to shift, reusing them against best practice for weeks at a time, because there are simply not enough supplies nor adequate infrastructure for them to safely care for the sick and dying. A nurse who’s working on a COVID unit recently shared her pre-shift PPE regimen: its many steps include layering used N95 and surgical masks under a cloth shield her mother made for her, then donning a pair of trash bags and sealing them with tape. 

One wonders what an aging German supermodel could have better spent her money on. But I doubt any celebrity would skip a hair appointment to devote a serious chunk of their wealth to stopping a critical supply gap that the federal government can’t be bothered to care about. Too many of them are obsessed with sustaining an aspirational, bourgeois aesthetic to further prop up their personal income streams. Melancholia is as much an intentional indictment of vulgar, vapid people like Klum as it is an exploration of enduring depression. It argues, and I think quite successfully, that in a world which is fundamentally doomed—by disease, by climate, by rogue circumstance—those who remain preoccupied with the consumption and perpetuation of wealth in the face of undeniable crisis are certainly deserving of whatever fate befalls them, and are as they should be: entirely forgettable.

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This leads me to the one thing about Melancholia I don’t completely agree with: Justine’s assertion that the Earth is evil and that nobody will mourn it or remember it. I think, certainly, the sniveling, fearful, pettty, and pretentious people that Melancholia shows us are evil. But I think the Earth is, as Carl Sagan so aptly put it, a mote of dust in a sunbeam. All that we grow preoccupied with, all that we anguish over, the “rivers of blood” he mentions in his own assessment of humanity’s many failings—none of these things amount to more than invisible specks on that mote, and our lack of global unity as a species should be the most alarming aspect of this or any earthly crisis.

Of late I’ve witnessed myself become a minority among my more privileged peers, who are shirking more and more of the limited good guidance and good science available to break quarantine to socialize, sending me photos of their maskless soirees—simply because they’re tired of the inconvenience of making sacrifices. They’re privileged enough that they don’t really have to make those sacrifices, or so they seem to think. In comparison to them, I look more and more like the paranoid one, the Chicken Little who’s going to stay inside until 2075. It is not worth fighting with them about it, at least not from my perspective; I would just rather live through this era to find myself on the right side of history. I focus instead on cheering on the essential workers in my life who have to wait on these idiots to make their rent.

But I also keep listening to that nurse. She begs people, even now, to stay home if and when they’re able. Begs them to wear masks. Begs them to avoid non-essential activities that put others, particularly vulnerable demographics, at greater risk. She grieves the lack of understanding about this mysterious disease, notes that it fails to spare young and healthy people seemingly at random, that everyone who dies of it dies alone. She shares the stories of colleagues of hers who have contracted the disease on the job, mourns those in her field who have died from it. She discusses how the patient to nurse ratio on her COVID unit is anywhere from two to five patients higher than safety regulations typically dictate. She ends her shifts covered in sweat and filth, sad and exhausted.

Maybe I’m just waiting it out for her sake. Okay then, I’ll own that. It seems like the least I can do. In a world that is doomed, even a small gesture of good faith in the hope of saving it feels more genuinely beautiful than the gleam of a fresh manicure. 

Wash your hands. Wear your mask. Thank the many people who do the thankless, unseen work of keeping our world going even when we, with our petty desires for things to “be normal again”, hardly deserve it. Try to give less fucks about your hair and a few more about humanity, because who knows how long we’ll all have each other? 

Perhaps we can prove the Earth isn’t evil after all. Perhaps, no matter our fate, we can make this a world worth remembering.

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