Melancholia: Why I wish I hadn’t seen it and why I’m sort of glad I did.

image from via Pinterest

Three weeks ago my husband and I watched the movie Melancholia. If you haven’t heard of the film, I’ll say this: That was probably not a good idea. (At least for me.)

It’s not a spoiler to explain that the film is about the end of the world. (There’s no suspense about that going into it.) The movie is named for the planet that eventually collides with and destroys earth. But the story of the film is about two sisters and the relationships within a family and, ultimately, about the meaning of everything. This is a movie about how the three main characters respond to (in the director’s view) the meaninglessness of life: one with grim acceptance, one with cowardly surrender, and one with almost childlike denial. None of the characters have any kind of faith.

Melancholia challenges us to ask, Why are doing anything? What does it mean that what all we build our lives around, all that we value, is capable of being destroyed in one single blast? And, if everything is going to be destroyed, does it matter whether we love each other well in those last moments? If you believe in nothing outside of the reality of matter and the physical world, how do you make sense of the vulnerability of life?

So, ummm, watching the world end is never fun, especially when there’s a child in the scene. And I’ve already written here about how much I’m over seeing depressing movies, especially since I became a mom. Like all of us, I encounter enough sadness and fear in this world, without needing to put myself in a place to be reminded of it. When I was crying to my husband about the movie a day later and begging him to tell me how he was able to go about his day as a normal human being when he had Melancholia to obsess over, he said: “Micha, this is not a shocker: You feel things deeply. I don’t.” Right, right.

But I was drawn to this movie; I needed to see the end. Now, I can’t stop thinking about those last few minutes of the film, which are actually the last few minutes of life on earth. The character Claire, overwhelmed by the loss she’s already experienced, panics to find a safe place for her young son. After giving up on that, she pulls her sister aside, asking that they do something beautiful for the last moments of earth’s existence: have a toast and play some epic piece of music, something to say all of this mattered. And in that moment, her sister Justine (Kirsten Dunst) refuses to do anything of the sort. Instead, she goes outside to her nephew and, under the backdrop of a sky full of the incoming planet, tries to calm his fears by helping him built a “magic cave,” a teepee of sticks, where he will feel safe.

I keep thinking about those last minutes of their lives, of the world. All of the characters in this movie were flawed. Justine does some horrific things and, at the same time, is vulnerable enough that we feel drawn to her and her pain. She is already hopeless so she holds no emotion as she faces the end. Her sister Claire is the responsible one, the good one. But at the end of everything, she has so much at stake—her husband and her son and her life—that she is a panicked mess. Somehow, it’s Justine, who has nothing, who is able to be present to her nephew in his fear and loss.

What does that mean? I keep asking myself. Chris and I have since had countless conversations about the hope we have, that the physical is not the limit to life. That because we believe God is good and that God exists outside of time and space, we don’t have to react to the thought that all of this beauty—the majesty of mountains, the creativity of life itself: all those glow-in-the-dark fish at the bottom of the sea, the crazy abilities of kangaroos to carry their babies in a skin pouch, the dearness of mama birds building their nests with hope and great usefulness—is for nothing or that it will one day amount to nothing. Because we believe in a Creator and, even more, because we believe in a Savior, we can hold tight to the hope that that all of this goodness, all this life, is worth living in and celebrating because God is in the business of making order out of chaos: on this planet, in our hearts, in our families, in our churches. God is making all the sad things come untrue. So even if we lose everything we value on this earth, even life itself, we can believe that God is renewing it all, reworking the story of earth into the bigger story of redemption.

I don’t know much about the writer/director, Lars von Trier. I’ve heard that his belief system is fairly fatalistic. I assume that he probably holds a view of the world that says this is all meaningless and impossible to sustain. But, even if that’s his framework, I found the care that Justine provides her nephew in the end incredibly moving and emotional. Does anything matter? von Trier is asking. And I think his answer is, Yes, loving each other well matters.

So, I’ve moved from a place of sorrow at the thought of this film, to a place of thankfulness: for the reminder that what we do with the smallest of our moments, how we choose to care for one another in details of our everyday—how we value life—is what ultimately defines meaning in this world.

And I’m grateful for the reminder that if all is lost, if this very moment our sun explodes everything—art and music and nature and humankind—into smithereens, one things remains: a loving God. And because that loving God is not bound by the rules of the universe, God’s care for us is not bound by the rules of universe either.

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  • suzannah {so much shouting, so much laughter}

    how ’bout i didn’t know it was about the end of the world AT ALL. i thought it was just another kirsten dunst indie, and at the end i was like, “WHAT am i watching??”

    i like dark and strange, but it reeeally caught me off guard:)

  • Paula

    I heard about this film when it first came out and found myself very troubled by the idea of it. It was like a sore tooth I just couldn’t stop touching. Finally, last week, I rented it on iTunes and watched it.

    Number One: I found the first half incredibly boring. That’s probably because I’m not intellectual enough for it but there ya go.

    Number Two: In a world without Christ we see ultimately there IS nothing to live for. Justine’s happiness doesn’t depend on her circumstances (she has every reason to be happy but she isn’t) and in the end she is freed by the knowledge of her and the planet’s ultimate demise. Claire, who it turns out was only happy because of her circumstances, is shattered by her belief that nothing ultimately ended up mattering.

    I’m glad I saw it because now I can quit freaking thinking about it! ; ) I’m glad I believe in Jesus and I’m glad that I believe there is more to this life than what we do while we are alive.

    I’m also glad I don’t get my world view from Lars Von Trier who I really feel sorry for. He had a horrible childhood and has dealt with some really serious issues resulting from.

    Great post.

  • michaboyett

    Number 1: If being intellectual means you have to think boring stuff is interesting, count me out! (Agree, it was super slow.)
    Number 2: You’re so right about Claire being happy only because of her circumstances. You’re right, without hope outside of the physical, there’s nothing. (But that’s so hard for me to get my head around!)
    Thanks so much for your thoughts!

  • Danielle

    This post was such a wonderful reminder of the frailty of life and our hope in Christ. So thankful to have that hope. I hadn’t heard of this movie before, but am pretty sure I would be an emotional wreck watching it since I was practically in tears reading your summarization of Justine finding a safe place for her nephew. Agh. Having small children of my own has really changed my reactions to movies, books, etc with children in them.

  • Paula

    Me too! I can hardly watch movies anymore where kids are in danger. I first noticed it when my first child was just a baby. The movie Cold Mountain came out and there is a scene where a baby is left out in the cold and I just about came unglued! I sat in the theatre thinking ‘why am I reacting like this? This is new. ‘

  • Jeannie

    I think the title of the movie is key; I read that Trier made the film to symbolize depression, having experienced it himself. I have never experienced clinical depression, but I would think the sense of meaninglessness would be the most unbearable. If that is what he is trying to show in the movie, then maybe it’s not so much that he actually possesses a fatalistic vision, but that he wants to show that depression can make one feel that way: it comes so crushingly that The End would seem like comfort. This is an interesting and many-layered movie, for sure.

  • fiona lynne

    I’ve not heard of this movie before. But I really understand the being super emotionally affected by films. I have to be very careful what I watch because it can affect my mood for days. The worst recent example was Inception which had my husband seriously worried for my mental state – although the whiskies he gave me to calm down were nice ;)
    I’m glad that I know there’s more hope, more joy, more happy endings than a lot of film lead me to believe…

  • michaboyett

    That makes a lot of sense that he would have made it to symbolize depression. Especially in the scenes in the wedding. She goes through so many emotions and lashes out in every way possible. Thanks for the thought, Jeannie.

  • michaboyett

    Oh, Inception! Yeah, I think that one made my husband concerned as well… : )

  • Holly

    I have watched the movie several times, and I really don’t know why because everyone I spoke to about the movie couldn’t even make it past the Justine’s wedding part of it. Those who did make it through that to the end said “WTF??” Yes, it was weird. I fell asleep for the first part of it, only tuning it to the end where Justine came to the house depressed. I assumed (missing the begining) she was depressed because she knew the end of the world was coming. I then watched the world end and thought it was frightening. That this actually could happen. That we are really like in the story “Horton Hears a Who” in a dust speck hanging precariously at the end of a clover ready to fall off any second, and the world we thought was so secure would be destroyed. Then I watched it again from the begining. And was left with a different feeling. More of “I DON’T GET IT!” Why the wedding? Why the lonnnggggg wedding? What was the story with her boss and the story line? What was that all about? What was it that she picked up from the pharmacy? Why didn’t the horse go over the bridge? Why couldn’t Claire start the cars? Why all of a sudden wouldn’t they start? Why didn’t Claire let ALL the horses loose and not just one, and why did she leave it’s saddle on? Where did they live? America? Another country? How can one sister have an English accent and the other not have one? Too many questions, too many unanswered questions. This is one of those movies that is too weird and the Director assumes we are all “The Amazing Kreskin” and can just read his mind and know WTF these people are doing because we are so darn wise. Well, I guess I’m not so wise because I didn’t have a clue. But it was a complelling movie for some reason. But truth be told, if I didn’t read others reviewers opinions and clarifications about this movie? I wouldn’t have even known Justine was depressed! I guess I’m not that deep after all!