Von Trier’s Melancholia

By Todd Ford

My wife often accuses me of being a pessimist. I prefer to think I just have something of a melancholic nature. I’m not a popular picker of movies in my house. A typical exchange on a Saturday night goes like this.

“Let’s watch a movie together.”

“What movie?”

“How about The Last Picture Show?”

“Is it funny or all dreary and depressing?”

“Ummm, never mind.”

A scene from “Melancholia” courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

My first two girlfriends, many years ago, bore a striking resemblance to the girl in the painting The Wistful Look by James Carroll Beckwith. The first kept asking why I wanted to be with someone so morose. The other has since inspired many a dreary and depressing short story.

My fiction has had a definite preoccupation with suicides (I’ve known two people who did so and one who tried, twice). Murder and zombies have also found their way into my sad little tales.

By the way, I’m telling you this, not to make you listen as I lie upon a couch, but to tell you, in a roundabout way, why I felt a strong connection to Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, Von Trier being a most melancholy man.

After her husband is paralyzed and attempts suicide, Bess is ordered by him to satisfy her sexual needs with other men, with tragic results. As she gradually goes blind, Selma shoots a man who is trying to steal from her and is tried and executed. Grace is persecuted by everyone in a town except a dog named Moses. These aren’t stories from the world’s happiest guy.

Von Trier’s latest stars Kirsten Dunst as Justine, a young woman who suffers from melancholia. She can be seemingly happy one moment and so depressed the next that she can hardly move. Most of the first half of the movie shows us her wedding reception. She has married a sweet guy, but she spends the evening refusing his wedding night advances, having sex on a golf course with a co-worker before spurning him, and telling her boss what she really thinks of him.

Basically, she rejects her life.

She can’t cope with the everyday. It reminded me of how despairing I become if my wife tells me she has been feeling tired lately. What would I do without her I wonder? It reminded me of the despair

I feel every time I pay bills.

The second half of the movie deals with its huge element. In a state of depression, Justine is holed up on an estate with her sister Claire, brother-in-law John, and their young son. They all watch helplessly as a giant rogue planet named Melancholia tracks Earth on a collision course.

Von Trier was inspired by the insight that melancholics can be surprisingly tranquil in the face of catastrophe. Justine watches the planet approach with calm detachment. It’s Claire who freaks out and John who downs a bottle of sleeping pills.

I often think about how short human history is in the scheme of the universe and how quickly it could all be over. The Sun does something unexpected and suddenly it is as if The Holy Bible, Shakespeare, and Stephenie Meyer had never happened. I don’t run around stocking a shelter full of supplies and buying rifles though. I just sit back and enjoy the possibility of Stephenie Meyer never happening.

As Melancholia nears Earth, birds fall from the sky and we and Justine observe them abstractly in slow motion. These images feel un-real in the way I remember images of people falling from the Towers on 9/11 feeling. I’m glad they felt that way. They would’ve been overwhelming otherwise.

 

(Todd Ford has been a film nut since 1981. He watches far too many movies through Netflix and enjoys a home life with his wife, two daughters, two dogs and five cats.)

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