An allegory of a ‘therapeutic’ reading of a film: of Melancholia

This article was first published on the University of Sussex. For more information, see also the Thinking Film blog.

  1. This essay is a (more or less philosophical) account or allegory of my viewing(s) of Lars von Trier’s remarkable film, Melancholia (2011). It is personal, and philosophical. (The personal here turns out, potentially, to be philosophical.) Von Trier’s film in turn is clearly among other things a (brilliantly accurate) allegory of (his) depression; and it is also clearly (though at the very same time) much more than that. In expressing my experience of the film and the world (and my experience as a part time mega-melancholic – which is part of my basis for using the adjective “brilliantly accurate” in the previous sentence), my essay is inevitably personal, ‘person-relative’. Furthermore: This is an inevitable feature of therapeutic philosophy, the philosophy practiced most famously by Ludwig Wittgenstein. As the later Gordon Baker for example explained clearly2: such philosophy responds to the individual reader (/ viewer). And vice versa. In a kind of dialogue or (to use the term that Melancholia prefers) dance…
  2. Why do I call my take on Melancholia a philosophical one? Well, let me seek to explain. Let’s start with one of the apparently-odd plot-features of the film. The entire action takes place within the grounds of a family home, a chateau: in part, because Justine (Kirsten Dunst) – and in fact, later, both the two main protagonists – apparently cannot leave the chateau. Each time that Justine attempts to take her horse across the little bridge, she fails. And near the end, the same uncanny failure hits Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), in her golf-buggy, the last vehicle able to move (albeit with the risible speed and style of a golf-buggy) in their little world. I believe that this uncanny trappedness is a key to the film. What does it mean?
  3. We can (and should) think here of Last Year at Marienbad, so clearly inter-textually telegraphed in the opening images of the sculpted plants which have two shadows (In Marienbad, they cast just one – but the people there cast none at all). In Marienbad too, it is impossible to escape the chateau. One is trapped, on my reading of that marvellous, puzzling film, in one’s own Reason. In one’s – in the film’s ‘character’s – own half-dead hyper-rational minds. In psychosis as understood roughly along the lines envisaged by Louis Sass in his Madness and Modernism. In the case of Melancholia, we are dealing primarily, it would seem, with neurosis: with ‘affective disorders’. The trap in this (similar and dissimilar) case is simply (in) one’s life. The trap is one’s mind. (Neurosis is: being trapped in one’s own mind, and hating it. Psychosis is: being trapped in and by one’s own mind without even realising that one is.) The chateau is a lived world. The chateau is your mind. You can’t escape it.
  4. The magnificently-depicted utter futility of Claire’s effort to run away, by getting into a big strong car – a 4×4 – and then a golf-buggy, and then just running… Where? The interaction at that point between her and Justine here is startlingly reminiscent of the interaction between Deckard and Roy at the climactic moments of the famous chase in Blade Runner, as the latter asks the former, as Deckard seeks pointlessly to escape his fate, his being-toward-death: “Where are you going?”… Justine uses the exact same verbal formulation, to Claire.
  5. The point: there is nowhere to run to. Nowhere to go. There is no escape. You can’t run away from your ownmost death, nor from the present moment. (As Leo (Cameron Spurr) later puts it: “Dad says there’s nothing to do then. Nowhere to hide.”) The only ‘escape’ from what Freud called “ordinary unhappiness” / anxiety, and, still more so, from melancholia, is (as Buddhism has long indicated) acceptance. To ‘escape’, paradoxically, you have to embrace. To accept what is happening right now, to embrace it; and to embrace others. (And this, as I will discuss below, is what Justine at this point in the film is managing, for the first time, to do, in both a very direct and a symbolically-rich way.) There is no (other) escape. This existential point is starkly literalised in Melancholia by the whole planet being about to be wiped out.
  6. Melancholia has a way of bashing the viewer over the head with a number of stark, heavily-signalled symbols. The most obvious of which is calling the blue planet about to crash into Earth ‘Melancholia’; a metaphor for Justine’s condition. (Similarly, the music is gloriously extreme; the whole ghastly-wedding scenario is way over-the-top; etc.)
  7. However, look for example at that remarkable opening sequence. When one thinks back to this ‘prelude’, from the end of the film, one notices that virtually none of the scenes presented there are present anywhere in the body of the film. For instance, the scene showing the final trio of the film: but standing, facing the camera, separate, on the lawn at night, dressed up in their wedding gear, but with the two ‘moons’ behind them (as was not yet the case, during the wedding). It almost looks like a publicity-still for the film. My take on this shot: This is how the three of them would have been, had Melancholia come to hit on the night of the wedding. Apart. Before the journey on which Justine leads herself and them, through rock-bottom, to mutuality and an affirmation of life made directly in the face of mortality.
  8. Or again, the little scene of Justine walking through the forest in her wedding dress, so, so, so slowly, held back by the creepers (this scene, we later discover, is a direct ‘representation’ of Justine’s experience, as she attempts to explain it to Claire); and the parallel scene of Claire, seeking desperately to carry her boy ‘to safety’ across the 19th green, but sinking in so deep with each infinitely-slow step; these are visual metaphors of/for the mental states from which the sisters are, hopelessly, seeking to flee from (and thus inadvertently entrenching – see below).
  9. It might still be said that, once one notices them and thinks about them, these ‘visual metaphors’ at least are rather obvious. Turn then instead to the question of why Part 1 of the film is called ‘Justine’, Part 2 ‘Claire’. And to the question of why (for instance) the wedding scenario in Part 1 is so madly over-the-top. If one does so, then I think one will start to understand the subtlety lying behind some surface unsubtleties.
  10. For the deliberately plodding telegraphing of one or two of the film’s central metaphors is the counterpart of a much-subtler, sinuously-delicate way in which metaphors that are not merely literalised, not straightforwardly paraphrasable, enter repeatedly into the film. Precisely because of the blatancy of some of the basic symbols / metaphors of the film, these are by contrast easy to miss (and have been missed by the plodding reviewers of the film – when has such a fine film last been so almost-universally under-appreciated by its reviewers?
  11. So for instance, as I said earlier: the chateau is a world. But more than that: what we are given in Part 1 is Justine’s world. This world is very like the world that all of us live in (They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad; and rampant capitalism does, too); and yet unlike it (except for those of us who are personally familiar with a serious amount of melancholia). One can sympathise with why she would be so troubled, when one meets the crazy, ‘normal’ people in and governing her life. But it’s more complicated than that:
  12. The arc of the journey the film takes one on is closely tied to a complex sequence of one’s identifications and dis-identifications with Justine, and then with Claire. As outlined in (11), above: This leads in effect to a delicate play with the meaning of ‘world’ in the film that is the direct counterpart of or complement to the deliberate plodding in the Melancholia as a world perhaps about to smash into our world metaphor. Here is an outline very rough, massively over-crude sketch of the main elements of this sequence (abstracting again from person-sensitive issues such as one’s experience or otherwise with melancholia):
    1. From the start of the prelude, Justine is an Other, a haunted figure.
    2. Then, from the start of Part 1, she seems perhaps just a normal gal, a normal bride. (Look at her giggling in the car at the failure of the chauffeur to get the limousine to penetrate its way up the chateau’s winding road.)
    3. But we come to see gradually that she is haunted. That she has been putting a brave face on things. That her smiles are largely a (sometimes bravura) performance. As already mentioned, it’s understandable perhaps that she should be so, when one starts to appreciate her (largely dreadful) place within her family (Her depressed mood is first brought out by her parents’ truly-terrible ‘wedding speeches’), job, life. The film explores the reasons for as well as the unreasoned-ness of depression (It is not as if Justine’s (dismal) life is enough reason to be permanently melancholic. On the contrary, we eventually realise with her that even in the valley of the shadow of death there is every reason to feel love and even joy. To escape the confines of one’s mind as it has been… The film is an increasingly convincing (as one watches it, as it goes into depth) portrayal of melancholia (of ‘depression’). Of how it is based on something – and based on nothing. And of how it can be accepted – and thus overcome.). The film undercuts the absurdity – the widespread, ghastly illusion – of the idea that one can be ‘made’ happy by things (especially, by things).7 Over and over, even into Part 2 of the film, characters insist that Justine ought to be happy; and there is endless talk of Justine (and eventually Claire, too, talks this way about herself) being made to be happy. The skin-crawling ghastliness of the scene where the bride is supposed to toss her bouquet, the uncomprehending smiling faces of those staring up at her at this point, is a lovely visual version of this. The point, we eventually understand (and experience?), is that, when one really lets go of the counter-productive effort to project a state that is not one’s present state, only then can one start to attain a kind of contentment, a joy in the moment.
    4. She is othered, then, in her depression; and we keep veering back to her, in our recognition of the madness of her (our) world.
    5. But we gradually come to appreciate that the wedding party is a hyperbole; it is not even meant to be realistic. This is most stark in the behaviour of the the character of Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), Justine’s boss (as grotesque and cruel as anything out of de Sade – and he is the ‘best man’!) and his minion, Tim (Brady Corbet). This is a kind of Kafkaesque absurdist extreme of no-escape: The profit-motive and a rigorously utilitarian attitude to other people won’t leave you alone for even one moment, not even at your wedding. This gives us some insight into our market-mad world, by touching uncomfortably on what might well be claimed to be its contemporary essence; and it gives us some insight into Justine’s world. In a world of depression-retreat, of being locked in one’s own ego, and of times of high anxiety, everything can seem extreme: too much trouble, such that one cannot even lift one’s leg into the bathtub; Or everything a tremendous threat that can’t be overcome. The wedding party gives us Justine’s world: we eventually inhabit that world (as if) from the inside. We realise something about the world of the unhappy; just how deeply it differs from the world of the happy. The only way to come to see something like that is some kind of extreme vicarious experience: such as that of a wedding-from-hell which is really a wedding in hell (Hell being not, as one of Sartre’s characters said, other people, but rather, contrariwise, the felt absence, the unreachability, of other people, even in their presence, and their deep failure too to reach oneself).
    6. Thus Part 1: Justine’s world. Part 2 adds into Justine’s world – which now, from a complicated dance of outside and inside, of actuality and possibility and impossibility (No-one could be quite as bad as Justine’s boss), we know, and come to know better still in the same way, as we see her (Justine) in her fuller abjection – Claire’s world. In Part 1, we probably didn’t like Claire terribly much. In Part 2, we come to appreciate the terrible difficulty of living with someone like Justine (and with someone like John (Kiefer Sutherland)!). We come to appreciate Claire. Her patience, her love. We come to know and to be touched by her self, her world. Her ordinary unhappiness and happinesses, the ordinary anxieties of life (Claire, John tells us, “gets anxious so easily”…). She is closer probably for many viewers to being a natural avatar for oneself.
    7. We also gradually come to understand how inadequate she is to the threat of death. Two worlds may be about to collide. Her’s and Justine’s; Earth’s and Melancholia’s. The second Part of the film is no more (and no less) realistic than the first Part. It is a deep engagement with ‘the reality principle’, in the shape of utter vulnerability, death and its denial. This blue planet, our double, which shows us (from the prelude sequence onwards) the arbitrariness of our placedness and ‘security’ in the universe, and which crashes into us in spite of our best science, is in this sense no less (but also no more) unrealistic than the wedding party of Part 1. And, just as Justine struggles with the latter, so Claire, in all her caringness, cannot cope with the former.
    8. We pitied Justine earlier, and tried to empathise with her. But our position was no more secure (than hers). This is what Claire’s arc tells us. Facing death, being-towards-death, is a near-impossible challenge.
    9. But we want to rise to that challenge. We want not to be Claire. Gradually, in Part 2, there is something to fear (Which there wasn’t, in Part 1, and yet angst was there, uncanny, massive). Claire majors on (ordinary) anxiety, ordinary unhappiness, rather than on depression. But these are not so far from being two sides of the same coin. Two worlds that can be seen clearer in the reflection of each other’s image. In the situation now unfolding, in the “dance of death”, without undue attachment to life and to desire, in the dance of Claire and Justine, the depressive sister is the better off. (This is the film’s distinctive contribution to investigating the ecology of depression; in a certain ‘niche’, depression is adaptive.vii We will return more than once to this point.) As Melancholia approaches, melancholia ebbs. The planet is (of course) not literally melancholia; it was just what occasioned the bringing of something to a head: The proper awareness of the preciousness of this timeless moment.
    10. Thus as Part 2 proceeds further, we avert from Claire and swing towards Justine again. She becomes the well-adapted one, in this new environment, this new world with a deadline.
    11. But this too needs to be interrupted. For Justine is caught up still in an unhealthy state of mind. She wants life to end. She is relieved by the prospect of the world coming to an end;viii now she is – at last – able to live! Our attraction to her hatred for the Earth / for life is of a kind with our attraction to her very state of mind. (I return to this point, below.)
    12. This isn’t what we sought yet; this isn’t yet a truly authentic life; this is far from being freedom from the confines, the iron cage, of the ego. Justine’s nihilistic words to Claire may attract us, but then on reflection repel us from her again; and appropriately so. The repulsion is accentuated by her brutality toward Abraham, the film’s Turin horse; and we should note that it is at this moment in the film, as she realises perhaps that there is no escape, that, significantly, she (and we) see the effects of Melancholia for the first time.
    13. We are attracted by Justine’s nihilism; but this is a dangerous seduction that tells us something about ourselves, and thankfully we come to see this as we see that she is not a reliable moral ‘narrator’. We were in denial about her, about our attraction to her – which is the attraction of melancholia. We needed shaking out of it.
    14. At this point, we can perhaps start to dialectically synthesise what is needed. Claire’s caring nature, her passion for life to go on, for her child to have a future; with Justine’s calm, her refusal to pretend, her presentness. The sisters are together, perhaps, one person waiting to be born, waiting to be the child, the future. This is where you (the viewer) come in.
    15. …The journey is not yet over, though. As I describe shortly (from section 19 onward of this paper), there is a rapid sequence of further shifts in the very final stages of the film, crucially tied up into Justine’s emergence as a brave and heroic, loving, feeling, quasi-maternal figure, when tested to the limit…
  13. This then is the real subtle meaning of the apparently overly-literal metaphor of Melancholia as another world, another blue world coming to meet ours. In the meeting, we (the film’s necessary other: its audience) find ourselves, find what kind of world we have, triangulate our world beside Justine’s and Claire’s. We christen our world, or let it start to grow up. (That’s us, sitting in a trio (with them) in the magic cave at the end.) We could imagine a Part 3 to the film, about another character in it, and then a Part 4, and so on and on until every human being in the world had had their world added in… But we don’t get to experience this, because there isn’t time in life to get to know everyone in the world. Our lives dance an arc, that ends with death. And sometimes this death comes much sooner than we hope. This is what we have to live in authentic relation to. There is no Part 3 to the film, because, suddenly, the(ir) world ends. As yours and mine of course will, much as we are too often in denial about the fact.
  14. It is difficult to understand another’s world. But it can be done. But sometimes, in order to do it, one has to take a circuitous, ‘indirect’ route. When it is very difficult, then one has to (try to) take a deeply circuitous route that may even take one on a journey through nonsense, a journey through trying imaginatively to inhabit positions that are not even inhabitable. (As Rush Rhees had it: language makes sense only if living makes sense.) This is Wittgenstein’s method in philosophy, and it is also the method of some fine ‘philosophical’ films.
  15. A key case of something difficult to understand of this nature, even though probably there is some of it in the world of every one of us (especially around the question of death), is denial. The film helps us to understand and work through our own tendencies to denial, and those of others. It brilliantly expresses those tendencies, those temptations, and finds and offers a way through and beyond them, back to life. In short: it exposes them (on film). Such that we may be better placed to enjoy life while it lasts – and to be clearer about how precious and glorious it truly is, and thus, I would add, about how we ought to strive to make the human adventure and the existence of our non-human kin last longer than we are currently threatening to let it.
  16. The scenario in the film is a neat inversion of the situation vis-à-vis climate-denial. (And what is climate-denial based in, if not: denial of death? A refusal to look in the face that we are at present, as a species, committing slow ecocide/suicide, in our 4x4s, in our industrial-growth-capitalism, and so forth….) This time – in Melancholia – it is the loons and conspiracy-theorists who are right, and the scientists who err. In both the film and the real world, it is the pessimists who need listening to (At least, if there is going to be a wake-up call that leads us to do something about our predicament.) For: Back in the real world, back outside the movie-theatre, there is in effect another planet smashing into us. Just very, very slowly… What anthropogenic climate change threatens is the (gradual) equivalent of the comet that extinguished the dinosaurs. We have to perceive this, our clear-and-present long-emergency, as an emergency even though it doesn’t feel like one… Part of the achievement of Melancholia is to depict the looming destruction of human life on Earth – the risk that life on Earth is (as Justine memorably puts it) “not for long” – as an emergency (as urgent; indeed, as rapid!), and yet, not as an emergency. The feel of so much of the film and of the discourse that occupies it is far from any emergency-talk. From the partying of the first half of the film to the distantiated feel of some of the second half, Melancholia actively reflects and thereby problematises inaction in the face of impending disaster. As part of its call to authentic affirmation of life in the present moment, Melancholia calls us to fight to prevent the rich destroying the Earth as a liveable planet, by saving its atmosphere, keeping it life-giving (Note the way in which, in the film, the ‘fly-by’ makes the atmosphere less life-giving (less breathe-able)… The same move, notably, is made in Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), where humans are unable to breathe the CO2-heavy atmosphere of the extra planet in that film, Pandora.).
  17. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” This ordinary, helpful question, very necessary for those (which includes us all) seeking to head off uncertain risks that may destroy us all, becomes less helpful – precisely through seeming to offer deep help – to the person inclined to depression / severe anxiety. What such depression / anxiety is is the imagining, over and over again, of what the worst thing is that can happen.19 It is a would-be self-protective race to the bottom. One seeks to immunise oneself against the future by giving up hope for anything good; one seeks to protect oneself against other people by imagining that they think the worst of one; one seeks to protect oneself against hope for oneself by imagining oneself hopeless / useless / evil… These stratagems are very, very attractive; they are extraordinarily seductive; they are in the end disastrously self-defeating. One can’t actually become safe by retreating away from others / from hope. One seeks to immunise oneself against disappointment by pre-emptively disappointing oneself (and others); but this only ups the ante, and takes one on a journey deeper into the morbid life-world of melancholia. The desire to be immunised against hope, the desire for disaster to absolve us of responsibility, and to prevent us pre-emptively from disappointment, is the very same desire in politics as it is in psychopathology. It is the desire that Melancholia explores. (I will begin in the coming sections to explain this point more.)
  18. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Followed perhaps by, “It’s not the end of the world!” …Ah; but what if it is the end of the world? Melancholia splendidly literalises this central trope of depression/anxiety, which is also a very necessary trope of ecology. (See the end of section 16, above: No wonder Claire has an anxiety-attack / Melancholia makes our atmosphere less breathable, during the ‘fly-by’…)
  19. Claire says, diagnostically, to Justine, in a key scene in Part 2, “It’s easy for you, isn’t it? Just imagine the worst thing that can happen…”. She sees the attraction of Justine’s world now. The attraction, the would-be safety, of imagining the worst thing that can happen: ‘for example’, death. The death of everything, in fact. Geocide / ecocide. We are tempted by this; this explains to a very considerable degree the attraction of disaster movies, of apocalypse movies (also of most horror movies; and of the new unpleasant extreme-crime genre, post - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; and more besides). We imagine that if we can cope with these experiences fictively, then we can cope with them more easily in real life. Thus we half-want the world to be destroyed (in this film). We want it to go up in a shriek, and us with it. (And we half-half-want the worst thing that can happen to happen in the real world too. For then, we can be absolved of responsibility, of hope; we are given an indefinite reprieve from having to try to act, and can simply spectate…)
  20. But, thankfully, we pull back from this. We pull back from it, at the very end, in terror and horrified awe, with Melancholia bearing down remorselessly upon them / us. Only now, it is too late. And this is a crucial part of the film’s therapy. Crucially: at the final moments, at the death, one doesn’t want ge(n)ocide any more, not even fictively. One wants life.
  21. What could be more depressing than the end of the world? Especially, by our own hand (And now I am following up the logic of section 16, above.). Depression given this situation could even be described as rational. I am thinking here of Theodore Roszak, Mary-Jayne Rust, etc. Their ecopsychological vision – that one’s mental state may well be a reflection of the physical / biological state of the world that one is sensing – coheres well with the sense I have of von Trier’s film. The terrible thing, as one might put it, is that so many of us aren’t depressed (Think the people in Part 1 of the film. So much the worse for them, for us.). In Melancholia, the depressed one isn’t depressed by the end of the world (On the contrary). Claire is the normal, who gets thrown into anxiety by it. By the time enough of us get anxious / depressed about what we are committing the ecosphere to, it may well be too late. People, like Justine, mostly get depressed individualistically. Collectively, we watch the build-up toward destruction of our planetary home as a spectacle, alarmingly undepressed. That’s how it is, in Melancholia Part 1. It only changes in Part 2. It is almost as if we are willing the devastation of our home.
  22. Thankfully, Justine too pulls back from this wanting death, at the death. For the wonderful thing that happens toward the end of the film is that, under the most extreme pressure, with the worst thing that can happen now (it would seem) utterly inevitable, with hope gone, now, at last, Justine manages to emerge into living in the present. The embryo of this emergence is born I think at least by the time of her authentic and clear rejection of Claire’s unconvincing plan for them to drink wine on the terrace as Melancholia hits. It rapidly gathers pace with her embracing of the boy Leo, her decision to care for him in his fear; the crucial moment here – the film’s turning-point – is her crying as she hugs him. She breaks – as one might put it, reversing Bob Dylan – like a woman, like a heroine, this time. (The whole weight of the film is in this scene and the next one, in these final seven minutes of its running-time.) He can’t see this (but we can); she is feeling for him, grieving for someone other than herself: for the pain and the shortness of life of the child. She has managed for the first time truly to escape the terrible confines of her own mind, the iron grey cage in which melancholia can hold one. She is back in empathy. Her finest hour is her last: She gives Leo a blatant metaphor; she tells him a story (and they will then build visuals to go with it): of the ‘magic cave’. Adults should face authentically what is happening; children should be protected. So she builds the flimsiest structure imaginable, to symbolise the truth: that (see section 23, below), if one can only live in the present, one is perfectly safe. She makes the ‘magic cave’ with him, then beckons first him, and then Claire, inside (Note: she supports Claire in, visually-mirroring Claire’s supporting her movements, in the opening portions of Part 2; this role-reversal is an iconic image of the teaching that the film offers one), and then joins them, having ‘completed’ the cave. This is very moving. They gradually hold hands, as the Wagner swells. The climactic moment is the wonderful – wonderful – smile that Justine gives Claire (at 2:02:25). The smile that tells that she is having, at last, what might be called a wonderful life, even amidst the real and psychical horror. It is a smile of love, of genuine connection, genuine being-with, at last. She looks authentically into another’s face, for the first time able to do so and offer something authentic that isn’t (only) sad.
  23. This is – with the possible exception of her smile earlier at Leo — the first smile she has given anyone in the whole movie that is full. I mean: this smile comes from the depth of her whole being, it is a smile in the awareness of life and its preciousness and beauty, rather than (as her smiles early in the film were, at best) an isolated moment of relief, or (more often) a show. This, by contrast, is the smile that reconnects and, in a sense, reassures. She, and thus potentially those with her, including us, are now very close to what Wittgenstein is speaking of in the “Lecture on Ethics”, when he speaks of “the experience of feeling absolutely safe. I mean the state of mind in which one is inclined to say ‘I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens.’” (See how far we have come now from the fake safety of withdrawal, perhaps of paranoia, of hopelessness, certainly of pre-emptive disappointment.) The feeling to be sought-for, to train for, for when all (else) fails. In short: The film is about one’s desire to escape from one’s mental state (a desire that forms the central mechanism of depression and anxiety), about one’s desire for a reprieve from one’s responsibility to face up to one’s situation and act accordingly, and about the only genuine security there is: being present, no matter what.
  24. What is critical about this re-emergence of Justine is that it gives the lie to her brutal negativity a little while earlier. At the death, she overcomes the vast, horrific temptation to think that the Earth and all its life is evil, that it would be better if we weren’t. She overcomes the great temptation that plagues Zarathustra: nausea at humankind. She reaches out, she lives and loves. She gives those she is-with, Leo and Claire, the ultimate gift: her presence, at last, in extremis.
  25. This is authenticity. Being-towards-death. Being able to face death, and not to be taken by it, as Claire is. Living together, at the end. Hand in hand. Claire, with support, does her best, but at the very last, cannot continue; she withdraws, into herself, in highest anxiety, covers her ears. Justine and the boy, Leo, keep going. Truly, this was their finest hour. The rising climax, this, the very end of the film, if one watches it with one’s eyes open, is staggeringly moving.
  26. But also: to quote from much earlier in the film (from Justine’s poor unconsummated husband, Michael): “It could have been very different, Justine”. What we finally see is the possibility of living in the present, of overcoming the vast reasons to withdraw / to live in fear / to give up hope / to be a slave (thinking now of the famous last words of Leon (which are also Roy’s words) to Deckard, in Blade Runner). The sadness of Justine’s life and of much of Claire’s too, is that such living in the present could not be achieved beforehand. If only one could live one’s whole life like that… That Wittgensteinian/Heideggerian/Buddhist ambition is what the film offers us as a possibility. Death may come at any moment. Let us live in that moment, this moment, authentically, and smiling a full deep smile if we possibly can. The viewer is invited to leave the auditorium ready to smile such a smile, and to live as Justine lived at the end. There is no pseudo-Wagnerian love-death as such in Melancholia;xxiii because at the end, Justine is perhaps even a little in love with life. (It is helpful to note that in the final scene, as the big blue planet bears down on them, in one last great metaphor, Justine turns her back on Melancholia.) She loves her family, she loves human beings, at last, at (the time of) the death (of all things). She steps out of the victim-role.
  27. But is the film nevertheless dangerous in its dalliance with apocalypticism? I suggest not. Rather, the film is a commentary on apocalypticism, just as (I argued near the start of my paper) it is a commentary on metaphor, a critical examination of it. It enters (us) into a therapeutic relation with our desire for the world to end, for the worst possible thing that can happen to happen, our desire, perhaps even, to ‘cleanse’. This desire is of course not even all bad: one wants an end to suffering, a quick release from the slow journey of news and torments that may be the human race’s downgoing, perhaps even a cleansing from the Earth of excessive numbers of consumptive beings that are in effect consuming / destroying its life-bearing powers (the process of course turbo-charged by the very advertising industry that the Dunst and Skarsgård characters work in). But one comes to see that even if such destruction were rapid, it would still be terrible; and one comes to understand (as Justine does) just how precious and wonderful life is, and how bloodless it is to be ready to give up the human adventure.
  28. But all the same: Isn’t it wrong that the end of the world should be depicted as beautiful? It is indeed utterly awe-inspiring, magnificent in the true sense of that over-used word, when we see Melancholia bearing down on us in all its hugeness, in those final moments. But the right way to see what happens there also includes the sad but utterly understandable inability of Claire to stay with the trio in those final moments; the real fear evoked by that suddenly-rapidly-growing crescendo of noise – never have I felt in a cinema before like I was present at an earthquake; never has a fictional filmic disaster seemed more real; my mouth dropped open as the planet in all its hugeness bore down on them, on me – and, most important of all perhaps, the way in which, after the shock-waves, and before the enveloping blackness, comes a fire, burning up our loved and loving trio. This is not beautiful, it is just terrible, awful. (But in the end, the extreme beauty of much of the film is the beauty of our life. The wonder-ful life that finally Justine allows; the slow-motion (Think again of the prelude to the film) moment after moment life that we viewers still have the luxury of; the life that our decadent luxuries threaten to undermine the continuation of.)
  29. And after that end, what then? Blackness. One hopes for a Part 3. Or at least an Epilogue, like in von Trier’s magnificent melodrama Breaking the Waves
  30. (1996). But, rather, as in the final lines of von Trier’s first great film, Zentropa

    : “You want to wake up… But it is not possible.” One only, after a pause, gets silent simple credits, still on black. This is the ‘final’ instalment of the therapy: Because now one really regrets what desire one had for the world to end. Your wish has been fulfilled: and it isn’t what you had hoped for. You wish that the world could go on. You wish that their lives could go on, that there could be a Part 3, and 4, and on and on… But it is not possible.

  31. Only, of course: it is. For here you are! Still alive. In a place of voluntary ‘retreat’, but waking up slowly to the world again. In this sense, Melancholia is in the end a film ‘about’ the experience of watching a film like this: it is self-reflexive, as any major therapeutic work must be.
  32. The lights come on. Awareness grows that there is a world here / out there. How wonderful, that you can stand up, breathe, talk with or touch your friends with whom you came to see the film, go out into the wide world: you are not stuck forever in a ghastly dream of reason / unreason … The film delivers you back into life, with an enhanced capacity to live and feel, to be. Perhaps, albeit a little haunted, and woken-up, you will now take the chance not to live in ordinary unhappiness, nor in the fated but overcomeable land of melancholia, but will savour life. The way, finally, Justine could and did. The way the world is open to us always doing so, if only we can rise to the opportunity.
  33. If only, that is, we can touch the springs within us and all around us of endless life, in its true (Wittgensteinian) sense…
  34. The real Part 3 begins. Your world. Including: A world to save.