Some time soon I would like to host a double feature screening of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Both of these 2011 films are experimental, ambitious, sprawling epics by respected auteurs; both juxtapose the cosmic and the intimate; both depict the destruction of Earth, to the lush cacophonies of Germanic classic music; both debuted at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, mere days before Harold Camping predicted a real-life end of the world.
But as similar as the two films are in some ways, they also offer strikingly contrasting visions of what it means to exist in the world. Melancholia, like Tree of Life, vividly depicts man’s flawed, sinful nature and his temporal smallness in the grand scheme of things. But whereas Life offers a hopeful portrait of human potential for redemption and hints at the existence of a meaningful, grace-filled telos in the world, Melancholia offers a bleak, bereft-of-hope portrait of humanity as irredeemably self-destructive and helpless, at best deluded by idealized notions of love and purpose.
The latest film from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dogville), Melancholia opens with a stunning overture, to the music of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, depicting the cataclysmic collision of Earth and a fictitious planet named Melancholia. This sequence, which includes gorgeous slow-mo shots and painterly tableauxs, “gives away” the ending from the outset: the Earth will die, and everything in it. Our foreknowledge of this impending apocalypse colors our perceptions of the family drama that follows—which concerns sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst), Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and their extended dysfunctional family. The juxtaposition of the ridiculous, petty shenanigans of the family and the reality that everything is about to end serves as the film’s central conceit, and it works brilliantly.