In Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, everyone dies. A newly discovered planet, the titular Melancholia, reveals itself from behind the Sun and crashes into Earth, oblitearting all known life in the universe. von Trier’s opus begins and ends with this image of cosmic catastrophe. It is not a film about preventing the apocalypse or what might emerge in its wake, but about how we life in the interval between finding out about our inevitable destruction and its fufilment. Von Trier likened his decision to assure the audience of the film’s ending upfront to a perverse inversion of the logic of a James Bond film: “In a James Bond movie we expect the hero to survive. It can get exciting nonetheless. And some things may be thrilling precisely because we know what's going to happen, but not how they will happen.”

By bracketing its apocalyptic conclusion, von Trier frees up cinematic space to explore the claustrophobic mental space of his characters. There is no shock, suspense or grandiose spectacle, only the taut negotiation of an already-known calamity. Critic Steven Shaviro went so far as to label the film “a kind of domestic melodrama”. At the epicentre of this drama are von Trier’s two protagonists: the hopelessly depressed Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her well-adjusted sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), inverted images of each other akin to the two planets fated to collide.

The film itself also follows a mirrored structure. In between the two annihilative bookends are two acts named for each sister. The first, “Justine” excruciatingly moves though her wedding day breakdown at Claire’s country estate. Justine’s marriage is an aspirational attempt to attach herself to normality and the good-life fantasy that guides it, but it is an attempt that intensifies rather than alleviates her detachment from all that surrounds her. Claire tells Justine again and again, “You promised me, we don’t want any scenes”, but the day is a parade of disfunction, agitation and alienation, and ends with the marriage being called off.

The film’s second half focuses on Claire, whose steadying presence turns to helpless panic with the news of Melancholia’s arrival. Justine, meanwhile, is strangely calm, reminding Claire that “the Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it”. The doomed world now accords with Justine’s image of it, and she navigates it with lucidity and grace. By externalising her private anguish, global calamity seemingly offers Justine a sense of reprieve. It is her intolerance for ordinary life that allows her to face its collapse. This dynamic draws on von Trier’s own experiences seeking treatment for depression, particularly his psychologist’s reported observation “that depressives and melancholics act more calmly in violent situations, while ‘ordinary, happy’ people are more apt to panic.”

Melancholia is a subtle film, and it would be amiss to describe Justine’s depressive realism as straightforwardly redemptive. Her ability to acknowledge already-unfolding devastation does, however, offer some instruction for our own apocalyptic times. Faced with planetary crisis, it is easy to give in to nihilism or deflect with melodramatic panic, but if we are to face catastrophe head-on, we must also learn to mourn what we have already lost and will still lose.

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