What could be sadder than the idea that the only life in the universe is about to be extinguished? Or perhaps not. But then, what kind of heart could not be saddened by this idea?
Lars von Triers spreads the idea out before us in his film Melancholia: should we feel sad? There is no chance for deliverance in Melancholia, the Earth’s destruction is a purely cosmological matter, a question of physics. It is beyond our control and because of that it does not matter. But still the dilemma stays with the spectators – should we be sad?
The fact is the film is certainly not a tear-jerker, despite the powerful feelings generated by Tristan and Isolde’s tragic love theme, pounding us incessantly with the gut wrenching chords of Wagner’s emotional masterpiece. But it is not a tear-jerker because the characters are hardly endearing and this removes most of us from any audience-character empathy at the moment of the final tragedy. Also the perspective is insular, the characters themselves are isolated individuals which cuts us off completely in any emotional sense from the rest of the world that perishes with them. And this is the brilliant thing in the film’s art – we are alienated from any deep involvement in the tragedy and left with the debate. Should we feel sad? Or, perhaps even – what is the difference between sadness and melancholy? Between sadness and depression?
Von Trier’s film is about depression, with a narrative and composition that is rich in symbolism. Depression itself could be seen as a rejection of the outward experiences with the world as something pointless and absurd. The depressive’s journey is an escape to the world within and von Trier’s is right in suggesting that it is not a fear of an antagonistic world – as is the idea of the naked man alone in nature – but of the absurd human creation we are immersed in that torments the depressive. It is the human specular existence that the depressive flees from not the cold laws of nature.
Von Trier’s film is the tragedy of all tragedies and we are told by the protagonist that it is this tragedy of tragedies which is going to be the great liberator from the evil of life on earth. But through alienation techniques the film is also testimony to the great absurdity of our specular human reality, a tremendous eschatological paradox that tells us that it is impossible to escape from the horror we have created except via our absolute annihilation.
Despite attempts to find religious significance in the film it is deeply nihilistic (but then again all religions are also deeply nihilistic). The depressive’s antagonism to the absurd and pointless must succumb to the absurdity of salvation. If all endeavour is rendered pointless by an Apocalypse, why go on? Why go forward? The only escape from the ridiculous is an autistic regression, an instinctive sinking back into the Uroboric, prenatal state of a pure self-satisfied existence, without will.