As a poetry teacher, I loved Melancholia. I’m always telling my students that in poetry (as in all literature), the best interpretations are the ones phrased in terms of “both/and” rather than in terms of “either/or” — and that’s exactly how Lars Von Trier’s film begs to be read. The film is divided in two parts: in the first half, Kirsten Dunst’s crippling depression threatens to sabotage her fairy-tale wedding, and in the second half, a rogue planet called “Melancholia” threatens to obliterate the earth. The absurdly obvious symbolism of a planet actually called “Melancholia” that might actually destroy the earth is so ludicrous as to demand further interpretation. “Yes,” I can hear myself saying to my imaginary poetry-and-film students, “the planet stands for depression. But are you satisfied with that? What else might it mean?”
The first thing I should point out is that the second half of the film — when the actual end of the world is nigh — feels like a relief. The first half is tense and awkward and upsetting: you sympathize with Justine (Dunst’s character), because you realize that depression is a medical condition and she can’t just think herself out of it, but you also wonder along with her relatives why she can’t just, on this one joyous day, actually be happy. When her sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), tells her to at least put on a smile and go through the motions for the benefit of everybody in attendance — including the groom — it sounds both reasonable and insensitive. This dilemma cuts to the heart of what is, for me, the central problem with weddings: they are supposed to be about things sincerely and deeply felt by the bride and groom, but they generally take the form of elaborate, complicated ceremonies followed by elaborate, complicated parties that seem to exist much more for the benefit of family and friends than for the actual people getting married. What if you wake up in the morning on your wedding day and you’re just not in the mood to deal with all that nonsense? What if you agreed to deal with all that nonsense because your fiancé and your family want it, but you are medically unable to enjoy it? The right thing to do in both cases seems to be to soldier on and pretend to be happy, because ruining your wedding might ruin your marriage and/or hurt or upset your family members. But then, suddenly, there is a troubling absence at the center of the ritual.
American mainstream culture seems able to tolerate “empty ritual” in just about every case EXCEPT weddings. At funerals, we recognize a wide range of “stages of grief,” and it’s perfectly okay if you feel numb or angry instead of properly melancholy. If you are a regular churchgoer, you will sometimes feel religiously moved by your Sunday services, but it’s okay if some weeks you’re there more in body than in spirit. And there are hundreds of less-religious rituals where the divorce between practice and feeling is widely recognized and accepted: my mother, for example, is planning a retirement party for a woman who, it turns out, really doesn’t want a retirement party but is probably going to get one anyway — and she will probably smile her way through it. But the idea of just smiling one’s way through one’s own wedding is unthinkable — whenever a bride in a movie is a tiny bit less than ecstatic about her wedding, it’s taken as a sign that the love in question is not “true” and Dustin Hoffman is likely to pound on the glass shouting her name at any moment, grinding the “false” ceremony to a halt. (My favorite version of this, incidentally, is when Patrick Dempsey literally busts into the chapel on a white horse at the end of the dreadful film Made of Honor. Um, spoiler alert.) And the other side of the coin is that whenever a groom is less than enthusiastic about his impending wedding, he will inevitably “grow up” just in time to undergo the ceremony with wholehearted and authentic feeling. Clearly there are gender dynamics that might be investigated here — the bride has been pushed into something she doesn’t feel, while the groom has been pushed into something he DOES feel — but I’m less interested in that problem than in the way that both these clichés are rooted in a fantasy of absolute authenticity.
One of the most troubling things about Melancholia for me was that Justine’s groom actually does leave her, right in the middle of the wedding reception, because of how unenthused and disengaged she is about the proceedings. He seems to buy into the Hoffman/Dempsey movie-logic that the rest of the film is trying to put into question, which at first just felt like a misstep on Von Trier’s part to me. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s actually not so inconceivable that an otherwise loving fiancé might back out of a wedding under these circumstances — because we are so conditioned by film to think of weddings as absolutely authentic experiences.
In the second half of the film, the question of ritual again resurfaces in the face of the end of the world. This is a circumstance that we have no ready rituals for, because it has never happened before, so we have to make them up. Claire proposes a glass of wine on the terrace, which Justine violently rejects. Instead, Justine gathers up Claire’s child (who would, of course, not have been able to enjoy the bourgeois ritual of the glass of wine) and runs to the forest to gather wood, which they fashion into a makeshift teepee, where Claire eventually joins them. The teepee is an invented ritual: it looks like a ritual, because of its primitivism, and it is endowed by Justine’s performative fiat with magical protective properties. This ritual, unlike the one Claire proposed, was clearly designed with the child in mind: it was meant to include and to comfort him. It also feels more authentic than either the wedding was or the glass of wine would be, because it was tailored to this specific purpose — a unique ritual for an unrepeatable event.
J.L. Austin, of course, has argued that it is precisely the fact of their historical repetition that gives utterances such as “with this ring, I thee wed” their power to make things true in the world. But since at least Wordsworth, we’ve expected “powerful feeling” to take the form of “spontaneous overflows,” which seem difficult to square with the iterative nature of most rituals. This is the kind of inauthenticity that the first half of Melancholia deals with: Justine’s desire to feel authentically leads her to wander out on the golf course in the dark instead of staying at her wedding reception and cutting the cake. But the second half of the film presents a more Durkheimian view of ritual as something that permits, structures, contains, and maybe even produces powerful feelings.
One of the answers I expect my imaginary poetry-and-film students might give if I asked them “what else does the planet stand for?” is “Justine’s wedding.” At first, the prevailing opinion of Melancholia is that it will pass by the earth at an incredibly close distance and provide an exciting (but safe) astronomical spectacle. It seems, itself, like a rite of passage: humanity will have its brush with death but will emerge unharmed. It is eagerly anticipated by Claire’s husband and son, and presumably by many other people around the world. But, like Justine’s wedding, what was supposed to be a transformative “close encounter” turns slowly and agonizingly into a catastrophic collision.
It’s the very externality of the end of the world that makes the second half of the film feel less awful than the first half: unlike Justine’s depression, the planet Melancholia is a real, observable physical object that everybody (eventually) agrees is a huge bummer. Rituals to greet it therefore stand on far less ambiguous emotional ground than Justine’s wedding did. Both Claire’s proposed glass of wine and Justine’s teepee have specific situational goals and reflect specific attitudes toward the end of the world: Claire proposes a classic bourgeois down-with-the-ship attitude, akin to the orchestra on the Titanic, while what Justine offers is something both more imaginative and more sacred. But I don’t think the film comes solidly down on the side of either formal ritual (like the wedding) or spontaneous personal ritual (like the teepee). The wedding scenes are utterly gorgeous, and I think ultimately Von Trier presents the wedding not as a straitjacket from which Justine needs to escape but as an ambitious failed project: both this glamorous, complicated event and the very idea of marital bliss are enormously difficult feats for a person with severe depression. What is easy for such a person is, of course, the end of the world: it seems like something Justine has been expecting. The planet stands for both depression and ritual, then — among other things — and Von Trier asks us to consider the disconnect between situation and emotion in both cases. If ritual is supposed to structure and produce powerful feelings, it certainly presents problems for people whose feelings don’t function in the usual way.