The Melancholia Postulate

What the 2011 apocalyptic film has to say about peace of mind in the face of annihilation

TCD / Prod.DB / Alamy / The Atlantic

I recently watched Melancholia, the perversely lyrical 2011 Lars von Trier film about life unfolding under the existential threat of a planet hurtling toward Earth. I thought of it after a call with a friend I know to be perennially anxious—worried over her health, her career, and every aspect of life that could go wrong. Yet, that day she sounded calm. Despite the chaos and stress of the coronavirus pandemic, she seemed, for once, at ease. She theorized to me that her constant anxiety, perhaps, had prepared her for the current moment. She found a strange peace, as the world ordered itself to match her perception of it. Moreover, despite the quarantine, she didn’t feel so isolated anymore, alone in her own way of thinking. For a chronically uneasy person, global calamity can, oddly, engender companionship: Everyone suddenly feels the way you always have.

The perspective of a catastrophe-minded person thrust into a state of actual catastrophe finds perhaps no better creative expression than in Melancholia. In the face of imminent annihilation, our resident withdrawn melancholic, Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst), seems suddenly at ease, even hyperfunctional, whereas her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), normally deeply invested in the daily tasks of living, turns inept. The inversion anchors the movie, providing rich fodder for a story with few actual plot twists. But the film may seem like a particularly relevant study of human nature today, especially to those who have noticed similar dynamics within the varied responses to the pandemic.

Justine, in today’s context, might be framed as a kind of underground mascot. Widely considered a stand-in for von Trier, she was, at the time of the film’s release, a source of critical interest; this was due in large part to a wide-ranging interview with the director by the writer Per Juul Carlsen that was handed out to critics at early screenings of the show. Carlsen revealed a backstory: Von Trier, before making the film, apparently experienced a bout of depression that yielded a provocative postulate from his therapist, “that depressives and melancholics act more calmly in violent situations, while ‘ordinary, happy’ people are more apt to panic.” In other words, as Carlsen put it, “melancholics are ready for [calamity]. They already know everything is going to hell.”

Ergo Justine, a woman who remains oddly tranquil when things go wrong—even when a minor car crash delays her en route to her own wedding. Claire, meanwhile, waiting for her at the hall, frets. The scene portends the gradual flip of the dynamic between the sisters. As obliteration is nigh, Justine is the one who is affirmed: Before the apocalypse, her worldview is seen as impractical, barring her from playing nicely along with life’s little theatrics, whereas by the story’s end, the mindset underpinning her resistance toward “the game” renders her prepared. Claire, who bought too naively into the fiction of life’s solidity, is ultimately too rattled by the fact of death to act. As the planet hurtles close, Justine devises a plan to comfort Claire’s son, Leo, by building a makeshift tepee, a “magic cave,” to preserve the illusion of safety. Claire, paralyzed with fear, must be led by hand by her younger sister into the abode.

Today too, the imminence of death—a constant fact, suddenly made vivid—might hit one observer differently from another, perhaps in ways that seem unpredictable. The melancholic might thrive; the person who relished the act of living might feel panic at the sudden sight of a small, circumscribed existence, and fall apart.

This question of how humans react under a visualized pressure of death constitutes a steady source of fascination in pop culture. The 2014 Swedish movie Force Majeure considered a similar question. In that film, the quasi-apocalyptic force is an approaching avalanche, which threatens to smother a young family on a vacation in the Alps. The mother stays put, her arms around her children; the father makes a run for it. When the avalanche clears, the family must make sense of its patriarch’s behavior. How, the film asks, does the way one lives in normal times relate to behavior in abnormal times? The wife proves to have been the more realistic member of the duo, whereas the husband, a philanderer and a fantasist who perhaps never accepted the mundane terms of reality, was incapable of facing his own annihilation. In Melancholia as well, a husband winds up a surprise betrayer of his family. Claire’s spouse, John (Kiefer Sutherland), plies Claire with reassurances about the predictions of his pet scientists, yet secretly stockpiles water and oil. Eventually, with the approaching planet growing larger by the minute, he sneaks out as Claire dozes off, and stays gone.

John may share Justine’s realism, but his character lacks her clarity. Justine never pretends to believe in an illusion. Yet, her prescience makes her seem mad. In one scene, she lies naked on a rock, her face serene, as her body absorbs the sinister green light of the planet’s rays. The notion of a “wise fool,” a character whose accurate prophecies render him or her a dismissable outcast, has been around since at least Shakespeare. In the classical world, that archetype is embodied by Cassandra, the Greek mythic figure whose ability to see into the future gives her the sheen of delirium. Cassandra is fated to speak the truth and never to be believed. Justine, who appears to have accepted death even as Claire and John scurry around as though all is normal, might be said to pick up her torch.

In the face of catastrophe, the melancholic Justine (Kirsten Dunst), seems suddenly at ease, whereas her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), normally deeply invested in the daily tasks of living, turns inept.  (RGR Collection / Alamy)

Perhaps Cassandra, too, could be considered a mascot in these times. Today, those who have spent most of their lives learning to manage their compulsions or fears are placed in the disorienting position of seeming to have been onto something. A recent NBC story documents certain riddles facing people with obsessive-compulsive tendencies and anxiety disorders, in a pandemic climate: “Some behold the irony that their daily routine of hyper-cleanliness is suddenly everyone else’s reality, while others feel thrown off by the government’s telling them that to prevent coronavirus spread, they need to do all the excessive cleaning and isolating that they’ve previously tried not to do to control their mental health disorders.” As a New York Times article also puts it, the protocols at play today—to wash one’s hands thoroughly, to religiously don gloves and masks—threaten to throw some people with OCD into “closer orbit” to their disorder.

The implications of the range of reactions to the pandemic likely won’t be fully understood until some time has passed. Steven Schlozman, a child psychiatrist who teaches at Harvard told me that, ultimately, the global crisis may change the way societies think about mental health. “People are going to be examining the downstream effects of this for years to come,” he theorized. Schlozman, who moonlights as an author of apocalyptic young-adult fiction, knows intimately the appeal of disaster narratives over feel-good tales. But studies about the effects of disaster, he told me, also offer a (perhaps more complex) window into the human ability to withstand—even thrive amid—calamity. He pointed to children separated from their families after the blitz of London during World War II as a historical precedent in this matter of potentially meaningful divergences: “It took a toll on some kids but not others.” With the coronavirus as well, a future question for study may concern who was able to better handle the stress of the moment. Not that “psychiatric suffering is a good thing to have,” he cautioned. “But maybe there are certain aspects of certain conditions that predispose people to survive certain scenarios that others are crawling out of their skin for.”

Outside of pop culture, the mental state that can seem well aligned with disaster preparedness is anxiety, which many writers have linked to heightened abilities under pressure. “When we’re thrust into it, we anxious folk can often deal with the present really rather well,” the editor turned health guru Sarah Wilson notes in her book First, We Make the Beast Beautiful. “As real, present-moment disasters occur, we invariably cope, and often better than others. … At funerals, or when I’ve fallen off my bike, or the time I had to attend to my grandmother when she stopped breathing, or whenever a major work disaster plays out leaving my team in a panic, I’m a picture of calm.” In her book of personal essays, So Sad Today, the Twitter poet Melissa Broder argues that “for someone with anxiety, dramatic situations are, in a way, more comfortable than the mundane,” because in such times “the world rises to meet your anxiety.” In a stand-up set, the comedian Aparna Nancherla memorably compared chronic anxiety to a sort of training module for disastrous times: “Anxiety is finally on message,” she said. “If you’re an anxious person, it’s kind of like, ‘Well, this is what we trained for. This is our Olympics.’”

The idea that the poison provides the cure—that a mind can be inoculated against fear, so to speak—exists in various philosophical and religious traditions. The Buddhist meditative practice of maranasati demands that a practitioner meditate on death. In the secular realm, a tradition enshrined in the Stoic philosophy involves a similar practice known as “negative visualization.” In both cases, focus on a feared outcome is thought to prepare one for it, and indeed, can, perhaps counterintuitively, engender a higher state of joy than for someone who refuses to look fear in the face.

From a bird’s-eye view, then, sanity and strength appear to be shifting qualities. Someone usually overwhelmed might discover a hidden strength when the terms of engagement with the world change. In Melancholia, the sisters’ typologies change at surface level. Yet, the question of who the film’s true hero is never really seems unclear. Justine is the first person we see, and the last to command the eye. And while the scenes that unfurl along the way call her judgment into question, by the film’s end her dominance is thrown into stark relief. When she walks Claire to the wooden tepee, Justine enacts a clear inversion of an earlier scene: Claire had led her younger sister to a tub of warm water, hoping a bath would help cure the malaise that seems to paralyze her for much of the movie’s second act.

By the final scene, that malaise looks warranted rather than self-indulgent. Justine was preparing herself for the end. “You have it easy, don’t you?” Claire asks, in a previous scene. The realization of what awaits the world has finally become clear, and the sisters sit across from each other, Justine’s face registering placidity, boredom, even spite (these are sisters after all), Claire’s full of nerves. “Just … imagine the worst thing possible.” Here is when Justine—the mascot for misunderstood seers, the Cassandra of the screen—takes a first step into her new role, into the inversion between the sisters. “That’s right, Clay,” she responds, using her nickname for Claire, in the tone of someone placating a child. “Sometimes it’s easy being me.”