Read: Why boredom affects us so much
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.”