‘Melancholia’ or: how I try to give a shit in spite of my nihilism

April 25, 2014 § 3 Comments

How frustrating it was to read and listen to the largely unvaried readings of Lars von Trier’s 2011 film ‘Melancholia’. It was either a symbolic expression of the filmmaker’s own experiences with clinical depression or simply another somewhat bonkers melodrama with otherworldly undertones from the Danish enfant terrible. This is not to say that either of those approaches is invalid, certainly not, but the majority of the discussion didn’t seem to deviate much further than depression or general arthouse mayhem. Maybe the conversation was usurped by the hoopla surrounding von Trier’s admittedly clumsy statements about Hitler and Nazism which too fell victim to surface level responses i.e. condemnation and knee-jerk shock rather than being utilised as an entry point to a potentially insightful discussion about the extents to which one can empathise with those who are apparently undeserving of it. But that is an essay for another day.

So. ‘Melancholia’.

A bride in a peri-matrimonial depressive relapse stays with her sister, her sister’s wealthy rationalist husband and their young son after a disastrous wedding reception whose failure is largely to blame on her – the bride’s – poor mental state. Justine, the depressive in question, is deep in it and her sister Claire is trying her very best to be supportive while her husband John’s polite impatience is clear from the get-go. Midway through the film it is made known that a planet once thought to be bypassing earth is in fact on an unstoppable collision course for it. This rapidly approaching doom lays waste to the mental and emotional states of at least two of the film’s four lead characters, Claire and John. The effect of this news on young Leo is somewhat muted if memory serves me well, which – in my mind – seemed in keeping with someone his age.

Now, people have stated that the planet ‘Melancholia’ is a metaphor for the destructive effects of depression on the lives of people struggling with the condition and those within their social orbit. It’s a cute but obvious reading, which is not to say that it isn’t an actual and valid subtext within the film. Another school of thought is that the film explores the psychology of depression and the idea that individuals riding the black steed may be susceptible to extreme pessimism to the point of anticipating a doom that they cannot quite explain or qualify. Apparently, this particular concept was the seed from which the narrative grew in von Trier’s head. So, as per the above, Justine’s utter pessimism – nay – nihilism, epitomised by such acts as her having sex (in dove-white gown and on a golf course green) with a waiter on the night of her wedding reception, ensured that in the face of imminent demise she was by far the most resigned (having always expected the worst) and thus much calmer than most. She could of course simply be depressed, too depressed to care or register much of a response, as opposed to her having “rationalised” and come to terms with her own death and the destruction of all that she has ever known long before said death and destruction actually come to pass. It should be noted that Justine’s brother-in-law John, the rationalist, commits suicide towards the end of the film while his wife Claire takes on the nature of someone in a profound depressive rut, a reverse of the sisters’ roles in the latter half of the picture.

Now, it’s not too much of a stretch to posit that John and Claire represent, respectively, those who place their confidence in the rational and the tangible (knowledge, wealth) and those who place theirs in the sentimental (relationships, love, devotion.) If we choose to accept this idea then the eventual unravelling of these two characters in the face of planet Melancholia suggests that that which many or most people consider meaningful and valuable in this mortal life cannot ultimately withstand the pure spitefulness (query indifference?) of a futile end, whether that end is due to a ravaging cancer or being vapourised by so mindless an event as a planetary collision.

So does that make ‘Melancholia’ a nihilist’s declaration? An “I told you so” fantasy in which all those human with their fickle values and ideals are forced to face the fury of a meaningless, godless universe? That may very well be the take-away, if one chooses to forget the very final moments of the film during which Justine transcends her own severe state of detachment in order to provide a brief moment of solace for her hysterical sister and shell-shocked nephew. As Melancholia’s effect on earth approaches the cataclysmic and everything seems to melt away around them, Justine leads Claire and Leo out into a field. She sits them down and tearfully takes their hands in hers as if suggesting that they spend their last moments cherishing and appreciating that which means most to them, rather than mourning its impending loss. For someone who has spent the previous two hours totally indifferent to everything and all things, this act strikes me as one requiring great strength and selflessness. Sure, the very last seconds could be read in many ways. They could be bracing themselves for unimaginable physical torment. They could be comforting each other and reassuring their loved ones that they are loved for whatever that’s worth. But my impression while viewing the film was that the final seconds were spent in silent, terrified appreciation for the simple fact that they are currently still living and in the presence of those that they love. The key point is that Justine instigates this approach. She slaps some perspective into Claire when all signs seem to suggest that she should be sitting back, laughing cynically to herself while thinking “I told you. Didn’t I tell you?”

So what exactly is my point? What do I think ‘Melancholia’ is about? I’m not at all suggesting that Lars von Trier made the film in order to explore that which I am about to discuss, but these are ideas which the film kick-started my brain into entertaining. The depression analogies, while valid and very likely applicable, were not interesting enough for a film that struck me as having a great deal more on its mind than might appear at face value. Let me continue by asking this: what if you found out that – for a fact – the universe was utterly meaningless and that, while order still coexisted alongside chaos, nothing was of any more significance than that which you personal bestowed on it? What if life was – for a fact – only sacred because humans considered it to be, when necessary? What if the only entity who bore witness to your deeds were people in whose memories you would live on long after they and their memories had…ceased to exist; in whose non-existent memories your refusal or inability to choose right from wrong and love over hate would forever persist? What if you were a nihilist and couldn’t see why anything should matter in and to a universe that seemed indifferent?

It seems that nihilists can express their nihilism in several ways. There are those who wish to take advantage of the fact that this earthly life is like Vegas: what goes on here stays here. There is no external judgement and whatever forms of it one may be subjected to in this life is but a terrier’s bark in the scope of things. The logical approach then is to enjoy life, to exhaust all the sensory pleasures it has to offer. You could chose to take the hedonistic route wherein your quest for pleasure theoretically need not impact anybody but yourself though, seeing as nobody exists in a social vacuum, this would be mildly impossible. One could also take the satanic approach and consider carnal humanity as the true natural state of being with its elements of what might be termed ‘selfishness’, ‘aggression’ and a healthy dose of hedonism, that is to say, unbridled, unsanctified human nature with all its ‘flaws’ (if Satanists would even call them flaws.) One could also consider themselves at the service of cosmic chaos and actively partake in it: where values and ideas are unnecessarily applied, such individuals function as a reminder that nothing is sacred, nothing is hallowed, nothing deserves to be upheld and nothing deserves to be repressed, everything is the same and equally insignificant if the indifference of eternity has anything to say about it. Here we have the true punks of each age, existing until they cease to exist, defiling that which is considered holy; butchering sacred cows and holding aloft the offal. In many ways this approach may be adopted by those in existential despair, acting out against a universe that doesn’t have enough cognizance to give a shit.

But I think there is another philosophy that sits somewhere within the nihilistic spectrum but somewhere on the fringes of it. It is nihilism in that nothing objectively matters, but it isn’t in that ultimate futility need not lead to total disregard for those things which seem to matter to most people. Just as Justine, in those final moments, chooses to indulge those human needs that she has over time allow to deaden within her, so the individual who I’ll call…let’s say…a neo-Sisyphean chooses to live a life based on values and ideals despite their inherent (and ultimately depressing) belief that none of it may mean a thing to anyone or anything one hundred billion years down the track, or even now at this very moment. This, I think, is a tough stance, but a somewhat admirable one. This is what ‘Melancholia’ compelled me to consider.

Vengeance of the duelling swords

April 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

There is a scene in Lars von Trier’s newest work, a scene that to my dismay is much maligned; one which I find myself increasingly compelled to defend, and not even for the satisfaction of some contrarian streak. It’s the kind of scene I expected would set on edge those burdened with white guilt and those fuelled by reflexive non-white indignation, souring every mouth in the theatre and lingering long afterwards like a recent and pungent fart, but not one I expected would be read so superficially, perhaps for fear of appearing to entertain/humour von Trier’s most impish provocation tendencies.

In this scene from ‘Nymphomaniac’, Joe, the film’s titular sex-fiend as embodied by von Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg, recounts an encounter that was borne of her desire to fuck a man with whom verbal communication was not possible. From her window way up in an apartment block in an indeterminate European – possibly British – locale, she spots a group of black men who frequent a certain street corner and who turn out to be African migrants with whose language she is not at all familiar. One particularly burly member of this group appeals to her and, in a conveniently elliptical turn, Joe acquires the services of a man who can translate her very plain sexual request into this fellow’s mother tongue. The man predictably accepts and instructs her via a scribbled note to meet in a hotel room for which Joe, a sexual risk-taker for decades, is totally game. What follows is an odd, farcical couple of minutes which initially threatened to test my knee reflex but which, on further thought, I feel is a wonderful reversal of that which people accuse the scene of endorsing or at the very least perpetuating. As Joe sits on the bed and waits with a nervousness that struck me as being out of sorts for her, the burly African, whose name I do not remember catching if indeed it was mentioned, walks in with a friend in tail, another African whom Joe equally does not understand and did not at all expect. They, the two men, then proceed to…assess Joe…stripping her clothes off and subjecting her lean and small-featured alabaster body to their foreign gazes. They themselves strip nude and, lo and behold, it turns out that they obey the ethnographic laws of penile endowment. Joe is frankly skewered by double entry and shows no discernible signs of pleasure if my memory serves well. At some point during the very unsexy proceedings, the two men both withdraw and get into a bit of a non-translated tiff about who knows what exactly, though it can be deduced that it has something to do with position and who gets the best piece of ass and for how long. In a move that strikes me as very apt but which I suspect strikes many as being very degrading and fetishist, von Trier’s frame centres Joe on the bed, naked, confused and looking utterly vulnerable while in the foreground two occasionally pulsating big black penises confront each other like duelling swords, the heads and torsos of the men to whom they are attached being somewhere off screen.

It’s understandable why the sight of two black males ‘exploiting’ one white female may come across as racially inflammatory, reviving or sustaining the somewhat pervasive idea that one is a perpetual threat to the other, and yes to some extent a degree of exploitation may in fact be taking place with Joe as the victim. Yet in this scene, Joe, being the individual who initially singled out another to satisfy her possibly fetishist if not exoticist fantasies, finds herself confronted with not just one but two versions of that which she may have fantasised about. The big black phallus she possibly swooned over in her daydreams is now made doubly manifest and it is actually threatening, and the men from whom the dicks sprout speak a language she doesn’t understand, and they will, these men – as far as she can tell – skewer her again. While the scene may say nothing to erase or rehabilitate commonly held racial misrepresentations, to say that it does not – at the very least – poke fun at or satirise sexual tourism and jungle fever is to be unfairly critical. At its worst this scene admittedly bears the stench of clumsily executed farce (which may in fact signify a clumsily executed depiction of miscommunication and ‘otherness’), but at its best it is grandly subversive, so much so that it seems to have been drowned out by gallons of aforementioned white guilt and reflexive non-white indignation.

I guess the trouble is further concentrated when Joe, too unsettled by being the subject of marketplace bickering, grabs her gear and slinks out of the hotel room to leave a frame dominated by two occasionally throbbing big black penises. One could argue that this simply represents von Trier’s gleeful indulgence in his own personal racial biases, sure. But it could also be said that this shot simply forces viewers to confront the very stereotypes that are – and I can personally attest to this – surprisingly and bafflingly still quite pervasive. As for the conversation that follows in which Joe implies that calling a black man a ‘negro’ is to simply call a spade a spade, it does not strike me as particularly offensive, one being that art has the right to portray all manner of individuals, racist or not; the second being that the use of the term ‘negro’, while laden with historical baggage that I personally do not understand, ought not negate the commentarial power of the preceding scene. One thing I have learnt about von Trier is that he and his films are often a rambling potluck of ideas and that the tastelessness or unpleasantness of one need not, no, should not detract from the utter succulence of another.

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