Lars von Trier film ‘Melancholia’ is a cinematic total eclipse of the Christian worldview
To watch “Melancholia” — the new Kirsten Dunst movie from controversial Danish director Lars von Trier — is to take a long, hard gaze at what existence would be like if John 1:1-5 was utterly a lie.
Movies and modern culture in general don’t exactly affirm the preeminence of Christ or acknowledge His authorship of all creation and life, to put it mildly. We’ve seen a long, deep slide away from anything resembling a Christian worldview. Yet in “Melancholia,” in which a surreal wedding reception heralds the end of the world, we have a total eclipse of Christianity – not a debunking, but merely a complete absence of its barest hint, as if it had never even been so much as suggested.
The film, which follows a small cast of characters in the last days before a rogue planet smashes into earth, is mesmerizing and visually beautiful, but it is one of the most profound examples I’ve ever seen of what I can only describe as “Despair Porn” — art that revels in gratuitous hopelessness.
Even so, Christians should see this film, which is an honest artistic reflection of what it is to be lost. Christian journalists, especially ones who write about culture, need to see the film too, and confront the fact that culture is closer to synching with von Trier’s perspective than with the Gospel. Reviews I have read of the film have all focused on the psychology of depression and melancholy, but no one seems to be commenting on how profoundly theological the film is. Lines of dialog such as, “We are alone,” are delivered in utter earnestness.
The plot might be about the end of the world, but the film is really about the nonexistence of God and the meaningless of existence. In fact, it is so meaningless that one character declares, “life is evil.” This echoes the director’s own feelings on the matter: In an interview he says, “If it could happen in an instant, the idea appeals to me .. So if the world ended and all the suffering and longing disappeared in a flash, I’m likely to press the button myself.”
Maybe that’s not a surprising statement considering that von Trier was raised by atheist nudists who refused to impose any rules or guidelines on him. All his life he has been taught, in essence: What’s the point of anything? Give him points for honesty, then. His depressed, hollow artistic vision is a horror, but frankly refreshing compared to gleefully hollow and self-centered fare Hollywood typically sends up. The world thinks it is doing fine. Von Trier at least knows better.
Not that “Melancholia” has any particular nobility to it. The main character, played with Oscar-level aplomb by Dunst, is one of the most pathological ingrates in cinema history: She declines to consummate her marriage with her groom, but does commit adultery with a stranger in a golf-course sand bunker, on her wedding night, natch. She oscillates between phony cheerfulness and morose silence, vulnerable sadness and coarse cruelty, indifference and compassion, and none of it particularly matters, because, of course, nothing matters.
As the film progresses and the end draws near, Dunst’s character becomes less depressed and less cruel, while her “normal” sister increasingly frets and falls apart, and the film’s lone optimist (superbly acted by Keiffer Sutherland) proves himself an arrogant fool. In the moment of most intense despair, the most despair-filled person is most at peace. There can be no sadder world view.
How should we respond? Well, Hebrews 11:3, for starters: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” And Hebrews 1:3, concerning the Lord Jesus Christ: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
We are not alone, and life is not evil.
Today I prayed for von Trier by name. I prayed, and do pray, that God would quicken him, that the scales would fall from his eyes, that he would be remade, that he would see Christ, know him and trust him (I feel acute gratitude that God has already done those things for me). I guess that’s violating journalistic neutrality. There goes my invite to Cannes.