Author’s note: From 2011 to 2012, I collaborated with my peers on a project called Cultural Transmogrifier, an online magazine dedicated to pop culture. With the project now defunct, I’ve dredged up my old essays from the site to share with you here.
Part I: The Emptiness of Ritual and Absurdity
On her wedding night, the bride tells her husband she needs a minute. She goes outside onto the golf course. A young man whom she just met for the first time at her reception follows her. She turns to face him. Pushes him down and sits on top of him. He tries to get up but she pushes him back down, unzipping his pants and splaying her wedding gown so she can hump him vehemently.
This scene out of Lars Von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia surprised and slightly confused me. Although von Trier’s depiction of the wedding reception makes it clear that the bride Justine (played by Kirstin Dunst) is a deeply depressed individual—overwhelmed by the reception, she repeatedly slips away and isolates herself, at one point taking a bath during which she falls into a catatonic stupor—still, I couldn’t quite figure out Justine’s motives.
It’s not an issue of Justine simply not being sexually attracted to her husband. Earlier during the reception, they playfully kiss and fondle one another in a secluded room. But when the wedding night officially begins and he carries her over the threshold, Justine finds herself incapable of having sex with him. Why? And what prompted her to commit an act of infidelity on the day of her wedding? This very act initially made me question my feelings toward the character. She seemed self-involved, disrespectful, and cruel. I wasn’t sure I could sympathize with her.
Yet, when I read an interview with von Trier pertaining to “The Empty Rituals of Reality,” something clicked and I understood this scene perfectly. Of Justine, Lars von Trier says, “She’s a melancholic by the grace of God, she has a hard time finding her place in the world . . . [and] assuming all its empty rituals.” As von Trier goes on to explain, “A wedding, after all, is a ritual. But is there something beyond the ritual at all? There isn’t. Not to her.”
It’s not just Justine’s wedding. It’s everything. Although we might commonly associate ritual with religious customs or elaborate ceremonies such as weddings, we can also understand ritual to pertain to both the secular and mundane—things done in accordance with social custom, i.e. ritual handshakes, ritual background checks. In this latter sense, ritual can pertain to almost anything we do.
Justine’s depression stems from the perspective that most behavior we engage in is ritualistic and her inability to see worth in such ritualistic behavior. If behavior is ritualistic, it is done in accordance with custom, rather than out of genuine feeling. Actions then, lacking sincerity, are empty. But the emptiness for Justine goes beyond the absence of sincerity. She believes that this emptiness encompasses all of life. What does this emptiness signify? An absence of inherent value.
This isn’t our commonsense understanding of the world, though, is it? We imbue all aspects of life—family, friends, enemies, weddings, education, graduations, work, sex, attraction, and on and on—with value, positive or negative. It’s easy to think that many of these things inherently contain value. We tend to treat sex, for example, as though it’s inherently sacred. The disdain with which our society views adultery and infidelity indicate a belief that sex is meaningful act we must respect. And maybe it is.
But Justine’s understanding of the world suggests that it isn’t. To her, sex is simply an arbitrary act that contains no more significance than holding someone’s hand (although it might be more enjoyable, that doesn’t make it more significant to Justine). Infidelity, then, is meaningless—it’s not inherently immoral as we tend to believe; further, nothing is immoral because immorality does not exist. So sex’s value doesn’t come from within; rather, it comes from an external imposition—we give it value. And because of this, because we imbue various aspects of our lives with meaning, because those aspects don’t contain meaning without us, Justine can’t appreciate life. For her, value is only true if it’s inherent. And unfortunately, inherent value does not exist for her—or at least, it’s hard to come by. She believes it’s a myth that most people have mistakenly and ignorantly subscribed to.
Justine’s attitude towards life echoes Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Camus says, “A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger … This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.”
This is precisely Justine. This world is completely unfamiliar to her. Mentally and emotionally she feels a severance from this life, making her feel utterly alone, an alien, a stranger on Earth, and she thus feels both she and life, are utterly absurd:
- Utterly or obviously senseless, illogical, or untrue; contrary to all reason or common sense; laughably foolish or false of life. 2. The quality or condition of existing in a meaningless and irrational world.
For melancholics such as Justine, the absurdity of ritual is painstakingly clear and said absurdity threatens to consume them. With this in mind, it is perhaps easier to understand why Justine feels incapable of consummating her marriage. It’s a ritual, and ritual makes her feel sick, nauseated, terrified, isolated, and thus uncertain of herself. Consummating a marriage on a wedding night is a societal custom. Millions of women have done it prior to Justine. It’s what everyone expects a bride and groom to do. So if Justine were to consummate her marriage on her wedding night, she would be fulfilling a role that has been set out for her. If a ritual is empty, engaging in it makes her complicit in perpetuating that emptiness.
In a way, committing adultery allows Justine to temporarily avoid being swallowed by absurdity. She’s not fulfilling a role. No one told her to cheat on her husband; she decided it on her own. It’s an act of defiance, defiance against what everyone tells her she is supposed to think and feel and believe. Through infidelity, she vehemently rejects a value system that has always alienated her.
Part II: Longing for Death
Justine’s depression deepens as the film progresses until it becomes utterly debilitating. She can’t even do something as simple as getting into a cab and needs to call her sister Claire for encouragement. Her depression is so severe that Claire asks her to move in so she can look after her. She lies in bed all day, only getting up when her sister coerces her to eat and bathe. In an attempt to cheer up Justine, Claire makes meatloaf for dinner—Justine’s favorite—but upon her first bite, Justine starts sobbing because “it tastes like ashes.”
Yet, Justine seems to get a hold of herself when she learns about Melancholia—a planet ten times the size of Earth on course to collide with it. Von Trier explains that Justine, who has undoubtedly always felt “a stranger” on Earth, “feels more at home when the world draws near its end.” He goes on to say, “If you ask me, she is longing for shipwrecks and sudden death, as Tom Kristensen wrote. And she gets it, too. In a way, she succeeds in pulling this planet from behind the sun and she surrenders to it.”
This coincides perfectly with Camus’ philosophy, which says of absurdity, “there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death.” But what exactly is this connection? To say that a depressed individual such as Justine longs for death simply because she hates life is too simple. Consider the fact that she doesn’t kill herself, and, as far as we know, has not tried to kill herself. In a certain respect, she embraces her depression and thrives in it. Although she thinks most of life lacks value, she clearly hasn’t given up hope that some value exists. She chooses depression because she sees value in it—it is, perhaps, the only things she sees value in. As von Trier explains,
She is longing for something of true value. And true values entail suffering. That’s the way we think. All in all, we tend to view melancholia as more true. We prefer music and art to contain a touch of melancholia. So melancholia in itself is a value. Unhappy and unrequited love is more romantic than happy love. For we don’t think they are completely real, do we?
Through her depression and indulgence of her pain, Justine elevates herself above others, and imbues her own life with meaning. Because for her, perhaps, the pain is the only thing that feels real. Consider that emotional pain comes from within. That pain, unlike most other things, is inherent. And for some reason, containing any quality inherently seems to contain real value—value that Justine is better prepared to accept than that which is externally ascribed. The internal life feels more tangible to her than the external world. So she longs for “shipwrecks and sudden death” because of the pain and sorrow irrevocably tied to them.
When the external world finally presents something that matches the internal chaos that has plagued Justine for so long—the impending collision of Melancholia with Earth—Justine’s depression begins to lift. She no longer has to revel in her pain, because the external world has finally presented her with a tragedy that supersedes her own. What could be more devastating, and ultimately more meaningful, than the apocalypse, the destruction of civilization, to be a part of something so magnificent?
Part III: Can I Get Some Comic Relief, Please?
Admittedly, Melancholia is so dramatic it’s overwhelming. Without comic relief, the body and mind simply can’t handle the inordinate melodrama inundating the film. The mind, then, must employ some sort of defense mechanism to filter the emotional weightiness. So while watching the movie, I couldn’t help laughing at things that I actually found tragic. For example, I guffawed when Claire had a panic attack. Terrified because she knows they’re all going to die, she grabs her little boy and runs from here to there fruitlessly as golf ball-like hail bombards them. The anxiety and claustrophobia—the sensation that there’s nowhere to hide or escape to, feeling even the world itself isn’t big enough and traps you—that Claire experiences is clear and haunting and heartbreaking. But I laughed.
But perhaps von Trier wants us to laugh. Perhaps he inundates his film with melodrama, with sad faces, chaos, and symphonies (Richard Wagner’s dramatically intense “Tristan und Isolde” plays throughout the film), so that we can’t escape. We feel as claustrophobic as the characters and we can’t escape the anxiety that they feel—the anxiety that goes hand in hand with knowing your death is imminent. But to von Trier, this anxiety is absurd. Justine, of course, sees the absurdity as well. While her sister panics, she stands calmly by and watches. But those who don’t see the absurdity as readily as Justine need to be smothered with melodrama for said absurdity to manifest.
So I’m positing that von Trier purposely overwhelms us into laughter so that maybe, we will see the absurdity that he sees. That Justine sees. And that really, every gesture, every word, is inherently empty, and perhaps because it’s empty, can be funny because you don’t have to take anything seriously.
I imagine him playing god, sitting above his creation, looking down on his characters, and laughing at the panic they feel from the death he planned for them. Laughing that they think their lives matter. Laughing that they think death matters. That anything they do matters. But how sad is that?
What doesn’t make a whole lot of sense about this scenario is that it seems contradictory, even hypocritical. Von Trier echoes Justine’s belief that life is evil: “Life is a wicked idea. God may have had fun at creation, but he didn’t really think things through.” Von Trier’s statement suggests God, if there is a God, is cruel and perhaps sadistic. He thrust human beings into a meaningless existence, one which they ambivalently hate and cling to. They thus fear and have difficulty embracing imminent death which, really, is preferable to life. Yet, von Trier, as the creator of Melancholia, as the god of it, does the same thing to the characters he creates that he seems to disdain God for doing to us—worse, because he sends them into a panic driven frenzy by threatening them with an enormous planet.
And, if Justine’s qualms with God, if von Trier’s qualms with God, stem from God imposing a rigid value system on us, from telling us that we must believe life and all it contains has an underlying purpose, why is it better for von Trier to impose a value system just as rigid upon his creation? Upon us? Isn’t he, in some ways, trying to manipulate us by overwhelming us into laughter? By attempting to make us believe our lives contain no value and are fundamentally worthless—for that’s a value system too. Is von Trier being hypocritical, or ironic?
Possibly, von Trier’s Melancholia represents an ultimate acceptance, with von Trier embracing life for what he believes it to be and embracing God for whom he believes the Supreme Being to be, rather than attempting to change either.
Part IV: Understanding Melancholia through Louie
I finished Melancholia feeling ill-at-ease and despondent. I can understand the thoughts and feelings of someone like Justine or von Trier. I would go so far as to say I was once a melancholic and still have a proclivity for melancholy. This film, then, raised old feelings of absurdity and emptiness I try everyday to disavow.
The film implies that melancholics, perhaps, have no choice but to be melancholics. As von Trier said, Justine is a melancholic “by the grace of God,” suggesting that melancholia is her true nature (perhaps an ironic suggestion given my earlier hypothesis that he believes nothing is inherent). Justine’s attempt to forsake her melancholia by engaging in social norms (i.e. her wedding) fails, which further indicates that Justine simply cannot adjust to our society’s value system. She has no choice but to live a pained existence, to wander the earth without ever seeing significance or beauty in it.
But I reject that melancholics have no choice but to be melancholics. And that kind of thinking—that there is no choice—is juvenile. Melancholia, in itself, contains, inherently, seeds of juvenility. To be juvenile is to be self-involved. To think you are bigger than the world. That you are completely separate from others and that no one has experienced or felt the things that you have experienced.
I am not criticizing anyone for ever having experienced this particular type of melancholia. I’m criticizing the preference for it. The longing “for shipwrecks and sudden death.” The belief that feeling pain about your life makes you superior to other people and somehow makes your life more valuable. I am rejecting the masochism that goes hand-in-hand with such beliefs, and I am rejecting the sadism from which von Trier’s apocalypse stems—his seeming joy at watching his characters panic over their impending deaths.
All of this makes me think of Louie C.K., who I am convinced, contains all the secrets of the universe in that wonderful brain of his. In the episode “Eddie” of Louie, Louie runs into his old comedian friend who in some ways is similar to von Trier’s Justine. Eddie seems to disdain life and the emptiness he believes lies behind everything. What does it matter what he does? Who he offends? Everything is empty anyway. And to him, death is no sad thing.
So he tells Louie that he’s going to kill himself. “I got nothing. I got nobody. I don’t want anything. I don’t want anybody. And that’s the worst part, when the want goes. That’s, that’s bad. I mean suffering is one thing, or not having is one thing. But when you just don’t care anymore. I’ve gone soft in the last three pussies I’ve been in.”
Like Justine, there’s nothing in this life Eddie believes can bring him happiness. Slowly, the meaning we ascribe to things erodes—even sex becomes inconsequential, no different than something as mundane as brushing your teeth. He, too, has become a stranger. Life has been divested of illusions and lights. He explains his intent to commit suicide matter-of-factly. He sees nothing tragic in death, or even in suicide. Rather, death can only be liberating, just as Justine believes.
But Louie’s response to Eddie reflects the juvenility of melancholia:
I got my reasons to live. I worked hard to figure out what they are. I’m not just handing them to you. Okay, you want a reason to live, have a drink of water and get some sleep, wake up in the morning and try again like everyone else does. (Eddie: “Tough love.”) No, no love. More like tough not giving a shit anymore, Eddie. If you wanna tap out cause your life is shit, you know what, it’s not your life, it’s life. It’s life is bigger than you, if you can imagine that. Life isn’t something that you possess. It’s something that you take part in, and you witness.
Eddie laughs at Louie, finding his stake in life comical. Because of course imbuing something with meaning that inherently lacks it is absurd to melancholics. Although Louie seems to make no headway with Eddie, I think he’s right.
It seems to me that many comedians—Louie C.K. is a prime example—are melancholics too. They must feel that “divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting,” the feeling of absurdity. Many of their jokes and bits highlight this absurdity. But if comedians like Louie are melancholics, they differ from Justine and Eddie because they don’t actively choose melancholia. They create their own meaning in life and find value in that meaning, perhaps more value than they would find in any inherent purpose to life if one existed, because they created it.
Here’s the point: Even if “rituals are worth nothing,” that does not go for everything, as von Trier says. Even if you have a proclivity to believe that all of life inherently lacks value, there’s nothing wrong with externally imposing value upon life. Life can be and often is shit for everybody. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find joy in it, or that we can’t extract value from it. Ascribing worth to life is simply part of the struggle of being human. Because life is not something we are given, but rather something we participate in, it’s our responsibility to take part, to wake up every day and try again to find value. And von Trier would do well to acknowledge that.