The Melancholia of the middle classes

Lars von Trier’s new film brilliantly teases out the link between the rot of the bourgeois mind and the rise of apocalyptic fantasies.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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It is an unwritten law of modern moviemaking that the more realistic-looking the apocalypse becomes, the less believable it is. Films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 may have bombarded our eyes with a CGI-fuelled glimpse into the end of days, but they were far too daft to make an impact on our hearts and minds. Never had watching the obliteration of mankind felt so tepidly unmoving.

Melancholia, directed by Dogme badboy turned darling of the European arthouse, Lars von Trier, is different. It eschews the big-bucks bulldozing of major cities in favour of showing the apocalypse play out amongst a dysfunctional upper middle-class family in a remote mansion in some unnamed country. And, as bizarre as it may sound, the end result is a properly gripping drama, which tells us a hundred times more about contemporary apocalypitis, about our End Times obsession, than any Hollywood film has managed.

The genius of Melancholia is that it draws a direct link between the soullessness of the modern bourgeois existence and the flourishing of fantasies about the end of the world. Indeed, the apocalypse in the movie is inseparable from the existential disarray of its assorted vulgar characters. It seems almost to be a physical manifestation of the intellectual and bodily lethargy of the lead character in particular – Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a pretty, well-off, cushily employed woman who has just got hitched to a man who looks like one of the hunks from True Blood (Alexander Skarsgård), yet who is inexplicably unhappy. As everyone keeps saying to her, with increasing levels of bemusement, ‘You should be happy’.

In Part 1 of the film, titled ‘Justine’, we watch as Justine survives being the bride in the bourgeois wedding from hell. Skating perilously close to parody, von Trier gives us a mad collection of posh creeps and sexual weirdos. Justine’s dad, for example, played by John Hurt, is obsessed with buxom women called Betty. It’s hard to work out who’s the most obnoxious character: Justine; her mother, played by Charlotte Rampling, who is so wantonly icy she makes the Ice Queen of Narnia look like St Bernadette; or Justine’s brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), who I think is meant to symbolise Capitalism, because all he talks about his how much filthy lucre he has.

It is during Justine’s loveless wedding that we first see Melancholia, a planet that has been hidden behind the sun for eons but which is now on the move. At first, the characters mistake the faint red entity in the nighttime sky for a star, but as the film progresses we discover that it is in fact a planet, vastly bigger than Earth, and heading our way. It’s no coincidence that this celestial object makes itself visible on the evening of Justine’s nuptials – because its progress, even the name that mankind will shortly give it, mirrors her own state of mind. Just as Justine’s loss of joie de vivre is puzzling, so is the sudden appearance of this long-lost gigantic orb.

Part 2 of the film, titled ‘Claire’, focuses on Justine’s sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg). A smart and optimistic sort, and the mother of a young son, Claire wants to live, and thus sees the potential collision between Melancholia and Earth as something terrible. Justine, by contrast, welcomes it, even discovering a new lease of life, one perversely based on her fervent hope that all life might soon be extinguished. ‘Life on Earth is evil’, she tells Claire, as casually as… well, as casually as your average environmentalist will these days denounce the hubris of humankind. Melancholia seems to grow or shrink, move closer to or farther from Earth, depending on whose mood is stronger: hopeful Claire’s or bitter Justine’s.

In intimately tying up End Times with the moodiness of a spoilt rich girl who is massively down in the dumps and seems to be developing ME (that’s what her lethargy mostly brings to mind), von Trier taps into a profound truth about modern-day apocalyptic miserabilism: its origins lie less in real likely events than in the rot of the bourgeois mind and body politic.

All of today’s frequent fretting about the demise of days – or ‘global warming’, ‘peak oil’, ‘the tipping point’, to give it some of its deceptively secularist monikers – likewise springs from the existential crises of influential sections of society. It is decadent, self-pitying bourgeois thinkers and activists, middle-class miserabilists, real-life Justines, who have fashioned the idea that we are heading towards certain doom, and in every single instance it is their own inner turmoil that has led them to embrace such fiery fantasies. Just as Melancholia seems to bulge and hum in tune with Justine’s moral self-immolation, so today’s warnings about climatic catastrophe always reveal tonnes more about campaigners’ narcissistic angst than they do about what will happen to Earth and us in 2020 or 2050 or whenever.

Sometimes, the sons and daughters of the well-off and well-connected will unwittingly let slip that their apocalypitis is All About Them. So the unfathomably wealthy green David de Rothschild says he first got serious about climate-change campaigning during a jolly to the North Pole, when ‘I felt like nothing more than a speck of dust on the endless horizon’. Franny Armstrong, director of the green ‘documentary’ The Age of Stupid, admits that for someone like her, ‘a member of the MTV generation’, it’s almost a relief that climate change has helped to make life ‘so much more meaningful than what was planned’. Recently, a bevy of implacably middle-class young hacks were taken on a freebie trip to the Arctic by a green group, and all of them dutifully filed newspaper columns about their Damascene conversions to green apocalypse-fretting, because ‘there’s nothing like a glacier crumbling into the sea in front of your eyes’ to remind you that the end of the world is nigh, intoned one.

Just as von Trier’s wayward planet of Melancholia seems to mould itself around Justine’s moods, so today’s climate-change hysteria always seems to encapsulate at-sea rich kids’ feeling that life is losing its point and their view of people (Other People, that is) as dirty and dangerous. In one of the more controversial scenes in the movie, Justine writhes naked and with undisguised glee in the nighttime light cast by Melancholia upon Earth. But is that really such a weird image at a time when, day in, day out, we’re snowballed with eco-porn about coming floods and storms of locusts written by people who clearly get some kind of kick from doom-dredging? It is tres amusant that Europe’s cultural elite is heaping praise upon von Trier’s film (even if much of it is deserved), because this movie looks to me like a sometimes stinging exploration of the cultural elite’s own superbly narcissistic habit of magicking up ‘coming apocalypses’ which always seem perfectly to reflect their own fears and prejudices and desperation for some Day of Judgement momentum in their increasingly purposeless lives.

The final 10 minutes of Melancholia contain some of the best special effects I’ve ever seen, way more subtle yet far more believable than the end-of-world fare dished up in apocalyporno films like 2012. The intense noise and oppressive growth of Melancholia (the cinema I was in felt like it was shaking) will nearly convince you that life as we know it has just ended – and that it’s all down to a bourgeois princess’s desire for doom, her loathing of ‘life on Earth’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

See the trailer for Melancholia:

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