Cambridge, MA. As you might have guessed, I am not a film critic. I go to few films, and the ones I watch on (free) cable TV I watch in bits and pieces, almost never seeing a film beginning to end. Nevertheless, once in a while I do head down to the wonderful Kendall Square Cinema to catch some unusual but intriguing film — the German White Ribbon, the Korean film Poetry, Blue Valentine, and The Tree of Life come to mind as films I’ve seen in the last year or two. (Not the happiest set of films, and you may wonder about my taste. Then again, I did see all the Harry Potter films, though not at Kendall.) On Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, I happened upon Melancholia, a film by the well-known Lars von Trier. This is a film about depression, the debilitating depression of a bride (Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst) in the midst of her tastelessly overpriced and pretentious wedding party and, as the film’s framing story and the focus of its second half, the looming possibility of the end of the world, as a planet named Melancholia appears headed directly for the earth. (Another perfect film for the holidays, you may be thinking...)
I will leave the review of the film to the professionals — other than to say that you really should see it; the last minute alone is worth the price of admission. But what struck me in particular — and why I write — was how for the first two-thirds or so of the film Justine is increasingly unable to act purposely or react appropriately, due to her depression. She is out of synch with those around her, she cannot be or remain serious or engaged in partying or in her career or even in the idea of staying married to her seemingly decent enough new husband. She is out of synch with the world around her, losing ground, in need of more and more help. Everyone thrives, or wants it to appear so, while she languishes.
But in the latter part of the film, as Melancholia approaches the earth and the possibility of the total destruction of our world becomes all the more likely, Justine begins to recover, regain her sense of self. She tunes in, she bathes, dresses, eats, and begins to take over the increasingly dysfunctional household, now paralyzed at the impending doom. Her personal depression, her languor and melancholy, her inability to participate in life in the way others do — suddenly turns out to be her strength, since the world as everyone knows it no longer makes sense or in the long run matters at all. She becomes fascinated by the approaching planet, she moon-bathes in its nightly radiance, she is the one to show her sister and nephew how to dwell quietly and without delusion or cover in the face of the fearsome, beautiful cataclysm bearing down on them.
I suppose the theme is an old one: Justine is in tune with a reality others do not see, from which they hide themselves; she was depressed because reality is depressing; she felt, before knowing why, that the ordinary life of wealth and pleasure and business, partying and marrying, had no point at all, since everything was about to change, absolutely. By ordinary standards, Justine is simply clinically depressed. In a larger perspective, in light of what actually happens, she is right. She has seen what no one else can see.
The point of this tale? I do not have anything useful to say about depression or astronomy or the end of the world, but wish to make another kind of point. I suggest that there is a sensitivity to unseen realities that utterly, radically changes the way some people live, and that makes them seem weird — odd, marginal, useless, a bother — to those who have no inkling of what they feel or see. We need to take this intuition, invisible as it may be, into account, when we judge one another.
Perhaps the subtle intuition of what no one else can see or feel is what the saints are about; they live by a sense of God, the living God, that no one else sees, feels, notices. What is just words to others, is a burning mark on their souls. On a smaller scale, this may also be what most of us experience in some way or another, the intuition that both burdens us and makes us distinct persons – not necessarily by way of depression or in an intensely palpable sense of God, but just some deep, vital connection with reality that changes everything: that slender connection others do not really “get.”
This intuition, hidden from view, could be deep anxiety about ecological collapse; empathy to the point of sleeplessness about people nearby or in far-off places who are hungry and homeless and dying in the millions as I eat my lunch; a deep and holy wrath about injustice toward women in the Church; or an insight into another religion, into Christ's being there too, that changes everything about being Christian. Etc.
To others, such “causes” seem overdone, special pleading, exaggeration, imprudent in the light of sensible apprehensions of reality. Poor taste, bad judgment, faulty doctrine. Time to move on, grow up. But to those to whom such intuitions are given, there is no point in concealing or hiding from them, for they are as real and urgent as the things we see every day.
And so the point of my point: If we cannot understand what drives and burdens and enlivens remarkable individuals around us who care so deeply about things we know and feel only in a vague way, Melancholia might be a reminder that some day, perhaps soon, we will suddenly see what this sense of justice or compassion or imagination is all about. Something will happen to us as individuals, or to the world. In the meantime, we would do well to watch and withhold judgment: it is the ordinary way of living that is the illusion; reality is what shines in the eyes of the sorrowing or ecstatic or wrathful person on the margins of our vision. And so, as Advent begins, we can at least keep our eyes open, and listen.