Home > Uncategorized > “Tree of Life” and “Melancholia:” Can Films be Philosophical?

“Tree of Life” and “Melancholia:” Can Films be Philosophical?

Janelle and I saw Melancholia last Saturday at Notre Dame’s Browning Cinema. Fittingly, the last time we had been there was in September for a showing of Tree of Life–it was fitting because these two films are perfect companion pieces, in the way that they ask many of the same questions but ultimately arrive at completely different conclusions. Both are centered on the problem of meaning: where is it, how do we find it, or does it even exist? Tree of Life takes its prompt the Book of Job, posing questions like: why do we suffer? Is there such a thing as divine justice? If everyone’s life ultimately converges on death (even the whole planet’s), then how can we make sense of our fragile existence? The movie, in a mosaic of short scenes and poetic camerawork with very little plot, captures the childhood of a young boy, his brothers, his loving mother and his stern father in a 1950s, Norman-Rockwell America. The boy bristles under his father and yet cannot respect his mother, and in voice-overs, he poses questions to God like “Why am I here? Why won’t you speak to me?” The movie ultimately concludes with salvation, a resurrection, of some sort that offers hope that the tenuous ties of family and friends on Earth can be renewed and restored.

Melancholia? Not so quite. Here, the movie, and the question of meaning, is dominated by a threat to all Earthly existence, a rogue planet named “Melancholia” that is hurtling through space and headed directly towards Earth’s axis. Meanwhile, Justine (played brilliantly by Kirstin Dunst) is battling severe depression during and after her wedding day, a lavish disaster that is subtly hilarious for how bad everything goes. These first-world problems are ultimately drowned out by Melancholia’s approach, and as the characters began to embrace (or refuse to embrace) their inevitable demise, the movie’s answer to the question of meaning becomes clearer and clearer as the planet  moves closer and closer: there is none. We are one big cosmic accident, and another accident could wipe us out. Melancholic nihilism is the only rational approach, so deal with it.

Still, this depressing resolution doesn’t stop Lars von Trier (the director) from putting together a visually stunning  depiction of the Earth’s destruction, played first in a prologue and then in the final scene. You cannot help and sit in sublime awe at the sight and thought of the entire planet disintegrating into nothingness. Nor can you help but feel guilty to, that your aesthetic sense is enjoying what can only be described as the ultimate act of violence against life on Earth. Tree of Life also depicts the world’s end (very briefly), but it approaches the question of meaning from the opposite end–rather than defining meaning from the end, Malick explores meaning from the beginning, depicting the creation and evolution of life in a 20-minute sequence that can only be described as the most stunning nature documentary you’ll ever see. This, to me, is the more fruitful approach. If Tree of Life lacks Melancholia’s bombast, it is because life and death is much less bombastic than von Trier’s film. Our lives rarely begin or end with a bang, but instead are patched together with the brief moments and fleeting images that Malick lights up his film with. Perhaps better than any film I can remember (except maybe Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?), Tree of Life captures the experience of recollection and the puzzle-work of memory that forms our identity (the childhood story is framed by Sean Penn, the boy’s adult persona, learning of his brother’s death). It finds life fascinating, while Melancholia can only find it hollow.

Two movies, both driven by artistic directors more interested in experience than plot, both daring to deal with life’s deepest questions…and yet if I’m honest, both never quite answer the questions they pose. Instead, both do a much better job of describing the conditions under which we have to consider these questions (the reality that death is all around us, or that complete annihilation is possible) than trying to offer any idea of the answers we might arrive at. One of my biggest complaints with Tree of Life is that the final resurrection, the reconciliation of family, occurs almost without reason, as if it was simply inevitable.

Perhaps anyone that tries to successfully answer these questions are doomed to fail, and we should simply applaud them for making the effort. Or I wonder if part of the problem is the medium of film itself in trying to speak philosophically. The true power of film, I feel, is the combination of sight and sound that can completely overwhelm us, but this can also be a movie’s Achille’s heel, because its philosophical questions can be drowned out by its own grandeur. There is no time to breath, no time to reflect–we just have to let the current of the movie carry us further down the river. Plus, cinematic sensory overloads can make us too self-conscious of its own experience: a brilliant scene will often subtly remind us that we are sitting in a darkened room, watching something amazing on screen. It tries to direct our thoughts to abstract ideas but we want to stay fixated on the image in front of us. It was a bit ironic, and again comical, at the end of Melancholia, when the planet wipes out the Earth in a climatic rush of sound that leaves you shaking in your seat with a blank screen of emptiness staring back at you…and then the credits roll, everyone picks up their coats, and we leave the cosmic end of Earth to return to our cars hoping our winter batteries still work. Justine’s wedding was supposed to be the pointless exercise in a sea of nihilism, but the movie’s own majesty becomes swallowed up in the banality of everyday living.

Of course, there are philosophical films: Blade Runner comes to mind. But that’s a movie that was more provocative for being more understated and subtle. Tree of Life and Melancholia are gorgeous, gorgeous movies–but you can’t help but feel that both ultimately have to trade depth for that visual pleasure. And I don’t know if there’s any way around that.


Categories: Uncategorized
  1. lachelle
    January 30, 2014 at 12:33 am

    Dallin – I saw this post years ago and remembered the movies. I finally watched Melancholia tonight. Mostly I felt motion sick due to the cinematography, but I liked the movie and your thoughts. Cheers, Lachelle

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