Once upon a time, happiness was something to be avoided at all costs. The reason for this bizarre rule of thumb was that true happiness was said to be the sole preserve of the afterlife, a gift given by a loving God in return for our trust and obedience. Life was a vale of tears where our Faith and resolve were tested and tested again. If we were happy then chances were that we had taken our eye off the ball and given in to Satan as happiness-now almost invariably lead to misery-later, an eternity of misery in fact. As a result, happiness was something that happened to other folks once they died. With the Renaissance came a two-fold rejection of God’s feudalism: Not only was life driven by the pursuit of happiness, people were opting for happiness-now over Grace and Salvation-later.
When happiness became the end point of human existence, pain and suffering took on an altogether different character. Under Christianity, pain and suffering had been tangible proof of God’s promise that the meek would inherit the Earth and that worldly happiness is only fleeting when compared to the infinite joy of union with the Godhead. Under the grand ideologies of the Enlightenment’s children, pain and suffering were things to be extinguished either by revolution (surgery) or by reform (chemotherapy). Now our culture no longer sees misery as divine, it sees it as something to be eradicated and avoided at all costs. Every advert screams promises of material and sensory happiness while bookshops explode with self-help guides designed to help you kick the sadness habit. Films, food, books and even sex are commodified, packaged and sold to us as means to greater and more intense forms of happiness. Even the miseries of work become vehicles for happiness as we are encouraged to work harder for bigger rewards and grander promotions. You must have a career. You must be successful. You must be happy. And if you can’t be happy by your own means then the multi billion-dollar neuropharmacology industry stands poised to offer you deliverance. You have no choice… you must comply.
The first half of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is a meditation on the expectation of happiness and how the insistence of others that you be happy can be a source of true and unrelenting misery. The second half of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is about the Earth being destroyed in a collision with a rogue planet. Beautifully shot and filled with wonderful ideas and moments of real human insight, Melancholia is possibly Lars von Trier’s best film to date, but that does not mean that the film makes sense. In fact, much of the film’s greatness lies in its perverse refusal to abide by the rules of its two very different halves.