The Tree of Life & Melancholia

The Tree of Life, dir. Terence Malick (20th Century Fox) & Melancholia, dir. Lars von Trier (Artificial Eye)

May 2012

Now that these two marvellous films are available on DVD, we can see that they form a perfect pair, balancing each other almost exactly. The Tree of Life is about wondering how everything began; Melancholia is about getting ready for the end.

In Malick’s film, an apparently idyllic American childhood turns out to be a source of endless pain and regret. The family scene is as follows. The spiritually inclined mother believes that the choice in life is between the way of nature and the way of grace, and she wants her boys to follow the latter. The father, however, wants them to follow neither, but adhere rather to his rigidly orthodox code: conventional, restrictive Christianity fused with aggressive individualism. (Let me pause to say that this part is impressively acted by Brad Pitt.) The boys try and make sense of things, despite the confused messages from their parents, but these years are overshadowed by the death of one of them at the age of 19 as an army recruit – news of this tragedy being delivered by telegram at the start of the film.

Much of the narrative is about looking back to childhood and asking where everything went wrong. But it takes us back much, much further. The mother plants a tree – the tree of life of the film’s title – which invites speculation about the story of the garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis: Adam and Eve were denied access to the tree of life because of their pride. Not only that, but in a stunning sequence lasting over a quarter of an hour, we are transported to the very moment of creation, and then given a guided tour of evolution.

Malick shows us human misery in the context of grand, cosmic processes. That might explain his decision to preface the film with a quotation from another Biblical book, that of Job, which tells the story of a good man whom God allows to be tested by Satan in order to see how strong is his faith. The terrible pains inflicted upon him fail to shake his belief, but Job understandably wants to ask God why he allows so much human suffering. God’s reply is to ask a question in return: ‘Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?  … When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?’ In other words: once you’ve understood all the mysteries of the cosmos, you may come back to me and complain about the way you’ve been treated! The film doesn’t necessarily condone this divine rejoinder: it draws on it to help us get outside of our normally limited point of view.

So the film presents us with the way of nature, which it sees as God-given. But what of the way of grace? I won’t spoil the end, but I think I’m right in saying that we are offered a vision of salvation.

On the other hand, Lars von Trier in Melancholia seems to be telling us that what matters is to prepare yourself for the ultimate agony: the destruction of the Earth. If Malick draws on Genesis via Job, von Trier draws on the Book of Revelation. This is an apocalyptic film.

The action takes place in a country house hotel, where a wedding reception is being held. There are family disputes and resentments galore, and repressed rage is evident throughout.  The bride-to-be is riddled with doubts, and suffers from depression. Not only that, but she is obsessed by the idea that a planet, appropriately called Melancholia, is heading towards Earth. So weary is she of life that she almost welcomes the collision. Meanwhile her sister, initially calmly sceptical, is thrown into a state of increasing terror as the film progresses.

In this case, I won’t be spoiling the end by saying, yes, the planet does hit Earth, and yes, everyone is killed. This is made quite clear at the beginning – with the strains of Wagner’s prelude to Tristan and Isolde providing an appropriately doom-laden atmosphere. Let me just say that this final sequence is unforgettable as a representation of what it must be like to face destruction.

So if The Tree of Life puts our lives into perspective by reminding us of our origins, Melancholia does the same by asking us how we will conduct ourselves in the face of the conclusion of everything (which may not necessarily come by way of planetary collision, but which will come nonetheless). By sheer synchronicity, Malick and von Trier have produced at the same moment an astounding pair of visionary films.

Laurence Coupe