I recently made some time to sit down and watch two films that curiously echo each other. Both utilize the plot device of another planet meeting the earth, around which the characters' lives spin in smaller and smaller circles. But where the two stories diverge is the vast space between hope and despair.
I started with Lars Von Trier's Melancholia - a somber contemplation of existence on the cusp of nothingness, revolving around the lives of two sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) as a massive rogue planet emerges from hiding behind the sun and threatens to collide with the earth.
Von Trier's film is suffused with a lingering air of anomie. It opens with surreal, slow-motion vignettes of his main characters: a bride tethered by wizened branches rising menacingly from the ground. A mother clutching her child as her feet sink in a marshy bog. A close-up of a woman's impassive face as birds fall lifeless from the sky behind her. The movie then segues into the first of its two chapters, each named after the two sisters. Chapter 1 brings us the beautiful Justine (Dunst) arriving late at her lavish wedding reception. Weddings and their ensuing receptions are traditionally joyous occasions yet Justine seems bent on destroying hers. She stares distractedly into space while guests seem desperately determined to enjoy themselves. She disappears at key moments in the carefully-planned event, leaving everyone perplexed and embarrassed. She breaks out into crying fits then alternates with giddiness, driving her sister Claire (Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) into angry exasperation.
Justine's maddening behavior is made clearer in Chapter 2, which focuses on sensible sister Claire's steady descent into a mental breakdown. Claire's agitation is fueled by her dread of the strange, fearsome heavenly body bearing ever closer down on earth, while her husband John - an amateur astronomist - is giddy with excitement, and Justine, hobbled by depression, is distant and detached.
With the exception of the terrified Claire, the characters make little mention of the incoming planet - the titular Melancholia - looming bigger and bigger in the sky, so caught up are they in the desperate minutiae of their lives. Or perhaps, the focus on seemingly trivial matters - the stubborn insistence of the main characters in steadfastly maintaining the daily, mundane pace of their earthy existence - is a defensive stance against the growing backdrop of possible annihilation from the heavens.
It makes some sense, I suppose, that the best way to defy death is to simply continue living.
The second film, Another Earth, is an independent effort (directed by first-time feature film director Mike Cahill) that won the Special Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance film festival. Here, the filmmakers explore the questions of possibilities and variances in our lives, as a duplicate Earth - along with a duplicate you, living, perhaps, a duplicate life - appears in the skies.
The mood and tone in Another Earth is bleak and dreary, reflecting the psyche of its main character, Rhoda (played by co-producer and writer Brit Marling), as she tries to return to a normal life after serving time for killing a composer's family in a car accident. Rhoda - who had won acceptance in MIT's astrophysics program just before her life-changing accident - chooses to literally live a life of drudgery, cleaning urinals in her old high school. Perhaps she hopes that with enough bleach and scrubbing she can erase her sin. Her need for atonement leads her to a chance encounter with the composer whose family she killed, now living in squalor as a drunken recluse. She misrepresents herself as an employee of a cleaning service, and proceeds to literally and figuratively clean up the composer's life. As they inevitably grow closer - much like the twin earths - Rhoda agonizes how to reveal the role she played leading to his current existence.
All the while, the other earth hangs tantalizingly in the sky, an enigma whose mysteries start to be revealed 3/4ths of the way through, bearing the possibility that there might be another Rhoda who didn't suffer the consequences of an unfortunate series of events - and by extension, the possibility that somewhere on that other earth, the composer is living a happier life with his family intact and alive.
Another Earth is about another chance to set things right in our lives.
Melancholia is about diminishing chances left in them.
Which makes me ask you these questions:
If you were to meet a duplicate you living another life, do you think he would be living a life better than yours ?
And, more pressingly for this banner year, what would you do if there was a great possibility that the end of all life was coming closer and closer ?