Phenomenological Eschatology: The Personal Apocalypse in Recent Cinema

This survey makes no attempt to comprehensively enumerate every recent film to address the apocalypse.  Rather, I have chosen four films released over the span of eighteen months which, I feel, are representative of the nebulous and autonomously co-dependent school of cinematic thought I have christened Phenomenological Eschatology.  Those films, in order of release, are:

  • Perfect Sense (written by Kim Fupz Aakeson, directed by David Mackenzie, premiered January 2011)
  • Melancholia (written and directed by Lars Von Trier, premiered May 2011)
  • 4:44 End of the World (written and directed by Abel Ferrara, premiered September 2011)
  • Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, premiered June 2012)

All four of these films can be said to exhibit a phenomenological proclivity insofar as they predominantly ignore any global consequences of the apocalypse in favor of a concentrated focus on the ensuing actions of their protagonists and those immediately circumjacent.  As defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Phenomenology is “the study of structures of experience, or consciousness… as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view.”  To further define and explore this concept as it applies to the cinema, each film is commodious to a different subset of phenomenological concern; when the films are discussed chronologically with regard to this rubric, they present to us a convenient narrative delineation of the tenets of Phenomenological Eschatology that blossoms from its most categorically practical terms and presumptions out to its subsequent macrocosmic apriorisms.  We will conduct our inquiry accordingly.

The first film, Perfect Sense, is not about the “apocalypse”, per se; that is to say there is no one moment wherein the Earth and all of its inhabitants are simultaneously destroyed.  Rather, the film depicts a worldwide pandemic that robs all men and women of their senses, one by one.  Eva Green plays Susan, an epidemiologist who is studying the bizarre occurrences.  Unlike Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s bio-fright thriller from the same year, Perfect Sense is not at all concerned with the mechanisms of emergency response; rather, Susan’s occupation is utilized by the filmmakers as a convenient and expedient means of providing context and explanation.  By using scenes of Susan at work as an expositive, the film slyly introduces the universality of the crisis while still maintaining the subjective vantage of its protagonist.

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There is one scene of Susan working which is of particular note.  Early in the film, she is called into her laboratory by a colleague who would like her to meet with one of his patients.  The patient, after calling his wife in a rare moment of introspection and despair, has lost his sense of smell; Susan has been called in because there have been dozens of similar cases reported across the globe with no discernible connection among the victims.  Little is known about the the patient’s disease, least of all how it is transmitted; fearing it may be viral, the hospital has him quarantined, only able to see his doctors through a pane of glass and hear them through an intercom.  After interrogating the increasingly irate patient, Susan switches off the intercom to confer with her colleague.  Suspecting he can no longer be heard in the next room, the patient asks, “Is my voice still out there?”  This is an interesting choice of words, highlighting the break between one’s subjective reality and that of any of an infinite number of unique Others, each with their own inalienable and impregnable reality as defined by their metaphysical perspective.  That is to say, Dasein — the phenomenological conceit defined by Martin Heidegger as the verity of a being’s existence as determined by said being’s ability to perceive and contextualize it — makes no accord for an entity which it does not perceive, regardless of that entity’s ability to be perceived.  By asking, “Is my voice still out there?”, the patient is acknowledging that the existence of the entity of his voice — with regard to the Dasein of Susan — is reliant upon her ability to perceive it, not its ability to be perceived.

Kim Fupz Aakeson’s screenplay goes on to illustrate this subjectivity of meaning in ways both direct and indirect.  In the film, the loss of each sense is presaged by a sudden outpouring of emotion; the emotion that precedes the loss of smell is despair, in which “people are hit with all they’ve lost.”  Susan’s voice-over describes the loss of smell — termed SOS in the film, an acronym for Severe Olfactory Syndrome — as tragic primarily for the personal associations that an individual may have with his or her perception of a particular scent.  “The greater loss are all the memories that are no longer triggered,” she tells us, as “smell and memory were connected in the brain.  Without smell, an ocean of past images disappears.”  Surely objects still emit aromas, but with no one to perceive them, the vast network of meaning which has been constructed around them vanishes.

Later in the film, after having entered into a romantic relationship with Michael (Ewan McGregor), a gourmet chef at the restaurant across from her apartment, Susan asks him to play a game called “Make Me Special”, the rules of which are simply “tell me something other people don’t know about you.”  In this game, the goal — the achievement of one’s “special”ness — is essentially an attempt to align the perspectives of two distinct beings while still acknowledging and supporting their individual autonomy: one can think of Susan and Michael as two sets in a Venn diagram, with Make Me Special being an exercise to increase their area of intersection.  David Mackenzie, to further illustrate this point, later utilizes a shot favored by Ingmar Bergman (and also used memorably by David Lynch in Mulholland Drive) in which the faces of his two protagonists are aligned at a ninety degree angle, thus appearing as a single visage sharing a nose, a mouth, and one eye and ear each from the both of them.

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This can be taken as a metaphor not only for the merging of their lives as a romantic couple, but also for the purpose of eschatological cinema in general.  One is reminded of the epigram that concludes Stanley Kubrick’s masterwork Barry Lyndon: “[G]ood or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”  Death is the great and universal equalizer, befalling all living beings without prejudice; how and when it happens is thus more pertinent to the narrative of one’s life than the fact that it does happen.  By bringing crisis or death to the whole of humanity at once, the artist is able to negate those variables, providing an ideal canvas to illustrate and discuss the essence of THE human condition, rather than that of ONE human’s condition.

Also telling of the filmmakers’ subtextual intent is the text painted above the entrance to Susan’s apartment, visible briefly in an early scene.  The admonishing “KEEP DOORWAY CLEAR” has faded over time to the point that the C and the L have disappeared completely, leaving the foretelling, if futile, advice “KEEP DOORWAY EAR”.  Consider for a moment William Blake’s famous aphorism from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”  A phenomenological reading of this statement would be direct and definitive, insisting that the extent of our awareness of and engagement with the whole of existence is invariably limited by our means to experience it; one can no sooner determine the relative truth of another being than one can simultaneously view the opposing halves of a sphere.  We can acknowledge a point as being fixed upon a three dimensional plane, but so too must we acknowledge that the viewer’s distance from and orientation to that point will affect the viewer’s perception of the point as both an individuated and a contextualized entity.  Every “thing” is, in fact, infinite insofar as there are an infinite number of ways to perceive it; that we acknowledge the primacy of our perspective is at the heart of Dasein.

It is important, then, to note that the second film of concern to us, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, opens with a close-up of its protagonist Justine (Kirsten Dunst) opening her eyes.  Melancholia, in the film, is not only a description of Justine’s mental state, but is in fact the name of a recently discovered rogue planet which is expected to collide with Earth in a matter of weeks.  Any ambiguity about the impending catastrophe is clarified immediately in the film’s prologue through a series of breathtaking tableaux vivants depicting the Earth’s final moments.  Set to the prelude from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, the stately celestial “dance of death” (as the film will later refer to it) is beautiful even as it devastating, recalling the balletic movements of the planets in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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This Overture, as the film identifies it, functions similarly to the overture in a musical work, introducing characters, scenarios, and themes from the film.  As such, it succeeds as an impressionistic miniature of the film’s thesis, depicting the vivid interiority of the events Justine will experience throughout the narrative as well as establishing the planet Melancholia as a literal depiction of what phenomenological thought would identify as Justine’s “life-world,” or the unique subjective reality that she, as an individual, creates from her perspective and relation to the pre-existing, external factors that define her existence.  Melancholia, then, though it exists within the fictive world of the film as a tangible entity, is in fact a manifestation of Justine’s Dasein, her being-in-the-world, and is indicative of the filmmaker’s belief in the totality of the individual’s phenomenological existence.

In addition to Justine, the Overture introduces two characters who will prove significant to Justine’s arc throughout the film: her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire’s young son Leo (Cameron Spurr).  When first seen, all three are visible standing in line with one another on the grounds of Claire’s husband John’s (Keifer Sutherland) massive estate.  Each is positioned directly underneath a celestial body — Justine, in her wedding dress, underneath Melancholia; Leo, underneath a half moon; and Claire underneath the Sun.  Justine’s association with Melancholia will be further elaborated upon throughout the course of the film, but it is worth noting this visual correlation within the context of the Overture alone.  As previously mentioned, the film’s very first shot is of Justine opening her eyes — her world opens analogously to that of the film.  The Overture ends with Melancholia colliding with the Earth; being the larger planet, Melancholia appears to literally engulf the Earth, much as Justine’s clinical melancholia will engulf not only her own life, but those of her family as the movie progresses.  At another point in the overture, Claire can be seen carrying Leo across the golf course on John’s estate, her legs sinking into the Earth; though it will be specified several times throughout the film that the golf course contains eighteen holes, the flag in this tableaux indicates that it takes place at the nineteenth hole.  Claire and Leo, then, exist both as Earthbound ancillaries to Justine as well as metaphorical extensions of her life-world, extending beyond the corporeal boundaries their observable existence to occupy a theoretical space of Justine’s Dasein.

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Excluding the Overture, Melancholia is broken into two chapters, each named after one of the sisters.  The first chapter, “Justine”, depicts the reception following Justine’s wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), hosted at John’s estate.  Though the approach of the planet Melancholia is not directly addressed in this chapter, what transpires can be interpreted as a microcosmic summation of Justine’s being-in-the-world which has led her to a state of despair, or melancholia.  Her parents, played by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling, are separated; with regard to Justine, each represents a unique strain of indifference.  Her father is capricious, jovial, and affectionate, but disappears at the end of the night despite Justine’s pleading for him to stay and talk with her.  Her mother, conversely, remains physically present but emotionally distant.  Even as she speaks to her daughter, she offers no sympathy or compassion; her disdain appears limitless, and her actions range from merely selfish to outright malicious.

Justine is treated more as an object than as a person, as evidenced by the toasts of both her father (“I’ve never seen you look so happy.”) and her husband (“I never even dreamed I would have such a gorgeous wife.”) which address her on superficial terms with little to no regard for her interiority.  Excluding one brief and vague mention by Michael later in the film, Claire is the only one to acknowledge Justine’s condition, and even then it is dismissive and unsympathetic.  As melancholy begins to overtake Justine at the reception following some particularly harsh words from their mother, Claire indelicately reminds her, “we agreed you weren’t going to make any scenes tonight.”  Even the wedding planner himself (Udo Kier), so upset is he at the havoc Justine’s crisis has wrought upon his carefully choreographed soiree, has the gall to say of the bride, “She ruined my wedding.  I will not look at her.”  His petulant attempt to ignore Justine, to engage in what one may call Ostrich Syndrome — the willful dismissal of fact by means of avoidance, the figurative placing of one’s head in the sand — is a perversion of the premise of phenomenology, one which supposes that we are somehow able to retroactively limit, or “un-see” aspects of our context.

To this point I am reminded of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous quote, “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions,” particularly as it illustrates one of the main conceits of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, namely that of one’s perceived inability to intellectually regress, or to remove an element from the totality of one’s perspective.  To quote Neil Postman from his book Technopoly, “One significant change generates total change.  If you remove the caterpillars from a given habitat, you are not left with the same environment minus caterpillars: you have a new environment, and you have reconstituted the conditions of survival.”  No less than Udo Kier’s flustered wedding planner can separate the bride from the ceremony can Justine separate her own life-world (Melancholia) from her life-conditions.

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, it is under great duress that the protagonist is brought from the depths of his perceived consciousness (the cave) to enlightenment (outside, in the sun); however, once he accepts the initial sting of the burning sun, he understands that the shadows he has long thought to be real are in fact only reflections of a greater, hitherto inconceivable reality.  He would look down upon the still-held beliefs of his former peers, bound to their cave, as incomplete and unenlightened.  The irony, as Plato points out, is that those still in the cave would likely consider their prodigal son the corrupted one and, in their fear and ignorance, shun him from the tribe.

Justine, likewise, only breaks from her malaise after she confronts and accepts Melancholia’s inevitability.  In the second chapter of the film, “Claire”, Justine returns to her brother-in-law’s estate to be cared for during a debilitating ennui that has set in following the almost immediate demise of her marriage.  She is despondent and inert, unable or unwilling to bathe or eat.  One night however, in one of the film’s signature scenes, Justine ventures out at night towards the creek that cuts through John’s property, strips nude, and lies upon the rocks beside the water, luxuriating in the glow of Melancholia.  After this celestial tryst, in which Justine’s bond with Melancholia can be said to have been consummated, she becomes reengaged.  Such is her enlightenment.

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Justine remains confrontational, however, especially towards her sister, and with her re-involvement comes no increase in her sympathy for Claire.  As Melancholia approaches, Claire urges Justine to sit with her and Leo on the terrace, to enjoy their final moments together.  “I just want it to be nice,” she insists, which, to Justine, sounds like an incredibly myopic way to experience the end of the world.  These two contrasting perspectives — hope vs. Nihilism — are irrevocably opposed, the latter viewing the former as stupid and the former viewing the latter as cynical.  Leo, several times throughout the film, urges his “Aunt Steelbreaker”, as he refers to Justine, to “build caves” with him.  The exact meaning of these euphemisms is left pointedly undisclosed, but as the approaching planet begins to worry Leo, it is Justine’s manifestation of the so-called “magic cave” — a skeletal teepee in which, she implies to her nephew, they will be protected from the impact of Melancholia — which ultimately brings the three of them together.

“Religion is the opium of the people,” in the words of Karl Marx, and it is true that the goal of many religions is to assuage the existential dread of those who fear the meaningless of existence.  Religion does this through various iterations and assertions of an afterlife, be it heaven, reincarnation, or some other form of spiritual continuum.  In Melancholia, religion is depicted as a willful regression into Plato’s theoretical cave, wherein mankind is permitted a false serenity through mythological construction based upon a limited set of empirical data and protected from the intrusion of damning or otherwise disconcerting existential fact.  That Justine constructs a “magic cave” for her nephew while being openly antagonistic towards her sister for a similarly deflective coping mechanism is indicative of Von Trier’s assertion of the puerile and “childish” nature of religious belief in the face of death.  The unity of Justine, Claire, and Leo does nothing to stop the collision of Earth with Melancholia, but it does allow them to receive it with a modicum of grace.

In Melancholia, the aligning of the deaths of our protagonists through the conceit of the apocalypse allows us to consider these three primary categories of response to the human condition — Justine’s calm, Leo’s false comfort, and Claire’s denial — not only as ways of dying, but as ways of living.  Acceptance need not be resignation — death may take life, but it does not take life’s meaning; we alone can determine our meaning, since the entirety of our life-world is only a singular perception of our greater life-conditions.

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One response to “Phenomenological Eschatology: The Personal Apocalypse in Recent Cinema

  1. Pingback: When Life Gives You Nerve Gas… | Considering Film·

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