A daring vision of reality: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia

SPOILER ALERT: The following article discusses details of the plot of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia; anyone yet to see the film may wish to postpone reading further until afterwards.

Early in 2010, i devoted the first of my very occasional podcasts to the soundtrack of Lars von Trier’s film Antichrist. Von Trier is an artist whose work deeply fascinates me, and his latest film, Melancholia—which i saw for the second time last night—has made an even deeper impression than its predecessor; in fact, i struggle to think of a film that’s left me in such a profoundly moved state. Having read a number of reviews, it’s been interesting and surprising to see such widespread agreement as to the merits and achievement of Melancholia. Antichrist, with its body-clenching, excruciatingly graphic brutality, sharply polarised audiences; by contrast, Melancholia is calm and understated—but nonetheless, i believe it to be an even more challenging and potentially alienating work. The title says it all and says it plain: this movie is an unabashed exploration of depression as experienced, and as such first impressions might suggest that, for anyone unacquainted with that predicament, finding a way into the film could be difficult.

Yet this stark empathetic bifurcation is the fundamental component of von Trier’s narrative; indeed, anyone finding themselves unable to grasp why on earth the film’s antagonist, Justine (Kirsten Dunst, in a career-redefining role), should be so insufferably down-in-the-dumps all the time will immediately find company in almost every other on-screen character. In all senses of the word, the rest of the ensemble are earthy individuals; Justine’s new husband Michael acknowledges her depression but looks for simplistic, cosmetic solutions to it; brother-in-law John abounds in wealth but fusses constantly about the cost of the wedding for which he’s paying; even Claire, Justine’s sister, despite displaying impressively tenacious sympathy and patience cannot, ultimately, understand in the least why Justine thinks and feels the way she does. This communal earthiness extends even to their dialogue; notably, in the film’s first half, Claire—who with husband John organised the wedding—complains at having spent a week “with the dullest man on earth” and John immediately echoes this, describing him as “the most expensive wedding planner on the planet“; even Michael, in his clumsy but heartfelt groom’s speech declares himself “the luckiest man on earth“. Theirs is an earth-focussed outlook, an earth-bound vision; John’s enthusiasm for astronomy is merely recreational, and limited to the confines of scientific consensus. Furthermore, despite his telescopes and technology, it falls to Justine who, with her naked eye, spies the most significant thing in the sky, the benign, distant red glow of the planet Melancholia (of which, at this point, John is completely unaware; the suggestion is that Justine is literally the first person on earth to notice it).

Which brings us to the film’s parallel antagonist and its chief allegory, Melancholia, the heavenly body that, in one of the film’s most telling lines, is twice described as having been “hiding behind our sun”. A great force, hidden amidst the source of light and warmth, emerging when we least expect it and unstoppable in its destructive power—von Trier’s symbolism is disarmingly simple, his metaphors writ large. Those for whom melancholia is an intimate acquaintance (and i must include myself) are all too familiar with the cheerful rebuke, “it’s not the end of the world”; von Trier demonstrates on a cosmic scale just how hollow those words really are. Superficially, he could be seen to want everyone to know, right from the outset, where we’re headed; the exquisite prologue (which, filmed in ultra-slow motion, makes an instant connection back to Antichrist) features a collection of tableaux alluding to scenes that will transpire throughout the film, culminating in Melancholia’s graceful annihilation of the Earth. And yet, not one of these appears here as it does later; some are heavily stylised, while a few—Justine, evoking John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, floating downstream as a soon-to-die bride; her struggling to walk against unidentifiable grey tendrils—go beyond reality into the realm of imagination (the latter being a way Justine describes how she feels in an early scene). For all its apparent finality, there’s a distinct lack of certainty in the film’s prologue, despite one reviewer’s woefully oversimplified take on this as “the ultimate in spoileresque prologues”.

The doomed relationship of Melancholia and our world is played out between Justine and everyone around her, destroying each relationship. Michael withdraws, giving up (at least, for now); her boss is discarded in a cool torrent of vitriol; her father—with whom Justine pleads to talk—avoids engaging with her by hiding in a world of intoxicated merriment; Claire seems to need to shut down almost all emotion simply to be able to cope with Justine, yet in both parts of the film eventually finds herself at the same emotional point: “sometimes I hate you so much”. Only Justine’s mother seems to show any connection, their behaviours often mirroring one another; yet the mother is no less distant, for whom reality is not merely coloured but defined by jaded and cowardly cynicism.

Twice now i’ve used the word ‘reality’, and it’s precisely this that Lars von Trier wants most to examine at Melancholia‘s core. Cast as a diptych, the film’s first part, “Justine”, centres on the wedding reception and examines Justine’s increasingly desperate conflict with the growing weight of perceived triviality around her. John and Claire are concerned with empty ritual and deportment, with “what’s expected”; John, in particular, is impatient and incredulous—behaviour he cannot understand is frequently dismissed as “unbelievable”. In response, Justine constantly removes herself from the scene, retreating to various rooms but finding greatest comfort outside, roaming the grounds in isolation (squatting to urinate on one of the golf greens, the look on Justine’s face is perhaps the only moment of release and freedom seen in the entire film). But it’s indoors that the conflict of realities is most sharply revealed; having charged into John’s library, she angrily removes a collection of books with pages open on images of abstract art, replacing them with representational images (including Breugel’s Hunters in the Snow and the Millais painting evoked earlier) that each encapsulate an aspect of her feelings, together forming a silent scream at the world to stop hiding and address directly Justine’s massive, frightening reality.

In the second part, “Claire”, von Trier turns the tables, examining Claire’s own fraught conflict against the gradual realisation that the end of the world really is nigh. It begins with Claire demonstrating superlative strength, supporting Justine, whose own conflict has ultimately proved debilitating to the point of collapse (the scene in the bathroom, where a naked Justine cannot even raise her leg to enter the bath, is heartbreaking; Dunst’s acting here is astonishing). Claire has misgivings about Melancholia, but John’s reassurances more-or-less allay her fears, and she comes to enjoy its proximity; regarding it at close quarters through a telescope, she even deems it “friendly”. But events soon turn ominous, beginning with the butler failing to show up for work, wanting to be with his family. After this, in one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, Justine reasserts to Claire her innate and inscrutable deeper understanding of reality, at first concerning something ostensibly frivolous, knowing how many beans were in a jar during a competition at the wedding, but swiftly moving beyond to facts more dire in their implications: “I know things. And when I say we’re alone, we’re alone. Life is only on Earth—and not for long”. This is the crossing point for the sisters’ opposite trajectories: Claire’s gradual disintegration as her sister’s prescience is proved true; Justine’s restoration as Melancholia draws inexorably closer. The connection between Justine and her planet familiar is finally exemplified in another scene where she is naked, only this time finding strength and (for want of a better word) tranquillity by basking in Melancholia’s light. Michael deserted in part 1, and John does the same in part two, committing suicide at the prospect of what is coming (both here and in Antichrist, men are shown to be incredibly weak when confronted by extreme stress), leaving the sisters alone with Claire’s son Leo, a rather baffling character who seems somehow immune both to the disturbing undulations of Justine’s mental state as well as to his own imminently approaching doom. The film’s conclusion is a mathematical, artistic and narrative certainty: Melancholia’s final course brings it rushing towards Earth, crashing into and subsuming it. Twenty seconds of black allow one to reflect that Justine was right, and potentially there is now no life left anywhere in the entirety of creation.

So what of the music? One might imagine a film focussing on such an overwhelming subject would be fitted perfectly with the kind of black soundscape heard to such stunning effect in Antichrist. Instead, however, von Trier has turned to Wagner, and music from his opera Tristan and Isolde, drawing chiefly on the Prelude to Act 1 (the dark Prelude to Act 3 is heard during the credits). Von Trier establishes the Prelude as a kind of leitmotif for Justine—or, as i read it, as an allusion to both the connection between Justine and the planet Melancholia as well as to the deeper reality they share, which everyone else either ignores or denies. For Justine, that reality never goes away, never changes, and von Trier mirrors that by, at each occurence, beginning the Prelude again; heard in this way, it becomes a kind of consolation, or comfort—the repetitious familiarity of depression, after all, despite its obvious difficulties, can also be paradoxically comforting. i was saddened to read Alex Ross’s harsh assessment of Melancholia, which—perhaps forgiveably, given Ross’s love of the composer—both seems to give Wagner too much credence within this new cinematic context and also doesn’t address the more immediate question of why von Trier would do something like that. Ross strangely believes von Trier has bought “into a cheap conception of Wagner as a bombastic nihilist”, but i find not a trace of bombast or nihilism in Melancholia.

Von Trier’s depiction of melancholia is horrifyingly accurate; it is also eloquent and beautiful, but above all it is daring. The film dares us to confront the reality to which we give the name ‘melancholia’ or ‘depression’, and challenges us not to simply reject that reality as just another example of ‘distorted thinking’, one with little or no relation to what’s really going on—on the contrary, von Trier dares us to consider the possibility of truth within what appears to be mania, and beyond that, the possibility of something truly visionary. For Justine is indeed a visionary, a seer, even a prophet. At the start of the film, when Justine first glimpses Melancholia and asks John what star it is, he replies, “I’m amazed you can see that”; far from being some kind of bleak justification of fatalism, Melancholia forces us to consider that maybe melancholiacs, unaffected by life’s empty, trivial superficiality and blind optimism, not only see things we cannot, but see things as they really are.

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