Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia”: A Discussion

Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia”: A Discussion

As Film Quarterly Writer-at-Large NINA POWER and editor ROB WHITE discuss (resuming a dialogue begun here in regard to von Trier’s Antichrist), Lars von Trier’s latest, Melancholia, is a rich, fascinating, and radical work.

Melancholia. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

ROB WHITE: At the beginning and end of Melancholia two worlds collide: the unloosed rogue planet of the title crashes into Earth to the sound of Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde. In between two sisters, mercurial Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and fastidious Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), take it in turns to suffer psychic crisis. First Justine descends into near-catatonia after her marriage fails on the very night of the wedding; when she revives—buoyed, it seems, by the prospect of Armageddon—Claire is wracked by anxiety, terrified by Melancholia’s approach. (Her hitherto self-assured husband John, played by Kiefer Sutherland, swallows a bottle of pills rather than have to witness the apocalyptic denouement.) This is certainly no conventionally cheerful narrative and yet the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman reported that, upon leaving the Cannes screening, he “felt light, rejuvenated and unconscionably happy” (, May 18, 2011). I know what he means: Von Trier’s latest isn’t melancholy in either the everyday sense (introverted, wistful) or the Freudian one (furiously, neurotically mournful).

Melancholia has been compared to The Celebration but Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 Dogme production gives us all the elements of Family Dysfunction (Oedipal angst, suicide, sexual trauma), which is just a negative image of the Happy Family. (At the end the patriarch is humiliated but the clan holds together.) Justine and Claire’s eccentric divorced parents—father (John Hurt) ostentatiously stealing spoons, mother (Charlotte Rampling) withholding even the most token display of good cheer (”give me a break with your fucking rituals”)—are, by contrast, amusingly detached and misbehaved. They impertinently treat the ceremony like a game of charades. It’s a good thing wealthy John is paying (as he insistently reminds Justine) and the wedding party seems to mean most to him and to the splendidly precious wedding planner (Udo Kier). Much of von Trier’s celebration sequence is sheer comedy.

 Justine’s depression hits its nadir after the celebration turns into a fiasco and her husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) scurries off as fast as he can. An unspecified time later, Claire has to help her take a bath. Afterwards mouthfuls of food prompt her to simper, “It tastes like ashes.” Yet Justine certainly gets her appetite back when the threat of planetary annihilation looms; she ravenously eats jam right out of the jar. I find the change both odd and rather delightful. So I don’t recognize A. O. Scott’s earnest diagnosis in The New York Times: “acute anguish … paralyzing hollowness of depression … how disproportionate and all-consuming the internal, personal sorrow” (November 11, 2011). Even as she nears her crisis, she retains a hard-nosed intelligence and presence of mind. When she tells her boss at the party that he’s a “despicable, power-hungry little man,” she’s making perfect sense not losing her senses. I’m therefore disinclined to treat Melancholia as a baroque case history. Perhaps it’s better to think of it as a parable—a subversive parable. Its grand resort-hotel setting is a kind of enchanted castle, a magic island. (Shopping trips seem to prove the existence of a world beyond but Abraham the horse definitely can’t escape.) Von Trier’s presiding role is like that of a newly crowned Caliban, a totally anarchic guardian whose motto for indiscipline is: “Here you shall stay until everything is broken!” Do you find any reasons to be cheerful in Melancholia?

Melancholia. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. © Christian Geisnaes.

NINA POWER: I agree that Melancholia is not about depression understood in “merely” human terms, but I found it a good deal less light and comedic than you did. I understood the film as a competing set of epistemological claims—that’s to say, not only how do we know certain things, and what method do we used to know them, but also what we do with this knowledge once we have it. Von Trier is a well-documented sufferer of depression, but from a certain standpoint, depression does contain within it certain material truths; i.e., it isn’t merely pathological. So, for example, we know that the world will end, literally and physically (when Melancholia collides with the Earth it’s to all intents and purposes a “real” collision and not a merely symbolic or allegorical “end of the world”).

Seen from enough of an objective standpoint (sub specie aeternitatis as Spinoza would have it) we know that actually “eternity” isn’t forever. Sooner or later, the Earth and all around it will cease to exist. While the heat death of the universe will in fact come after our own individual death, and probably even that of the species as a whole, it’s interesting to speculate on what this horizon of thought means: what, seen from a certain angle, does anything matter at all? Justine has two modes of nihilism: aggressive and passive, in that order. The former sees her question the “usual” structures: marriage, work, family responsibility. The latter sees her reconciled (albeit with a snarl) to the imminent destruction of the planet. These nihilisms can be seen as models of knowledge far more apt than the neurotic position held by Claire, or the economic–rational mode represented by John (”you have to trust the scientists”). So in that sense I agree that Justine is far “saner” than the rest of her family. The stilted conversations, apart from this presumably being much like the way bourgeois people actually communicate with one another, operate as so many incompatible world views. The objective fact that forces them all to focus their relative outlooks is also the revelation that almost all of these outlooks possess no adequate way to deal with Melancholia’s imminent arrival.

I’m curious as to what you make of the destruction/critique of modernism as enacted by Justine in the first half when she swaps displayed art books depicting Malevich plates with ones containing Bruegel the Elder and Caravaggio: is Justine’s knowledge somehow resistant or opposed to modernity?

Melancholia. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. © Christian Geisnaes.

ROB WHITE: You only have to compare Melancholia with Contagion or Transformers: Dark of the Moon to notice von Trier’s subtraction of high-tech. The potential shock of imagining Armageddon is rendered banal by all the blockbusters’ screens and machines. (Malick’s The Tree of Life also imagines the end of the world but its palliative framework is Proustian-Darwinian flashback.) Melancholia is wonderfully minimalist by contrast: it shrinks Science to the pitiful little wire ring-on-a-stick that Claire uses to falsely reassure herself that the planet is veering away. There’s much less paraphernalia to distract from an actually shocking apocalypticism—a fiction (in this case) that truly can turn our world views upside-down. And I like your idea that Melancholia is mind-blowing in the manner of Spinoza.

It’s during the wedding that an undeniably upset and agitated Justine replaces book-plate reproductions of abstract twentieth-century paintings with Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow (1565) and Caravaggio’s David and Goliath (1610)—and so with representatives of an artistic dark side that’s much more in tune with the witch etchings in Antichrist than with the avant-garde geometries that distress her. Von Trier’s sympathy for this nightmare aesthetic must be some kind of repudiation of modern outlooks. But let’s recall the first appearance of the Bruegel picture right at the beginning of Melancholia: it fills the screen and starts to burn (via CGI). Only then do we see the two planets on collision course. I think this old-master-in-flames relates to something Justine says later. Claire is planning an end-of-the-world soirée but Justine is contemptuous: “You want me to have a glass of wine on your terrace? … How about a song? Beethoven’s Ninth, something like that?” This surely evokes a famous statement in Mann’s Doctor Faustus: “I want to revoke the Ninth Symphony” (music also singled out in A Clockwork Orange). The notion is that Beethoven’s work comes out of the same barbarous “high culture” (and high Science) that produced industrial capitalism and industrial mass murder. What’s to be joyous about?

Herbert Marcuse picks up on Mann’s remark in his 1969 An Essay on Liberation during a discussion of countercultural black musicians: “They now oppose to the ‘music of the spheres’ … their own music, with all the defiance, and the hatred, and the joy of rebellious victims, defining their own humanity against the definitions of the masters.” You persuasively emphasize the element of critique—how Melancholia suggests the servility and uselessness of modern mindsets—and so perhaps of the film’s version of what Marcuse calls “elementary negation, the antithesis: position of the immediate denial.” Justine’s painting switchover is as much as to say: we’d do well to go back to pre-Enlightenment world views. But, elsewhere, isn’t von Trier also reaching for a new art that—in the form of a highly stylized cinema of digital effects—affirms as much as negates? Melancholia’s very first image is a big closeup of Justine with CGI birds falling in slow-motion behind her. And it’s an image of her waking up. Her eyes slowly open as Wagner’s overture plays. Doesn’t this bold, novel image-making suggest an element of affirmation alongside the negation?

Melancholia. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo © Christian Geisnaes.

NINA POWER: When we discussed Antichrist before I wondered about von Trier’s indebtedness to video games; I had the same feeling here with the opening scenes (incidentally, the director of photography for Melancholia was recently awarded the European Cinematographer Award). Where most “apocalyptic” films reach for flimsy and overblown uses of CGI, von Trier opts for an aesthetic more akin to a cross between a Steven Meisel photoshoot (see and a cut scene from some highly advanced videogame (the Antichrist video game Eden was sadly shelved this year). I like the idea of von Trier inaugurating a “new art,” especially if it’s one that links cinema with computer games and photoshoots—is it a coincidence that Justine’s final commission for the company she later savagely attacks is to come up with a tagline for a fashion shoot?

Your remarks on high culture and barbarism reminded me of a recollection in Lukács’s Lenin: Theoretician of Practice (1924): “Gorky recorded Lenin’s very characteristic words spoken after he listened to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata: ‘I know the Appassionata inside out and yet I am willing to listen to it every day. It is wonderful, ethereal music. On hearing it I proudly, maybe somewhat naively, think: “See! People are able to produce such marvels!” He then winked, laughed and added sadly: “I’m often unable to listen to music, it gets on my nerves, I would like to stroke my fellow beings and whisper sweet nothings in their ears for being able to produce such beautiful things in spite of the abominable hell they are living in. However, today one shouldn’t caress anybody—for people will only bite off your hand; strike, without pity, although theoretically we are against any kind of violence. Umph, it is, in fact, an infernally difficult task!’” Lenin’s resistance to the humanizing qualities of Beethoven in the face of revolution perhaps have a nihilistic parallel in Justine’s refusal to exit the world aesthetically (sitting drinking wine and listening to music with Claire), even as one scene paints her as Millais’s Ophelia, drowning in her wedding dress and clutching the bouquet, and another has her lying lustfully on the riverbank, nakedly communing with the homicidal planet. Justine’s mother’s ironic exhortation at the wedding—“enjoy it while it lasts”—seems far truer of Justine’s own “dance of death” with Melancholia than it does of her own marriage, which, for all intents and purposes, is over in less than a day.

I want to briefly return to Justine’s “knowledge” which at times borders on the mystical. She knows that there are 678 beans in the wedding jar and she also apparently knows that: “The Earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody would miss it.” The enclosed, kitschy bourgeois world inhabited by Justine, her sister, her husband, their son Leo (Cameron Spurr), and the horses that won’t go beyond the bridge is all there is: Claire is looking for perfection (with the wedding, with the chocolate she places on Justine’s pillow, with her desperate desire for order) but Justine knows it’s all for nothing. Perhaps tired of making other people’s lives a misery, she constructs a shelter for her nephew, her one true act of kindness in response to the only persistent desire that runs throughout the film, the child’s desire for his aunt to make him a “magic cave.”

Melancholia. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo © Christian Geisnaes.

ROB WHITE: That hyperaestheticized Meisel Vogue shoot, which gives a gorgeous spin on the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, is fascinating and I think it’s highly relevant to Melancholia. The shoot and the film share two interlinked elements: a bold (even “bad taste”) glamorization of the kind of subject matter that’s usually met with sanctimoniousness; plus a mysterious female presence. Meisel’s model seems mythical, oracular: a beautiful zombie mermaid or gull woman basking in a toxic wasteland. Justine is like this too, especially in the remarkable riverbank image you mention of her naked, as if she were being recharged by the rampaging planet’s pale light—her expression content, complicit, sly. It’s one of a series of narrative-puncturing shots that also includes two images in the opening sequence that seem to me to be even more suggestive than the Millais spoof: Justine first standing on the golf course with little lightning bolts streaming from her fingers, then straining in her wedding dress against weblike tendrils that have ensnared her. They’re images of defiance and power. Pater’s description of the impression conveyed by the Mona Lisa—which the writer says is a masterpiece comparable only to Dürer’s Melancholia—of “strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions” could apply also to Justine in these strangely mythic tableaux.

Justine welcomes the end of the world. Is this nihilism (as you put it)? Is it melancholic, negative? It must depend on what’s meant by the terms. In films like Contagion and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the Earth is of course saved: life, nation, family are protected. There’s more to these films than that but they can still be enlisted to speak of a nihilism of the Happy Ending—an affirmation of normal life, the world as it is. This is a “nihilism” of nothing-else-but-this. Yet the unsentimental logic of the political notion of “another world is possible”—if this troublesome slogan actually means anything—surely is: “the old world must go.” All of it. This is what von Trier quite literally depicts. I’m not sure, in the light of what you’ve said, whether I can still hold to my starting point that Melancholia is playful and comic. But I still don’t think it’s a work of despair. The film invites us to rethink melancholy not as grief, guilt, mental paralysis but as something more like what the writer Dominic Fox calls in his 2009 book Cold World, “militant dysphoria.” Justine’s dejection encompasses her uncanny knowledge, her struggle against social conformity, her complex starlit joy. Her nihilism is the absolute repudiation (as you mentioned earlier) of the mindsets that prove so useless to Claire and John in the face of catastrophe. It’s a nihilism of anything-but-this.

1970s antipsychiatry came up in our Antichrist discussion and I’m reminded again here of that project to recuperate the categories of psychopathology and especially “schizo.” In a special 1978 “Schizo Culture” issue of the journal Semiotext(e), François Péraldi remarks: “Shall we say that schizophrenia is a process? … I’d venture to say that it appears to me as an affirmative process in the negative. Something like: ‘I am and I remain whatever you do not want me to be.’ Let’s understand it as an affirmation against.” Isn’t Justine a kind of schizo-melancholic whose affirming-against knowledge and passions are, in the final analysis, to be relished?

Melancholia. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

NINA POWER: Reading your last response I keep thinking of REM’s song title “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”: a resigned, upbeat kind of nihilism, an acceptance of the finality of all things. Certainly this state of mind could apply to Justine, who becomes increasingly serene as time goes on, stripped of all worldly baggage (no husband, no job, no children …). I don’t know if I’d call it “militant,” but it surely endears us to her more than Claire’s anxious patter does (von Trier has managed to make yet another film in which almost all the characters are highly unsympathetic, which makes the odd moments of grace all the more meaningful).

In the end, I think of Melancholia as an exploration of something I want to call “objective depression,” where the pathology is reflected in the world and the world in the pathology: the depressive’s feeling that nothing matters, that we’re all doomed anyway is turned into brute fact (and indeed, as I’ve said, we all know that the world will indeed end, eventually). Justine is able to turn her subjectivity inside out because she can relate far better to a destructive planet than she can her husband or family: is the “moral” of the film that the female depressive is a menace because she is unmoored and unstable, and resilient to the charms of the male universe? Casting Kirsten Dunst, a kind of cinematic American sweetheart, as the “objective depressive”, is inspired: Dunst’s face, so sweet when she’s being “good,” becomes so savage and so petulant when her mood turns sour. Gainsbourg’s role doesn’t quite reach the heights of her part in Antichrist (how could it?), but as a counterpoint to her sister, taking turns to be bossy, to care and to panic, she’s a perfect, stilted, foil, despite (or perhaps because of) their obvious lack of relation. The intense focus on two sisters, rather than on either of the two marriages (three, I suppose, if you include the failed marriage of the sisters’ parents) is something of a break for von Trier. While he constantly claims that his female characters merely reflect dimensions of his own, I wonder if with this film he goes beyond the cruelty he often exhibits towards his female leads: perhaps, with Melancholia, von Trier is toying with the world, albeit a dead and dying one—in favor of a new one?