Melancholia, a speculative film on spirit and space by Lars von Trier

Using the Imagination of Disaster as Justification for Misanthropy

by Daniel Garrett Volume 16, Issue 4 / April 2012 15 minutes (3507 words)

Written and directed by Lars von Trier
Production Designer Jette Lehmann
Cinematographer Manual Alberto Claro
Editor Molly Malene Stensgaard
Magnolia Pictures, 2011

When an artist first appears, it is natural to notice what seems new in him, different from his antecedents and peers. With the film writer and director Lars von Trier, it was easy to notice the volatile emotions, explicit sexuality, moral concerns, and social perspective in films such as Breaking the Waves and Dogville. The power relationships in his work—power made intimate and disturbing—were arresting concerns. It was easy to admire the artist for his honesty, and despair at his pessimism. Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia, focused on a depressive young woman’s wedding taking place at the time of possible planetary disaster, following the Trier films that came before (with his themes and techniques having become familiar), probably resembles less other films made by other directors during the same time than it does some of the director’s artistic antecedents. The film viewer begins to see how Lars von Trier (born Lars Trier) resembles other directors, and it is hard not to think of Bergman, Bresson, and Resnais, to name but three: for the pressure on individual psychology, for the positioning of characters within extreme or formidable nature and structures, and for the exquisite imagery that verges on abstraction. One looks at Lars von Trier now and rather than seeing a radical, one sees a participant in a European film tradition.

In Lars von Trier’s English-language film Melancholia, a film with an international cast, the first image we see is the face of actress Kirsten Dunst as Justine, a pretty young blonde woman who looks severely depressed, her hair lank, with dead birds falling behind her. She is the beginning of a long series of slow-moving images that open the film: a sundial at the edge of the large lawn of a great estate, apparently an estate in Sweden; a painting of a wintry hunting scene, in which leaves begin to fall (the art is both alive and dying); a view of interstellar space; a worried mother carrying her child; a falling horse; Justine standing amid a swarm of butterflies; three people standing parallel and still on a lawn (bride, nephew, sister); Justine standing on a golf course, electrical waves coursing through her fingers; Justine in her wedding dress, some kind of gray matter clinging to her; a planet moving toward earth; Justine in her wedding dress, floating in water (resembling a painting of a drowned woman); a boy, Justine’s nephew, carving wood with which to make a fragile shelter; and, lastly, a planet crashing into earth. One of the images is of an empty room, a room in which people had once gathered. These images form an overture of vision and music; and they are prophecies.

The story begins with a bride and her groom, Justine and Michael, in a long white limo, trying to make their way up the narrow, winding path to the great estate where the bride’s sister Claire lives with her rich husband, John, for the wedding reception with family and friends. It may be an irony that the house could not look more formidable, more solid; just as it may be an irony that the couple could not look any more beautiful or sweet—with the expected look of happiness. The film will show how fragile appearance is: anything can crash into misery and rubble. The newlyweds are late for their reception; and when they arrive, the dark-haired Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), attentive and tense, asks the possibly careless Justine if she wants the wedding reception, and Justine says, Yes. Justine looks up and asks about the stars—and John, who is interested in astronomy, identifies them for her. (It is a well-plotted film, with proper foreshadowing of various perceptions and events.) The bride goes into the stable to see her favorite horse, Abraham, to whom she introduces her new husband, Michael. Alexander Skarsgard as Michael probably gives my favorite performance in the film; he is totally inside the part as a loving young man who knows he has married a very sensitive woman and is trying to make her happy—and while the film is devoted to exploring her distraction and pain, it is his heartbreak, when he realizes that she does not love him enough, that is most moving. Michael is tall, tremendously handsome (slender, muscular, blond, with a slight overbite; mostly manly, but a little boyish); one of those men who can seem ordinary or special—depending on circumstance or current experience. During the course of the film, it becomes obvious that if he stays with his bride, he will be ruined—first spiritually, then physically. Kiefer Sutherland, as Claire’s husband John, as Justine and Michael’s brother-in-law, has a dry delivery that is knowing and funny (and while this part is very different from the amoral government agent and man of action that Sutherland played in the television program 24, part of a viewer’s comfort with him depends on that familiarity). Sutherland’s John cannot quite believe the unnecessary trouble that Justine and her mother Gaby bring with them. John is given a preoccupation with his large golf course that may be meant to seem like the foolish, prideful indulgence of the idle rich, but it does not—it seems like the eccentricity of any human, who has very particular things that interest him. John has, as well, paid much for the wedding reception, and he, very understandably, expects Justine to be happy, though no happiness can be guaranteed.

In Melancholia, when the bride and groom enter the reception hall, they are greeted warmly, with applause and fond wishes. (Justine’s nephew calls her Aunt Steelbreaker, suggesting some perception of hidden strength.) The bride and groom are toasted, and speeches are made, with Justine’s father (John Hurt) being silly and her mother (Charlotte Rampling) being grim. Antagonistic to one another, publicly rude, he blithely, she viciously, they seem to be bipolar parents; and it is easy to glimpse the root of Justine’s temperament. Yet, Justine apparently has gifts: her employer, Jack, the head of an advertising agency, speaks of how smart she is, that she is better than the business, and he promotes her from copywriter to art director, and publicly requests that she furnish a tag line for an advertising project. The adman Jack is presented as the relentless capitalist, at once friendly and demanding and rewarding and ruthless. Stellan Skarsgard, Alexander’s father, plays Jack, Justine’s employer and Michael’s friend; and Stellan Skarsgard has proven himself a great actor many times, but this character’s hands are made so heavy he may as well be made of the same stone as the house—and one wonders about the vulgarity (the crude venality) of the conception. It is fascinating that when one sees evil in a Lars von Trier film, one sees not only the character and what he is intended to be, one also thinks about the film’s writer-director and his own temperament, his own rage. Justine and Claire’s mother Gaby, who speaks against marriage, and the money man Jack, who speaks for business, are both so forcefully single-minded that they are easily and immediately appalling. My only reservation in not rejecting them both as facile ideological constructs, one from the left and one from the right, the liberal and the conservative, is that I have met people as emphatic and extreme as that. Human beings do sometimes turn themselves into caricatures (any commitment or concern, once made reflexive and routine, can do it).

Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who has planned the wedding events with a professional, asks her mother why she bothered coming at all. The mother’s words—basically a curse upon the state of marriage—have a depressive effect. It is like watching a tragedy, and having a prophetess or witch speak. Claire takes Justine into another room, and warns her about making scenes. Justine protests that she has not done anything—but Claire knows her sister and what she might do: and soon Justine begins to do it. Justine leaves her guests, and goes out alone, taking a golf cart—after riding to the golf course, she tears her wedding dress getting out of the cart—and she squats staring at the stars. Justine returns to a simple, tender speech given in her honor by the groom, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard); and they begin to dance. When Justine insists on putting her young nephew to bed, she too begins to sleep, and wakes to describe to Claire a nightmare—gray matter clinging to her wedding dress, holding her in place. Justine decides to take a bath; and the crowd waits for her to come down and cut the wedding cake. An angry John goes to get her and her equally delinquent mother—and the wedding planner (Udo Kier) complains that Justine has ruined his wedding and that he will not look at her; and subsequently, bitterly and amusingly, when the wedding planner passes Justine, or she him, the wedding planner shields his face. However, the cake is cut, and the groom Michael is attentive, loving, supportive. Michael thinks Justine’s mood may be his fault, though she says it is not. He shows her a photograph of plot of land with apple trees that he has bought for them, thinking this will offer her some serenity and security. They begin to kiss and undress, and he is in a reverie but she is not. She promises to keep the photograph with her, as he requests, but she soon forgets it.

Meanwhile, Jack, Justine’s employer, insists on getting the tag line for a work project from her, and introduces Justine to a young man, Tim (a sad-eyed Brady Corbet), whom Jack has hired for his lack of education, thinking it perfect for the advertising business, and Jack expects Tim to retrieve the tag line from Justine once she has thought of it. The insistence is repellent. The contemptuous presentation of the advertising business by one of its leaders is questionable, if only because some products are necessary and good, and marketing is a way to make them known to the public. The expression of contempt is not only a judgment against a particular field or person—when contempt is pervasive, it becomes a judgment against humanity, against us all: it is damning—and that may be part of why some of the people who saw Melancholia found the film hateful. Jack’s insistence on making money above all else, like John’s valuing of his property, Claire’s concern for appearances and propriety, and Justine’s rejection of love—as well as that planet, Melancholia, hurtling toward earth—may be too much negativity and nihilism for many to accept.

Justine tells Claire that she is trying to be happy, and that she has been smiling, smiling, smiling, but Claire accuses Justine of lying to everyone, of lying about her contentment, noting that Michael has been trying to reach Justine but Justine has kept Michael at a distance. Justine is given to distractions. We observe Justine replacing the books on display in the den—instead of abstract illustrations, Justine chooses violently figurative work—and then Justine admits to her mother that she is afraid; and her mother advises her to wobble away from the wedding. Justine’s fear seem existential as much as personal, but that is, of course, how melancholia or depression often seems to the person who has it; and in this case, that feeling is supported by the giant rock promising to crash into the earth. The giant rock—unexpected, impossible to defend against—could be a magnified stand-in for natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes (how does one plan a personal life, or ensure personal happiness, when much of life is outside of one’s control?); but, here, the existence of a planetary threat as a fact supports a perspective that would otherwise seem selfish, limited, unhealthy. It is another element that contributes to the film seeming hateful. However, watching the film, I did not think of it as hateful: I thought it was about different ways of being in the world, and speculations about that. I thought of the film as philosophical.

Claire gets Justine to take a drink, thinking it might cheer or relax her—and Justine drinks straight from a bottle, and Michael, seeing this, takes a big swig from the bottle too. His act seems an act of acceptance, of love; he is joining her, where she is—and he kisses her. One can judge and stand apart; or love, and be together. Which choice will Justine make? (Which choice has the film viewer made, or will the film viewer make?) The wedding party goes out onto the lawns, for toasts and refreshments and a new ritual—giant balloons upon which messages of love and luck are written before the balloons are lit from inside and sent floating into the air. Once inside the house again, Justine hesitates before throwing the bouquet—her sister Claire takes the bouquet and throws it for Justine (a sad-funny moment). Upon retiring to the bedroom, Michael starts to undress, but Justine has no interest in sleeping with this gorgeous man. Justine leaves Michael alone, and not for the first time or second time—and Michael looks abandoned, thoughtful, worn. Instead of being with her husband, Justine goes out onto the golf course and starts to have sex with the new advertising employee Tim—and returns in a happier mood, and dances with her father. I think any fair and sane person would begin to dislike Justine at this point, if not before. Yet, the film director may admire Justine—he allows her to tell her boss how much she despises him, his advertising agency, and that kind of work; and yet, we do not see what it is, if anything, that she really cares about. Her groom Michael, seeing her disinterest in being with him, prepares to leave the estate, to leave her there; and Michael says, “Things could have been a lot different.” Justine’s sister Claire tells Justine, “Sometimes I hate you so much,” near the end of the first part of the two-part film.

“The men who hover around the wedding, including the clueless Michael and the officious John, are not menacing, just useless,” says a film critic, Anthony O. Scott, of the New York Times (November 10, 2011), someone who seems to have decided that Justine’s perspective, the one given priority by the film’s director, is the most persuasive and true; but that strikes me as being the equivalent of believing that any act is a good act just because it extends the drama. A good man loves Justine, and her brother-in-law has given her a wonderful communal send-off, and Justine rejects both. It is mystifying that Anthony Scott, who recognizes Freud’s definition of melancholy as a dejection that nullifies interest in the world and decimates the capacity to love, could defend Justine as “impulsive, self-indulgent and charming,” leading him to conclude that Justine believes the world “deserves its awful fate” and “how difficult it is to argue with her conclusion.”

“The vision is as hateful as it is hate-filled, but the fusion of form and content is so perfect that it borders on the sublime,” wrote David Edelstein, New York magazine’s cinema critic (November 6, 2011), of the film Melancholia. Edelstein, who appears on television and radio and has become one of America’s leading critics, saw the central couple, Justine and Michael, as “a palpably depressed ad copywriter engaged to a palpably uninteresting but handsome man,” and he declares that “Justine explodes her world before our eyes as a prelude to the world itself exploding.” (His perception of Michael makes me think of how subjective perspective is—and of what you do not see if you are inattentive or confuse beauty for superficiality.) The story, like a long nightmare, full of anticipation, fear, disappointment, and terror, is one in which the two sisters seem to trade places, a classic reversal, with the calm person becoming frenzied.

Part Two of the film is called “Claire,” as Part One was called “Justine.” Claire, a slim, dark-haired woman who has seemed geared toward practicality and propriety, is on the phone, telling her miserable sister Justine to leave the city and come back to the estate, although her husband John is skeptical of Justine. Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is worried about the nearness of the planet Melancholia, which is forecast to arrive in the vicinity of the earth in five days. Some scientists think the planet will pass by, and others that it will collide; and John reassures her of the former, while Claire believes the latter—and their son wonders about building caves. After Claire makes a meatloaf, one of her sister’s favorites, Justine—who is nearly catatonic with depression—sits down and tastes it, and the crazy girl says that the food tastes like ashes, a projection or premonition. When Claire’s son, Justine’s nephew, wants to show Justine an illustration of the planet Melancholia, Claire tells him not to frighten Justine with that—and Justine says, “If you think I’m afraid of the planet, you’re too stupid.” What does this mean? That Justine is resigned to death? That Justine expects her sister Claire to understand how totally abnormal Justine’s mental orientation is? The obliterating planet may confirm Justine’s perspective of the hopelessness of life—and after it snows on a spring day, and Justine begins to enjoy food again and certain ordinary routines like bathing, Justine begins to seem more stable, if not sane and serene. Yet, when Justine and Claire are out riding and Justine’s horse stops at a bridge over a stream, she whips and whips him, despite Claire’s protests. The horses remain nervous, possibly responding to the people or to a change in the earth’s atmosphere. Justine goes out into the night and lays under the sky, naked, her eyes open and looking into the stars; both erotic and spiritual, this is a dream image. Claire, who sees that, remains frightened of planetary doom, and goes online for information and gets discouraging news that her husband contradicts; and Claire, anticipating suicide, buys fatal drugs. “The earth is evil,” says Justine to Claire. (Both Dunst and Gainsbourg look raw during the conversation.) “Life is only on earth, and not for long,” says Justine, who claims she knows things—the claim of every artist, of every eccentric, of every fool, of every mad person.

“The planet, named Melancholia, is the movie’s metaphor for an emotional state that can stay hidden for years and then arrive, huge and undeniable, with the capacity to annihilate everything. In terms of the story, it also replicates one of the insidious aspects of depression, that it can feel like heightened perception. Just the existence of Melancholia confirms Justine’s view of the universe,” wrote the _San Francisco Chronicle_’s Mick LaSalle in his very mixed review of the film (November 11, 2011), appreciating its performances and photography but finding the film too indulgent, long, and slow, to the point of boredom.

With a concern for the life of the spirit, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat concluded that “Melancholia is another film that enables us to see what we would do in the face of imminent death. We oftentimes ignore the many little deaths that occur in our daily lives so it takes an end-of-the world scenario to force us to deal with our emotions, probe our values, and through our imagination discover what spiritual practices could best usher us out of this world and into another” (Spirituality and Practice, November 2011).

In Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia, John and his son plan to stay up to see the planet Melancholia pass by; and, during the nighttime viewing, when Claire sees it, she says, “It looks friendly.” That comment seems a desperate, even dumb, assertion. It is hopeful. How can an inanimate thing be friendly, anything but indifferent? The next day John is preoccupied with his observations and calculations, and Claire wakes to find him gone—and her pills gone too. (The simplicity and slowness of the narration gives it a convincing documentary effect.) Claire becomes more frantic; and when she, finding that her cars cannot start, gets into a golf cart with her son to escape to the village, she seems to make hysteria rhyme with hilarity. “This has nothing to do with the village,” Justine says. Claire wants comfort, ritual, society; and Justine scoffs. Yet, Justine comforts a little boy, her nephew, with the thought of a magical, safe cave that they can make together. It is her one act of generosity, and it is absolutely futile in its ultimate effect.

(Article submitted April 2012)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 16, Issue 4 / April 2012 Essays   lars von trier