Durer’s engraving at once embraces the mythic epic and the individual, an engraving that might indicate some kind of terrestrial apocalypse even as it indicates personal failure and stagnation. In the scene, the alchemist sits slumped, head in one hand, other hand idly holding his tool. Above him, the sands of an hourglass have nearly run out, the scales are tipping, the bell may soon toll; he is passive in the face of these things. Having given up, perhaps, the pursuit of gold or wisdom, he merely sits, seeming to wait for an end. Is the light out over the sea a promise of a new dawn or of something else? Interpretations of the many details of Durer’s piece abound, but I am nonetheless tempted to tie the art to von Trier’s film. Like Durer, he makes Melancholia preside over all though for von Trier, it is a shining planet looming towards earth as much as it is a suffocating mood slowing enveloping the characters.
The woman we are to come to know as Justine (Kirsten Dunst) appears in this overture first, her face a kind of gruesome mask as dead birds fall slowly around her to the ground
It is a face, a scene, recalling, perhaps, Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix, Dante's Beatrice who rests in the contemplation of her own death, with the bird as a messenger of that death, the sundial shadowing out the fleeting time.
The overture continues, and we see a huge sundial on still, deserted grounds with neat, sharp-shadowed hedges, a scene recalling a surrealist painting, a cool Magritte, maybe.
Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow appears,filling the screen, and turns ashy and burns,
We see also a window seat, foregrounded by arched columns in a house interior - a scene reminiscent of paintings of the annunciation
Instead, in another scene, Justine floats, attired in a bridal gown and holding funereal lilies, an echo of John Everett Millais’s Ophelia.
or walks with feet entangled.
And the woman we are to come to know as Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), clutches child, glides, sinks in slow footsteps, wading through a golf green.
And that is the beginning. It’s all very, very grand.
So, I am pushed to ask, at the film’s outset, whether it is what it claims to be.
But how, even at the film’s end, am I to answer that claim? The subjectivity that is as inherent in the artistic process as it is in the judging of a piece art defeats a definitive answer. I suspect von Trier knows I will be defeated, too; but he will still push me to say whether I believe his film is Art, and to engage with it, I must try to answer.
We might try on a few definitions of art, by way of beginning, at least, the conversation. Jeanette Winterson, in her essay, “Imagination and Reality,” says, “Art is a reflection of an unseen, complex reality - art sees beyond the window frame.” Art, she says, rejects “money culture” and with it the dubious thing called monetary value, and instead works according to "its own currency," producing a window to something, to some value or truth that is at once much more real and much less definable than money.
Von Trier, in this film, referencing the art that has come before him along the way, reaches for that kind of complex, unseen reality by way of his own artistic, filmic metaphor. The central metaphor of his film - a gigantic planet called Melancholia on a destructive course towards earth - seems, at first, too obvious to be anything more than melodrama. It is an almost obscene sort of memento mori that originates in a depressive state of mind: we’re headed towards destruction and death; we are all going to die. See? Just look at that planet.
But I find, just as melancholia - the mood disorder - cannot be managed, cannot be easily contained or cured, this film, too, will not allow me to manage it by a simple one-to-one metaphor, will not allow me to dismiss it as grandiose melodrama.
If I cannot dismiss it, I must engage with its details, and so let's examine a few. After the overture, the film is split into two parts: "Part I: Justine" and "Part II: Claire." We might say that these two parts, the two sisters, represent two kinds of opposing responses in the face of an impending doom though it is not so easy, by the end, to characterize them, not so easy to make the pairing mean something as simple as a dichotomy.
Justine we might call intuitive sister, the one who sees or understands something that others don’t. On her wedding day, she is beset by a strange despondency, a malaise we do not understand and do not see at first. She disconnects from everyone - smiling but not really smiling, smiling as she flees from the presence of others and submerges herself in a long bath - Ophelia-like - smiling as she flees out over the grounds, away by herself to look at the sky. She is increasingly cold to those around her, and thus difficult for us as viewers to love, difficult to understand and sympathize with as Part I goes on. And her sister, Claire, watches her, urges her to participate, but Claire cannot control Justine or help her.
From what does Justine’s depression and alienation stem? What does Justine know that causes her depression? The crashing planet of the overture looms over Part I for us, but does Justine know about this planet? No explicit references to it are made in Part I, and we begin to doubt what the overture means even as that overture’s mood still affects what we see. We are not sure what Justine knows; we are not sure what we know.
We are tempted, by the end, to pair Justine’s melancholia with the planet Melancholia, each signifying something related to death, disaster, hopelessness. The one is indefinable, dangerous, and uncontrollable, the other, though definable, a literal planet, is also uncontrollable and dangerous.
Additionally, given the references to art throughout the film and also given Justine’s profession, in which she has been working in advertising but aspires to the arts, we might also be tempted to pair Justine with the artistic imagination, if a thwarted and depressed one. We might say she understands something about the world not by articulating a fully fleshed notion but by embodying emotion, fleshing out dread, affecting those around her.
But I am uneasy with those neat characterizations of Justine. She still eludes me.
Claire, the focus of Part II, is perhaps the more accessible figure. While Justine’s affliction is impenetrable and difficult to grasp, making her difficult to sympathize with, Claire is more transparent. She even voices twice in the movie her feelings about Justine: “Sometimes I hate you so much.” And we know how she feels. Justine may know something, but that knowledge distances her from us and from others, isolating her. Claire is also easier to access simply because it is clear, in Part II, that the characters on screen know about and are responding to the threatening planet; there is, in fact, a planet that seems to be on a path towards earth, and we understand Claire in terms of her knowledge of that. And Claire is much different than Justine. While afraid of Melancholia, Claire has not given in to doom in the nihilistic way that Justine seems to. Claire cooks meatloaf to coax Justine to eat, she tries to make Justine bathe, she saddles her horse and makes Justine go out riding with her.
We are very much with her in both her hopes and her fears. While we’ve seen the overture of destruction, we still cannot be sure that that vision has depicted the characters’ actual fate; it is, perhaps, only an artistic impression. The planet is there; all three characters stand and gaze at it.
Will it be a spoiler to say what does happen? Would I spoil it to tell you? The film begins at the ending, or so it seems, but in my own experience of the film, over the course of its story, I lost my bearings; I did not know what I knew. Following beside Claire, I was not sure; I only felt with her, apprehensive and unsure.
I think I can say, while still avoiding spoilers, that Justine, though she is the melancholic, is the one who becomes a sort of alchemist in the end, believing for Claire that gold can be made, rejecting John's science and embracing a more spiritual sort of science, putting her nihilism to good use. Though she has embraced melancholy and isolation and offers cutting unkindnessness increasingly throughout the film, she is, in the end, the only shelter for those nearest her.
Is it too much to say that von Trier identifies himself with Justine, the melancholy visionary? Someone who, like Justine, sees himself as isolated in some way from others, but still seeing - or being willing to see - something the rest of us don't? If that is, in fact, von Trier's vision of himself, it is, indeed, grandiose, melodramatic.
The film says something to me about the inevitability of death - as well as the disorder of our world - and it asks me to consider what my answer is to that death and disorder. I do not think about death often; I am not often - maybe I have never been - truly depressed about this world. I do not have a skull on my desk, as literati of another time used to do, that physical thing reminding them of their fate.
I think von Trier’s film might act as something both more visionary and surreal but also more vivid and real than the reminders of death or disorder I see on the TV or the internet. Art has the power of defamiliarization - the power to make the familiar unfamlliar, thus making the familiar new, more real, more present. It shows me what I think I know in a new way, showing me I did not know it as well as I thought I did.
But I did not walk away from the film feeling as if I had been impacted in that way. I appreciated the technical skill, the layers of meaning, the intellectual questions and problems, but nothing about it truly hit me at the gut level. I understood Justine's, and particularly Claire’s, turmoil, without really feeling it myself. The film, by its end, had not moved me.
I do not love it, and I cannot say whether Melancholia should join Millais’s Ophelia, Durer’s Melencolia, Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow, and all the other art that has endured down through the years. But I do know, that I cannot myself dismiss it so easily. In the end, I feel for myself, with the film, something of that indefinable, irrational, unscientific thing called melancholy - that mood that comprehends some doom, or that comprehends something wrong, something rotten, in the state of things.