Friday, November 18, 2011

Something Rotten in the State of Things: Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)

Albrecht Durer’s engraving, Melencolia I, is surely a reference point, if not the inspiration, for Lars von Trier’s latest film, Melancholia, though the film title also refers to a planet of the same name on a possible collision course with earth and further refers, more elliptically, to the disorder, melancholia, that malaise of the spirit, so difficult to define, to diagnose, to cure.  

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.  

But von Trier, does more, I believe than merely reference Durer; his film alludes again and again to other artists, to other works of art.  In so doing, he deliberately celebrates art, specifically, painterly art, as that medium that can express what the purely rational, scientific mind cannot see or express.

The film opens with an overture of sorts, previewing for us what is to come by way of impressionistic, surreal snapshots or tableaux: painterly, barely still-slightly moving, images of the characters we are about to meet, images of the fate about to overtake them.  

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,
artist and ash recalling another of Brueghel’s paintings, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, in which Icarus, waxed wings melted by the sun, falls, small and unnoticed, to his death.

We see also a window seat, foregrounded by arched columns in a house interior  - a scene reminiscent of paintings of the annunciation

- but through the window in von Trier's scene, something is burning.  The room is empty; there is no Virgin Mary, no angel bringing a lily and announcing redemption.

Instead, in another scene, Justine floats, attired in a bridal gown and holding funereal lilies, an echo of John Everett Millais’s Ophelia

In other scenes, Justine touches a storm

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.

Interspersed among these images is a view of the earth and the planet Melancholia from space, moving together in a slow dangerous dance, 
until finally, at the overture’s end, the earth glides smoothly into the larger planet, dissolving quietly to a puff of powder.

And that is the beginning.  It’s all very, very grand.  

The film situates itself in the center of the artistic tradition, referencing what came before, both recreating it and destroying it.  I, too, am Art, it seems to say; I, too, follow in this tradition.  

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 the film, with its allusions and direct references to art (allusions and references I am not at all sure I am seeing or naming properly) and with its cast of characters, with its development of two particular characters, two sisters, elides my grasp in many ways, dancing around the obvious metaphor, daring me to try, if I might, to make all of the elements fit neatly, daring me to categorize it all, as I might be inclined to do, as self-important melodrama.  

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.  

Claire stands, in a way, between two kinds of being (and here is where the earlier suggested possibility of a dichotomy between the sisters breaks down): her sister, who has given in to her intuition of doom, and Claire's husband, John (Keifer Sutherland), who is certain that science assures against that doom.  Claire is connected to both people - she wants to believe her husband but fears that her sister is right.  And so she negotiates between the two of them, both ideologically and personally, trying to make peace on both sides while she fights down her own unease.  

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.  
But whether it will hit . . . who has that answer?  Do we trust the artistic vision of the beginning and the irrationality surety of Justine, or do we trust the assurances of John and his claims to science?  

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.

But whatever von Trier's idea of himself, I have not him, but the film before me, so I must consider it on its own. What can I say now, that it is? What does it do? It does not mirror our ordinary reality; that is certain. It does want to be, I think, Winterson's “view beyond the window frame,” something that, as art does, shows us the world from a new, unfamiliar angle.  The film's vision is a depressing one, but art often is.  The best art often makes us uncomfortable or nervous; it provokes. Art is not, as Dorothy Allison says in her essay, “This Is Our World,” “polite, secret, coded, or timid.”   

Still, even with Winterson's and Allison's handy definitions, I am not sure how to answer von Trier's placement of himself within artistic tradition.  I think, in the end, I can only try to articulate what my experience of his piece has been, to try to say what it has left with me.

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.  
Indeed, I am preserved, as most Americans, I guess, from those visible and near signs of death.  Scenes of devastation on my computer screen or running across my TV in the news do not really seem real; at least, I do not often think of them as indicators of my own coming death.  And I am happy, comfortable in mind, most of the time.

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.

Still, in the small hours of the next morning, I woke up, suddenly; the wind was whistling and moaning around the house; the power went out; I was left in utter darkness, the dark clouds blocking out light of stars or moon. Power outages, when I was a girl, used to be fun - an opportunity for flashlights and candles, exciting flickering shadows, a game of hide and seek, perhaps.  Now, I am a practical adult, and power outages serve only to annoy me; I wait impatiently for normal life to resume so that I can get on with things  But that dark early morning after seeing Melancholia, the power out, I felt only fear; everything was strange and unfamiliar, hideous and disordered somehow.  I could not get scenes from the film to leave my head. The fear, surely, wasn’t rational, but as I lay there, fighting that ridiculous fear, it did not seem so ridiculous - and the darkness seemed to mean a real Melancholia, a thing that would soon crush me and everything in the world.  And I felt completely alone.

I woke in the morning and the sense of horror, the fear and the mood were gone, or very nearly.  For the film, with the intervening night resting on it, had left its impression on me, its unsettling presence hovering at the edges of my mind.  And there it remains.

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.


  1. Albrecht Durer Appreciation SocietyNovember 18, 2011 at 7:11 PM

    "Will it be a spoiler to say what does happen? Would I spoil it to tell you?"

    AHHH! YES! PLEASE! I was in such a groove...

    (You're too hard on yourself; sometimes, reaction can only be expressed in a ramble of emotion, recollection, and allusion. This is a fine, fine read.)

  2. Ha, PM me and I'll spoil it for you if you'd like. :) (I'm a glutton for spoilers myself.)

    Thanks so much for reading, and I'm glad it wasn't a complete failure! It was an honest reaction anyway, I guess.

  3. One April Day Appreciation SocietyNovember 18, 2011 at 8:03 PM

    Quit it! You're a good writer! And for those of us who are without such talent, what you consider a "failure" is just about the best to which we can aspire...

  4. (Nice screen name. :) )

    I'm always dissatisfied at some level with my own writing (I'm not reaching for a compliment, I promise!) - and this is one of those times where I just felt constantly frustrated during the process, starting out trying to say one thing and ending up saying something completely different. But thank-you, truly!!

  5. wow, you show what a scholar you are in this post. Very interesting parallels to art there!

    As opposed to you I was actually touched by the movie emotionally. The ending scene was magnificent. I felt shattered as I walked out into the night, wondering what I'd just been through.

  6. I'm not at all sure that the parallels I was making work - I'm not sure if von Trier really is alluding to all of those paintings. But the film did, nonetheless, recall all those pieces of art to my own mind. I'm really not anything close to an art scholar - but thank-you for the compliment! I just very much loved the one art history class I took at university (I've always regretted not taking more), and I grew up poring over my grandparents' big books of photos of art.

    I've wondered, actually, why the film didn't move me emotionally, as it did for you - for some reason it felt cold even though, as I describe, the mood of it lingered with me powerfully. Contrasted to The Tree of Life, which has such warmth -one feels Malick loves his characters - I wasn't sure if von Trier liked his characters much. Even before I read anything about others' responses to the film, I wondered if there wasn't a streak of cruelty in his depiction of them. At the same time, I can't get over the feeling that von Trier identifies himself with Justine, and perhaps, if there is some cruelty in regards to her, he feels he is inflicting it on himself. But I have no evidence on which to base those feelings - I'm not sure why, even, that the film felt cruel to me somehow.

    It's a difficult film for me to try to pin down. But I guess that makes it all the more intriguing. :)

  7. The parallel to Tree of life is interesting - it was brought up at the FS discussion as well. I connected more to this one emotionally than to the other and I suppose there might be some explanation there that a threapist could spot if we discussed it at a deeper level. I don't think I've experienced a true depression the way that von Trier has, but God knows I've been struggling a bit the last few years coping with myself, my life choices, the inevitable aging, death approaching like a planet on collision course with Earth... There was some level of me that connected to all of this. I sure wouldn't behave as irrational as Justine but she's not a completely alien creature to me.

    And in the end I think the movie is kind of light and hopeful. Whatever demons we're fighting, whatever our fears are, the best we can make out of it is to let go and accept it.

  8. Yes, I think that those who have struggled with depression might find the film more resonant than others - though I rather think that LvT imagines the film as being about not just depression, as being something much grander and more universal (and maybe that's why parallels to ToL keep coming up). I did very much like the way the melancholia - as depression or as existential crisis - was depicted as coming from outside the self, this huge, completely unmanageable thing. And the conversation between the sisters, Claire urging Justine to try harder and Justine saying that she just can't, makes a great deal of sense. From the perspective of someone who is bi-polar, I guess there might be a kind of catharsis in the film's acknowledgment: "I can't control this thing."

    I agree with you, too, that the film has a kind of hopefulness in it - though the overwhelming mood of it for me was, well, rooted in melancholy.

    One could read the film as just nihilistic because the women give in, in the end, to destruction. But something about the fact that the destruction overtakes them and they face it with the magic cave and with imagination (rather than annihilating themselves like John/Keifer Sutherland does) undercuts a reading of it being merely nihilistic. Justine creates something magical to respond to what's coming. Because of that, I think the film can be read as being about any human being facing a big, uncontrollable universe - and facing it with creativity, meeting it with the very human impulse to create something beautiful (viz. art).

  9. (Btw, I realize my above comment may have sounded like I was saying I was bi-polar - I'm not. I have a good friend who is and several friends with parents who are - not sure any of that affects my reading of or feelings about the film or not.)

  10. I was deeply moved by the film, it really struck a tune with me. Lately I've been feeling like that out-of-time alchemist surrounding himself with all the tools and knowledge in the world, and never being able to get anywhere. You beat me to the punch on this one!

    Love your analysis of the film in context to art, as I believe this is one of the main features of the film. It is a great homage to some of the great image makers of our civilization. If only more people could behold their sublime beauty the way Lars Von Trier did, perhaps we would have many more beautiful films to enjoy instead of only a few treasures every now and then.

    Love the post! I'm intrigued! Art and Film fanatic.

    -The Eye

  11. @The Eye of Faith - Thanks so much for reading!

    Yes, I do know what you mean, that feeling, like the alchemist, of being surrounded by everything I need - knowledge, tools - and yet coming up empty. A sort of post-modern malaise in the midst of an industrial world, perhaps.

    So glad my analysis touched a chord with you - thinking of the film in the context of art made so much about it come together for me, the rich detail of it.

    I'm finding, too, the film continues on in its resonances since I've seen it: I recall an image or line at the most unexpected times. I thought, at first, that Meek's Cutoff or The Tree of Life would be my favorite film of 2011, but this one is sort of wedging itself into my soul.

    I've enjoyed checking out your website a bit today - love the eclectic nature of it, drawing on so many strands of life, love, and art.

  12. Bravo darling; you are a little brilliant. ;-)

    You have come to some very astute conclusions here that I am not finding other film professionals (nor fans) can arrive at. Especially your take on the ending; it seemed so clear to me, and yet I was beginning to think I was the only one who viewed it that way.

    (in fact, I've been a bit dismayed at the broad misunderstandings of the themes and tone; how can so many people love this film, and yet be so very off about what it is conveying through form?)

    I am working on this film for my thesis, and have been researching much about von Trier and all of his work. You intuitively suspected many things that he himself has verified in interviews.

    Even if your guesses at the art allusions cannot be proven as perfect, they are wonderful parallels, and I believe you responded in the way von Trier hoped for some: to evoke an artistic longing, a searching, a resonance.

    I am so very pleased with you and your analysis. I am beaming like you were my own. LOL
    Keep up the wonderful work. Fantastic.

    Wendy, the film and cognitive semiotics student, in Portland

    1. Ah, Wendy, thank-you! It's great to have your support in regards to my ideas about this fascinating film. I've been a little frustrated and baffled, too, by the responses to it, by discussions which read depression as the central focus. I love what you describe as von Trier's hope for the viewers: "to evoke an artistic longing, a searching, a resonance." Depression, I'd guess, for von Trier, is certainly wrapped up in his identity as an artist, but to say that the film is only about depression seems so reductionistic; it does not account for the wider resonance the film leaves nor for the very obvious art-related elements. Depression functions to situate its sufferer outside the norm, outside the ordinary ways of being and doing; it functions to give its sufferer a different kind of perspective. And that alternative perspective is what the great artists bring, too.

      How wonderful and interesting that you are working with this film for your thesis! I'd be thrilled if you dropped me a line at some point down the road to let me know how things are going for you:

      All the best to you and thanks for your comments!

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  14. Thank you.


  15. 2019 now, and writing a paper on this film. Your reading on it is rather refreshing. Thank you!

    1. Thank you for the comment, Gustavo! I'm glad you found this helpful!