Mélancholia (2011)


Lars von Trier is our modern melancholy Dane. And yes, this film is a play within a play. The first play is the play on words.  The name of the movie is Mélancolia but the spelling makes it clear that the pronunciation is not “mel”—-as in Mel Gibson—oncholia, but is, because of the accent grave, French.  One says “mal” as in the French word “mal,” meaning “evil.”  The Derridian game become clear when “Justine,” played by Kristen Dunst, says, “We are alone.  The earth is evil.  No one will miss us.”  The actual French word is mélancolie, so von Trier has rammed two spellings—French and English—together to warn us of a mash-up among references and between planets.

Mélancolia begins with a plethora of art historical references.  The Dead Birds  of Ross Bleckner fall from the sky, the landscape is Marienbad crossed with Magritte, Dunst floats like Ophelia (another reference to another melancholy Dane) in a John Millais painting, then, in her wedding dress, she drags the strange apparatus seen in Un Chien Andalou behind her, and the leaves fall from the trees of Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.  Then we see Charlotte Gainsborough, carrying Cameron Spurr, her film son, through a hailstorm, and she sinks into the green grass as the hunters feet are buried in the snow. We are about to witness a work of art, not a work of reality.  What follows is an allegory of a metaphor of a mental state—the condition of melancholia.

Visual Reference to Un Chien Andalou

After hiding behind the sun (Hamlet: “I am too much in the sun.”), the planet Mélancolia emerges and goes rogue.  According to the astronomers, earth and the new planet are now in a Totenfuge, a dance of death.  There is no escape from the onslaught of melancholia.  Early in his career Sigmund Freud wrote a definitive and influential essay on Mourning and Melancholia (1917) in which he stated,

The distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.

In 1967, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich wrote Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior and used Freud’s ideas to explain the extended melancholia of Germany after the Holocaust.  The nation, they concluded, was unable (or unwilling) to mourn the loss of the Jews.  Freud continued,

…melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious.  In mourning we found that the inhibition and loss of interest are fully accounted for by the work of mourning in which the ego is absorbed. In melancholia, the unknown loss will result in a similar internal work and will therefore be responsible for the melancholic inhibition. The difference is that the inhibition of the melancholic seems puzzling to us because we cannot see what it is that is absorbing him so entirely. The melancholic displays something else besides which is lacking in mourning—an extraordinary diminution in his self- regard, an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale. In mourning it is the world, which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.

In other words, unless the individual can identify the nature of the loss, she is doomed to an unrelenting state of melancholia that seems to have no proximate cause.  For Germany, it is impossible to acknowledge the loss/lack of the Jews because the Jews are “withdrawn from consciousness.”  Likewise in the von Trier film, it is never clear why “Justine” is so deeply sad.  Her mental state can be best expressed through images; words will not suffice unless they are distended into poetry.  After a long eight minute prologue/prelude in which the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde warns the listener of doom, the kind of doom that is an inversion of the young couple who loved too much, for “Justine” cannot love at all.  Her ego is insufficient.

The inability to love (to mourn) is revealed when Mélancolia starts the story with a long white wedding limousine attempting to navigate a road that is too narrow, too winding.  The road leads to a huge house/castle on an island and the bride and groom are forced to walk to their own reception to which they arrive two hours late.  The reception is an elaborate deception on the part of “Justine’s” sister, “Claire” (Charlotte Gainsborough).  A play within a play, the party is the attempt on the part of both sisters to perform normalcy.  The long slow dragged out first act of the production is an agonizing downward spiral from pretense to intense despair.  Drowning in successive waves of alienation, “Justine” systematically destroys everything and everyone—her job, her minute marriage and then the groom and the guests and her parents drive away.

The strange inability of “Justine” to pretend to be happy is the onset of a serious breakdown from which there can be no recovery.  There are indications that the mental illness might be a family affliction.  Charlotte Rampling plays “Gaby” the vindictively angry mother of the bride and John Hurt plays “Dexter,” the father that runs away from his daughters.  The first act ends as “Justine’s” performance concludes and the audience takes flight.  That the end is coming is made clear when the reluctant bride scans the skies and sees that the stars are out of place.  A new planet is approaching: Mélancolia and there is no escaping its path of destruction.

The second act centers on “Claire” and her futile attempt to save her sister.  As anyone who has watched a loved one succumb to mental illness knows there is nothing to be done but watch.  The giant planet, Mélancolia, comes closer and closer.  “Clarie’s” husband, “John,” Kiefer Sutherland, attempts to keep his wife and child safe but he too is helpless in the face of “Justine’s” all consuming collapse.  The planet is a metaphor as is the fact that the family is isolated on an island.  Designed by Margitte, the island would have been inundated by a tidal wave had the planet been real, but instead the seas that surround it remain calm and unruffled, serene while Earth gasps its last indrawn breaths.

The isolation of the island symbolizes the isolation that overwhelms any family struggling with a loved one in danger. The family carefully measures the scope of Mélancolia through a homemade wire circle.  Presumably if they take care of “Justine” her illness will recede, but like the baleful blue planet, her illness only grows larger and absorbs the entire family, destroying them one by one.  The theme of “inability” runs like a connecting thread throughout the acts: “Justine” is unable to love, her sister is unable to save her, “Justine’s” horse is unable to cross a bridge, and the passive husband is trampled to death by that same horse and is unable to save his family.  In the end, as “Justine’s” illness looms ever larger, she becomes, like Mélancolia ever stronger and acts to build a “cave” out of long sharpened sticks.  Here beneath the peaked triangle of careful wood, the last three people on the island take refuge and, holding hands, the two sisters and “Claire’s” little boy who closes his eyes, wait.

The prelude tells it all: in its last moments, the tiny planet we call home is absorbed by the large planet of all encompassing sadness. Lars von Trier draws out the second act as he drew out the prelude and the first act, as slowly but surely the end of life comes to Earth.  The movie audience is forced to concentrate on each moment and contemplate the suffocation to come.  The viewer suffers the agony of waiting as the sound of the approaching planet rumbles ever forward.  There is a sense of magical suspension as if the film were a Gregory Crewdson photograph come alive.  The light used by the directorial photographer is always other worldly.  And so this other world falls to Earth. The end comes in a blast, subcumbing to the total darkness that is a madness that swallows all that touches it.

Lars von Trier has never just made movies; he has always made film according to concepts wrapped around his philosophy of filmmaking.  Twenty-five years ago, he and Thomas Vinterberg founded Dogma 95 and established a new set of rules for cinema.  The Vows of Chastity were stern and austere.  Based on the rejection of artifice in favor of authenticity, the rules of Dogma 95 reigned in the early years of von Trier’s career.   In Celebration the camera is hand held, the light is ambient and the result is naturalistic, making the revelations of the film all the more intense.  Over time, perhaps with Dogville (?) von Trier began to move away from the Vows and he  decisively does so in this film.

1. Filming must be done on location.  Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.  In Mélancolia the sets are deliberately theatrical.

2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed. In Mélancolia the music is borrowed, like the art historical images.  The use of music by von Trier references Stanley Kubrik’s 2001 and the Danish director uses Richard Wagner as the British director used Richard Strauss to displace the film in time and space.

3. The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.  In Mélancolia these rules are not violated and there is a strong sense of an inquiring camera following the action, but the editing is more conventional that in his earlier work.

4. The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable (if there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).  In Mélancolia virtually all the lighting is artificial or strange as the island is bathed in moonlight and planet light and the grounds are theatrically lit with electric floodlights.  Imagine Crewdson advising Magritte.

5. Optical work and filters are forbiddenIn Mélancolia the use of day-for-night is part of the stylistic play, indicating that the film is a play within a play, melancholy Danes in a theatrical production with all the actors famously dead by the last act. Unfortunately there is no Laertes to say “Good night, Sweet Prince.”

6. The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)   In Mélancolia the action is internal, in the minds of the victim and those in her orbit.

7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).   In Mélancolia the action is divided clearly into two acts, or two states of mind, Julianne and Claire, and there is a strong sense of real time deterioration.

8. Genre movies are not acceptable.   Mélancolia is a disaster movie, crossed with a dysfunctional family movie, crossed with intimations of suicide, self-destruction, and Hamlet’s inability to act.  Like Hamlet, “Julianne” nurtures her loss and her lack.  Just as Hamlet cannot admit that he is suffering from the loss of his mother, “Julianne” cannot locate the source of her pain.  While one might not want to mention Another Earth, this film, while not strictly speaking a science fiction movie, is an example of Surrealism.  

9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.   In Mélancolia the format is full of digital special effects and Magic Reality.

10.         The director must not be credited.   Well, Mélancolia is a “Lars von Trier” film.

For those of an artistic bent, for those with patience and dedication, this is a rewarding film.  A true work of art in every respect, Mélancolia  was made by a great director who continues to evolve.  Sadly, Lars von Trier has also behaved in such a way as to discredit and to isolate himself, making one wonder if he, too, isn’t suffering from some kind of mental condition.  It would be too cute by half to connect von Trier’s Nazi references to Inability to Mourn, but the director’s use of Wagner does not come out of nowhere.  Nevertheless, I feel that is important to separate the maker from the work of art, which should be allowed to stand on its own.  Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her work as “Justine” and it’s a rare film that provides a good role for one actress. let alone two.   For the reader who has reached the end of a nearly 2000 word review, my thanks and apologies, but I was concerned that other reviewers have written of this film is shallow and superficial ways and a complex film demands a complementary discussion.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger


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