Melancholia Non Grata: Lars von Trier and the Infinite Sadness

I attended a seminar last night completely devoted to Lars von triers film Melancholia. I wrote my own review of this film when  I saw it, and I confess my response to it was mixed. While I adored aspects of the film, there were certain responses to it that turned me off parts of the film, however it cant be denied that its connection to other films held a commentary I had the strong feeling I was missing.

Well, I was enlightened on this and many other points at the seminar tonight.  There were so many interesting things discussed that I felt I wanted to contribute some of the key points in a blog post. The break down of the four talks was this (as taken from the Sydney Seminar blog):

Drawing from Jacques Derrida’s contention that the death of the other spawns a melancholia that amounts to the annihilation of the entire world, Christopher Peterson’s“The ‘Magic Cave’ of Allegory” argues that von Trier’s film visually stages a planetary clash whose literality is never fully dissociable from, yet never entirely collapsible onto, the allegorical content of Justine’s psychological depression.

In “Between Saturation and Exhaustion: Lars von Trier and the Melancholy Death of Cinema”, Alex Ling argues that Melancholia – and von Trier’s cinema more broadly – offers a profound meditation on the current state of cinema as simultaneously saturated and exhausted. Taking as given cinema’s imminent demise, the film asks the question: did cinema live up to its potential?

Robert Sinnerbrink‘s “Anatomy of Melancholia” analyzes the various aesthetic and philosophical strands of von Trier’s film, arguing that it performs a complex ethical critique of rationalist optimism in the guise of a neo-romantic allegory of world-destruction.

Taking the starting point in the controversies raised by von Trier’s depictions of female protagonists in his cinematic oeuvre as either “sacrificial love” or “virtuous excess,”Magdalena Zolkos’s “Turbulence and Urgency: Von Trier’s Melancholic Femininities at the End of Times” offers a reading of the female figuration of Melancholia (impersonated in the protagonist Justine) from the perspective of the Romanticist aesthetics and undertones of the film.

Ok – so with that introduction, I will give one or two (or three or four depending of the coherency of my notes) key points that I gleaned from each of the excellent talks.

Christopher Peterson – “The ‘Magic Cave’ of Allegory.”

  • The surface allegory of Melancholia as being a metaphor for the end of the world and vice versa is only a surface level one and may not be the true intention of the film. Von Trier contributes to this with his statement that “The film is not so much about the end of the world as about a state of mind.” Also he is said to have referenced his own therapy as a basis for much of the film.
  • Disaster films are always about survival  usually with one woman and one man at the end so the human race can continue. This is a form of denial of ones own death. However Melancholia leaves us with no survivors and thereby removes the pleasures of the disaster film genre.
  • Melancholia, no matter how bad it is, is not the end of the world. Therefore the film can’t be taken at face value. The construction of the cave at the end and shows compassion and calm. The films allegorical content is therefore not certain.
  • Chris used several quotes from Derrida to support the notion that loss of the other is akin to the end of the world. Derrida also makes links between loss of the other and depression. We bury the other within from the very beginning   We carry the world of the other to the end of the world. An end in the end. An end that repeats itself over and over again every time an other leaves our world. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in humanity. (my notes are a little shaky here – this was an excellent point very well made. If I can grab links to the talks I will add them in.)
  • The end of the others world is my melancholia.
  • The pathos is alleviated by the image of Claire carrying Leo across the gold course on the 19th hole. Of course there is no 19th hole.  This speaks to excess   We have arrived at the end beyond the end.

Alex Ling – “Between Saturation and Exhaustion: Lars von Trier and the Melancholy Death of Cinema.”

  • Primary argument comes from two points: Melancholia is a primarily reflexive work, that is it is a film about film, and the point of saturation and exhaustion.
  • Melancholia presents a meditation on cinema and truth procedure that has run its course.
  • It is very “Lars von Trier” to take an established genre and push it to absolute exhaustion: Dancer in the Dark – musical  Antichrist – horror, Melancholia – disaster film.
  • von Trier doesn’t just see cinematic tropes as bloated but cinemas creative well has run dry.
  • There are so many references to other films: Last year at Marienbad, Vertigo, Mulholland Drive, Solaris.  Also many spiritual references for film.

Where Last Year at Marienbad had no shadows for the trees, von Trier gives us two shadows.

  • What is cinema? What singularises it? What does it and it alone make possible?
  • Ricciotto Casuals “Reflections on the seventh art” states that film brings everything together – it is one of the seven arts.
  • Badiou holds the opposite, that cinema is little more than a plus one.  It is in arts shadow. Ideas exist outside of cinema. Outside of the magic cave. Cinema has to free itself of all its baggage before it can mean anything. (see a film like Dogville as an example of a film losing all its baggage)
  • These two ideas are at war within the film Melancholia.
  • The film constantly references art.  Wagner Tristan and Isolde hammers this point home. Cinema is the great synthesis of the rest of the arts.
  • The first act contrasts with the overture to shaky camera work  shifting dialogue, jump cuts and other symbols of “the ordinary”.  This is a return to the humanity, to the baser man.  Contrast with art as the higher self.
  • The image of the end of the world is exactly the same as the image of the moment of conception.

THe image of the origin of life is one that is used countless times in cinema. von Trier matches this image with “the end” to show the death of cinema.

It was noted later in the discussion that the only difference here is the shape of the smaller object. von Trier makes it look like there are two ovum. This is typical of his underplaying of the male role in all his films.

  • The film ends before Wagner hits is famous seventh. We have the death of cinema in this gesture also.
  • Cinema is trapped in an endless cycle of repetition.
  • As has been said of Melancholia, how do you make a film after this?
  • Once upon a time restrictions created impetus. Now they have dried up.
  • von Trier removed all the baggage of cinema with films like Dogville and Manderlay.  Now he sinks deep into the artistic realm and reveals there is no more cinema to examine.

Robert Sinnerbrink – Anatomy of Melancholia

  • This is the second film in von Triers trauma trilogy, the first being Antichrist.
  • The constant use of the German romantic art work in the film references the absolute aesthetic.
  • In the prelude von Trier uses painterly images to imply composition. There are 16 colour slow mo shots.
  • Multiple references to Tarkovski.
  • Hunters in the snow referenced.

The film opens with a washed out image of Justine staring vacantly into the camera. Dead birds behind her fall from the sky (cinematic homage) and her face is enormous, moon like. This image is repeated with the planet Melancholia in the place where Justine s face was.

The planet is positioned in the same place as Justine’s head. Films generate affect by interrupting cognitive perception.

  • The opening images are all prophetic. They all tell us something we do not know about what is to come. And yet they all reference German Romanticism and classical art.
  • The lost object is the sheer attachment to the world itself.
  • As the screen fades to black there is a rumbling that persists, implying music moves through the end of the world.
  • Art cinema blocks the motor flow of sensory schema pushing the viewer to search for a higher meaning.
  • The forward surge of the music is posited against the stasis of the images. The viewer is forced to alter their response. The prelude is a way of contrasting the difficult emotions.
  • The two women reference Bergman’s Persona.
  • The earths destruction implies a loss of didactic theological protection for childish minds against the impact of reality.

Magdalena Zolkos – Turbulence and Urgency: Von Trier’s Melancholic Femininities at the End of Times.

  • Trauma theory and the power of one person over another.
  • Identity theory at the cost of others exclusion. von Trier examines women always.  She is the outsider.  Mouchette / Viridiana
  • End of the world uses imagery that involves the fantasy of the destruction of the female body.
  • Continuity and change inspire the viewer to draw conclusions.
  • The female body as sacrifice.

Von Trier uses Hunters in the Snow because what is special about this painting is the way Bruegel takes the farthest image in the top right of the mountain peak and replicates this triangle through out the painting so that what is in the distance (or background) is haunting the foreground and therefore all the painting. It is the focal point, because it is everywhere.

  • As with the mountain in Hunters in the Snow, so it is with the female body in Melancholia. (it was commented on in the Q and A session that this is a breast obsessed film.)
  • The film evokes a sense of spaciousness, openness and distance, contrasting with stifling claustrophobia.
  • Dark impenetrability.
  • Infantalising protectiveness of Claire.
  • Melancholic pursuit of solitude. Taking the lost object into itself. Loss object then turns the mourners internal world into a battle to kill and to save. An ungrievable loss. These problems all relate to the female body.  Claire as mother / Justine as mother in the end / loss of mother earth.
  • Melancholia has been depicted as coming of esoteric knowledge. Justine “knows” because of her melancholia. John uses money and science and finds that he cannot “know”.
  • For Dante in the divine comedy, the sin of sloth was the inability to love God enough. Justine’s melancholia is a failure to love God properly.

There is an intentional inconsistency here. Ophelia is the image of hysteria. Justine has melancholia. These are two feminine “diseases” that von Trier wants to bring together into the body of Justine, and into the body of the earth. Hysterics connection to nature.

  • Eroticism, self degradation, saintliness, death, Christian mysticism. Water, rain, hail, urine, bath water. The de sacrilisation of society.
  • Batialle referenced. John’s modern capitalism with its order, uniformity and sytemisation falls in the face of Justine’s melancholia.
  • Christian Imagery. Self annihilation. Self injury.
  • Interestingly, many of the most interesting papers on the film have been published in theological journals.
  • Justine reveals the wedding to be a farce.

Some points raised at question time:

  • Failure of the heterosexual marriage, failure of the male/ father role, two women at the end, queer family.
  • Status of truth in the film. Justine’s job is in advertising. It is her job to ascribe meaning to stimulus  A false kind of truth. How much truth can a subject bare?  Each character has their limit. Each character has their illusion.
  • The apple orchard as a gift. Knowledge. Eden.
  • John sees Justine’s happiness as a financial transaction. I spent all this money, you have to be happy now.
  • When Justine runs to the study to change all the books she turns abstract modernists into German romantics.
  • How do you posit German romanticism against the abyss of fascism. von Trier came up against this himself with his controversial comments.

Well, there you have it. It’s not a great reproduction. As I said, if I find links to the talks I will add them here, because it is well worth the listen.