Here’s an abstract that I have just written on the subject of von Trier’s Melancholia. It’s my first attempt at getting a grip on what I want to say about the film. This will be subject, of course, to extensive elaboration and revision.
(I have left out any reference to how Melancholia can be seen, as several critics have already noted, as the radical opposite of Malick’s The Tree of Life. To my mind, it is quite noteworthy how many defenders of The Tree of Life have regarded the film theologically, as a sort of rapturous spiritual experience; criticism of the film is routinely — and not entirely playfully and ironically — referred to as “blasphemy,” etc. In this case, Melancholia provides a radical counter-theology. I leave open the questions of whether it is a-theistic or rather an other theology; just as I leave open the question of to what degree von Trier is reverting to Schelling, and to what degree he is reverting to Schopenhauer — for this distinction, see Eugene Thacker’s recent article. But in either case, von Trier is opposed, as both these thinkers were, to the Hegelianism of which Malick’s film is the most recent articulation).
MELANCHOLIA, OR, THE ROMANTIC ANTI-SUBLIME
Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia (2011) moves from domestic melodrama to cosmic catastrophe. It works as what used to be called a “women’s picture,” giving the portrait of a female character’s clinical depression when confronted with the prospect of a bourgeois family lifestyle. But the film also envisions the extermination of all life on Earth; this serves as a kind of objective correlative to the protatonist’s depression. In contrast to other recent apocalyptic films, however, Melancholia refuses to present the audience with a grandiose and sublime spectacle of mass destruction. Its apocalypse is disconcertingly intimate. Melancholia offers a deflationary view both of ongoing life and of its extinction.The film rejects conventional art-house standards of construction and form, with its disjunctive structure and its use of Dogme-style unsteady handheld camerawork. But Melancholia is also filled with Romantic allusions, from the music of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde on the soundtrack, to visual tableaux that recall Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It treats these allusions in a strangely distanced way, however, framing them as beautiful objects of contemplation in a manner that, for some viewers, might even seem to border on kitsch. In deploying this Romantic imagery, and reverting to a Romantic pessimism reminiscent of Leopardi and Schopenhauer, von Trier breaks away from the Modernist obsession with estrangement-effects, self-reflexivity, irony, and the “unpresentable” (cf. Lyotard). Against the Romantic and Modernist sublime, Melancholia offers an aesthetico-ontological vision of desolate beauty. In its reference to a certain side of German Idealism, its radical anti-anthropocentrism, and its entertainment of the thought of extinction, the film parallels recent developments in so-called “speculative realism.” But in its own right, Melancholia offers at least one possibility for a new aesthetics of the 21st century.