Melancholia: first attempt

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).


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.

13 thoughts on “Melancholia: first attempt”

  1. An interesting take on Melancholia.

    One comment, if I may. I don’t see how its reference to German Idealism could, at the same time, demonstrate radical anti-anthropcentrism, especially if you posit a link to speculative realism.

  2. To address this film, as well as his previous ‘AntiChrist’, one has to deal with what VonTrier is thinking in relation to Tarkovsky. It isn’t just the copped camera moves/shot setups/etc. but the way that T. deals with the human/nonhuman relation- not just in his Solaris, which is an obvious engagement with the radically nonhuman- but also Mirror. Think of the opening of Mirror. The wind on the grass of the field- an intrusion of deep time, geological time, elemental time, much as the time of the machinicphyla of war echo that same movement in Malick’s Thin Red Line. Von Trier is hooking into this. So: did we even notice that something has happened? How attuned are any of us to the essential quality of events? As Witt says in T.R.L: ‘Why does Nature vie with itself, the Land contend with the Sea?’ And so, the same question, scaled, is what vonTrier is taking up. But not just the land with the sea: planet vs. planet. One final thought, very disorganized and intuitive: the time that remains for each of the characters in Melancholia speaks more to their awareness od the precious few seconds of life left, and a non-linear intensitifcation of their awareness, than to any linear idea of the movement of time and an impending doom. A flashing image comes to mind: the swordsman, slowly going blind, in W.K. Wai’s ‘Ashes of Time’. Or… the secret told to a strange computational substrate in WKWai’s 2046, which, refractory, parallels the secret told to a wall at Ankor Wat in ‘In the Mood for Love’. I think what’s at stake is a model of history’s worth in and of itself, against the idea that the simple awareness that an ‘outside’ could exist might be enough- regardless of the time left to contemplate that outside.

  3. Hi,

    Thanks for the post.

    The content of this film is OK, but there is a problem in its FORM. The problem is precisely the “Dogme-style unsteady handheld camerawork”. My body can handle zero-G flights, sensory deprivation artworks and sessions of I-dosing, but not Lars von Trier’s films.


    Guilherme Kujawski

  4. “Melancholia can be seen, as several critics have already noted, as the radical opposite of Malick’s The Tree of Life.”

    can u point me in the direction of these pieces? thanks….

  5. I agree with your points. I would add my own perspective, which is that M. is also allegorical of the end of western civilisation.

    Justine is the romantic depressionist. Like her namesake she dies in an instant. She is a kind of embodiment of the anti-rationalist pessimism of Schoepenhauer et al. Her sister, Claire, is simply trying to understand what the hell is going on. Claire / Clear. Her primary concern is her child. She is the “normal human” in extremely abnormal circumstances, and her limitations and frailties distort her. She has feelings and is free to express them. She is basically an optimist, even when things are not going well, and it is only at the end when she gives up hope. The child is The Child. The father is Science – rationalist, positivist, science, forever rationalist and of his own “enlightened self-interest” which is why he suicides.

    It is HIS estate they live on – they live in luxury thanks to Science. It is a wealthy estate – wasteful, pointless, and finally dysfunctional and incapable of protecting them from the world.

    Melancholia is the realisation that the World is coming to an end. And the World (as we all know) is socially constructed. Hence, to really get the point of the World Ending it can’t be the “World” ending – it has to be The Planet Itself Ending. The utter bullshit of the “science” displayed re: Melancholia’s path any high school student who studied basic gravitational physics can demonstrate how utterly wrong the movie is. Since that is so, then the destruction of the planet Must Be not the end of the planet but the end of the world, and the only world we see is the bourgeoisie… the Western World.

    for me Melancholia is a philosophical surpassing of Avatar. Avatar was very clunky in its critique of Western Industrial civilisation. Melancholia is quite the opposite. Avatar said “We’re ruining the biosphere with industrialism. We have to stop industrialism cuz… it’s bad.” Melancholia comes from a more “Dark Ecology” position – there is no solution. There is no “way out”, the World (western industrialism) is coming to an end, and we have no idea what will replace it or how or when.

    Now, if the gravitational phyiscs were more accurate, Melancholia appears to be about the size of Uranus, only rocky. That’s MASSIVE. If it had passed by the earth as close as it seems (within lunar orbit) it would have tossed the moon out of orbit, and blown the earth into a much more eccentric orbit around the sun. It would not have gone “around the earth” and then come back. something that huge and that dense would have tossed the earth around like a toy and dragged it about. The looping manoeuvre in the movie would not have happened. IF the earth did strike Melancholia, it would have blown much of Melancholia away – it would not have been simply absorbed, and this would create a smaller Melancholia and several large moons of Melancholia, or, if M was somewhat less dense, blown it to pieces and created another asteroid belt around the sun. due to the density and mass of this asteroid belt the orbits of Mars and Venus would be massively disrupted.

    Which is why I suggest the movie wasn’t about science or the end of the planet. Trier says it is about humans acting in a difficult and depressing time, drawing on his own experiences of clinical depression. I see that as the humanist handle to a larger story, as described above.

    OF course, I could be totally wrong. But that’s my story an I’m stickin with it for now….

  6. I thought of Tarkovsky too, esp SACRIFICE, which begins with a family celebration and then becomes doom-laden when news breaks out that the 3rd World War is underway. The two films share fairy-tale aspects: Claire’s family live in a classic castle, a “wicked fairy” (Justine’s mother) interrupts the wedding toasts with a kind of curse, Justine looks like a Disney princess, etc. There’s a witch-like figure in SACRIFICE and also the plan of the sacrifice itself.

    The internet diagram of the collision path of Earth and Melancholia looked like wacky internet stuff to lend some credence to John’s optimistic view of the outcome. But in the world of the movie, a rogue planet could do whatever it likes.

    Why would the horse Abraham not cross the bridge?

  7. @Megan-

    Yeah – Sacrifice is in there. Agreed.

    “The internet diagram of the collision path of Earth and Melancholia looked like wacky internet stuff to lend some credence to John’s optimistic view of the outcome. But in the world of the movie, a rogue planet could do whatever it likes.”

    But in the world the movie inhabits as a movie, the laws of physics abide, and so the map matters – planets can’t do whatever they want, esp. if they’re the size of Uranus and mostly made of rock.

    “Why would the horse Abraham not cross the bridge?”

    I thought about that, and the only thing I came up with is that Abraham is this natural creature – sentient as a living being, but not so sentient as to be part of the human tribe. He doesn’t co-operate. Because nature doesn’t co-operate with human demands and requirements. It also acted as a foil to demonstrate the human character as being brutal upon nature.

    Good question, though!


  8. I see Justine’s as the romantic depressive response and Claire’s as the existential anxious one. She was, in fact, opposite her sister in looks (dark vs. light) and in mood throughout the film. At the end, depression found a measure of shadenfreude knowing that the earth she found so evil would be destroyed. Hence the slight smile. Claire, meanwhile, was simply a ball of angst. They are sisters, as we are continually reminded, and need each other simply to function.

    Perhaps they are Snow White and Rose Red in some way as well.

  9. “Melancholia comes from a more “Dark Ecology” position – there is no solution. There is no “way out”, the World (western industrialism) is coming to an end, and we have no idea what will replace it or how or when.”

    yes. if you mean western civilization. i did not see the whole movie, my ‘pay-per-view’ experience being interrupted by my kids, but towards the beginning justine is celebrated by her boss for her artistic brilliance, with a shot of her most recent photographic effort, yet we later learn that she has just cribbed the picture from a past master. additionally, she has no control over ‘her night’, everyone in attendance, including the grasping applicant, exerts control over her. even her iinfidelity is only a defensive response to being stalked. on the other hand, i suppose you could view the movie as von trier’s depressive statement that everything, artistically, has already been done before, if you want to get personal about it.

  10. “Melancholia” channels Tarkovsky with Bunuel, most notably in the seemingly imprisoned elite dinner guests of “The Exterminating Angel.” A righteous, timely condemnation of the aristocracy, where nature bats last in the ultimate collision with capitalism. Review how the castle owners never make it off the insanely wealthy estate to join the vaguely referenced village community (to where the butler and worker staff presumably flee). As the withering technology fails them with the sputtering break-down of the SUVs and finally the golf cart (!), Justine becomes the athiest priest offering an accurate mystical reality-check, yet no 11th hour salvation of impending paradise.

    Justine (Justice) mocks Claire’s (Declare) suggestion for a world-ending wine toast from the balcony. She rightly favors the sober hand-holding (Native American, among other culutres) circle of life and death. A fitting end to the desperate dead-end of wealth accumulation. Justine becomes the earth mother the boy needs even if it’s a bit too late for a lasting redemption. Fade to black indeed.

  11. “Melancholia” channels Tarkovsky with Bunuel, most notably in the seemingly imprisoned elite dinner guests of “The Exterminating Angel.”

    apocalypse mythology. and see wells short story, ‘the star’.

  12. A quick and much too short response in bad english: M. can be seen through the thinking of “speculative realism”. It allows a view Meillassoux has unfolded in After Finitude, a view that criticises the stuckness in kantian correlationism in order to ward off what Pascal once summarised in his statement “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”. And possibly this is it’s (M’s) main objective. Exiting!

  13. Bresson maintained that he wanted his films to be experienced and felt deeply . For him, any intellectual offering was a byproduct and not essential.
    I mention this as an antidote to some of the comments; note that I do so not with an unqualified critical eye but as one who has obviously missed some of the philosophical links in Melancholia.
    I found the film extraordinarily moving,all the more so for its human element in the approaching existential threat; Justine looking thru the home-made viewer(for want of a better word!)
    I found the pacing comparable to Tarkovskys ‘Stalker’ – high praise indeed.
    Melancholia was made in the same year as Bela Tarrs ‘The Turin Horse’,his finale before retirement and the greatest film I have ever seen.
    ‘Faust’ from Sokurov making 3 great films of that year,indeed,has there ever been a better year for film.
    I thoroughly appreciate everyones contribution here and hope that I can glean some more understanding of the film

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