“Like the great larva of Albert Dürer, Hamlet might be named ‘Melancholia.’
He also has above his head the bat which flies emboweled, and at his feet science, the sphere, the compass, the hourglass, love, and behind him in the horizon an enormous sun which seems to make the sky but darker.”
– Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare, in Jonathan Bate, The Romantics on Shakespeare, Penguin,London, 1992. p.351
I’m not sure whether von Trier was pulling our leg in an elaborate shaggy dog story, given all the doomsday scenarios in recent years, or providing us with his deeply cynical world view. I thought Gainsbourg was very compelling as Claire, but what to make of Justine? I couldn’t even stand to look at her by film’s end. Those half-closed eyes of Kirsten Dunst and her deeply cynical view just made me want to throw a brick at the screen. I realize von Trier loves to elicit strong viewer reactions, but what to make of this melancholy tale about a fictitious shadowy planet that comes out of hiding on the dark side of the sun, and its resultant effects on the characters in this doomed house?
There was a bit of Poe here, not to mention the pre-Rafaelites in the way Justine spread herself before the mysterious blue planet. I suppose Justine was meant to represent intuition, as opposed to John’s rationality and Claire’s motherly pragmatism. It read like a sparse short story. The attention was given largely to the mood of the film, set to Wagner no less.
Gainsbourg is a far better actress than Dunst. She is the one who carried this film, not Dunst.
Oh yes, this film comes out today on DVD and Blu-ray.
I’ve enjoyed reading through this thread after just seeing the film on its DVD release. Many thoughtful observations that have assisted me in approaching the film. Here are my own early, preliminary thoughts.
I tend to think of Melancholia as a pessimistic footnote or coda to the theme of depression von Trier dealt with in a much more interesting way (for me) in Antichrist. Like others, I thought the first segment with the wedding was rather a wasted opportunity. I think, considering this film is about two sisters in a dysfunctional relationship because of the illness of one of the sisters, that von Trier is familiar with Rachel Getting Married. RGM is a much better and more believable take on this, with fully developed main characters and situations. In Melancholia, the characters in the wedding are ill-defined, the hand-held camera just meanders rather aimlessly, and too many of the characters are caricatures of a type. Justine’s employer, for example, is just interested in money and his business – talking shop with Justine at her own wedding. Justine’s brother-in-law says repeatedly to her that he hopes she is happy considering the money he has spent. This is amazingly trite and unfocused stuff considering von Trier’s earlier work, say in Dancer in the Dark, where there aren’t really such clearly defined good and bad characters and the situations are more developed. The caricatures reminded me of the worst aspects of Dogville, which was, after all, meant as a pastiche.
So, at the end, when Justine says that the world is evil, we have seen nothing in this film to believe otherwise. When von Trier suggests that because of her condition, Justine is now almost omniscient – she can predict ahead of time the number of beans in the bottle – then we must believe her when she says that Earth is the only planet in the universe containing life. If Justine is a spokesperson of von Trier’s own depression, then this is the most bleak of all his films. Justine’s announcement that the Earth is the only planet in the universe harboring life is absurd from any informed scientific view. Even the most skeptical scientific observers realize that the number of planets possibly sustaining life in our own galaxy (which is just a drop in the bucket) would run into the hundreds of thousands, at least. But von Trier, the complete melancholic Manichean that he is, denies this through this character.
Of course, Justine inhabits a world of her own making, reacting to it in a negative way, because of her illness. Her view that the Earth is an evil place, which the universe will defintely not miss, is a very pessimistic one that misses the beauty and wonder that von Trier himself places throughout this film. In Melancholia, the world is still beautiful, but mankind is inherently screwed-up and self-serving.
Like all the female characters in von Trier’s films, Justine represents the force of female intuition over male logic and understanding. And like his other female leads, I think she mirrors and represents von Trier’s own view of things – a sort of mouthpiece in this case of his own depression. Like She in Antichrist, Justine’s reaction to the overly rational male world around her is one of horror and adversion. Only when this world is soon to disappear, is she then at peace. This was a peace denied to the Gainsbourg character in Antichrist, but given to Dunst here. It seems that all of von Trier’s films of late are about the conflict of anima and animus. I think the comments in this thread re von Trier’s own possible issues with female sexuality are spot on and here for all to see.
But, true to form, this is another of von Trier’s fables where science and rationality are the enemies. The one person with an interest in astronomy realizes too late that the scientific prediction that Melancholia will miss the Earth are flawed. Justine knows the Earth’s fate with complete confidence and resignation, however. Female intuition wins out over scientific predictability.
The use of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (a work I dearly love, having several different versions of the opera) is used to rather poor effect, after the moment of ethereal timelessness at the beginning of the film (where it may fit). Von Trier uses the music mostly in a rather over-heated way (similar in my mind to its misuse in Aria), to convey a certain level of emotion to the audience. Were his film better structured, in the final denouement (with the tragectory of Melancholia perfectly hovering over the horizon, all too close) this music would maybe be appropriate. The doomed love motif in Tristan and Isolde would then mirror the fate of the earth. But since we know little of the characters or their situations, it seems a bit false and cloying.
Because von Trier failed to give his characters an adequate human dimension, we have a film of over-heated emotion, with an over-heated score, without any really cathartic effect. With all the obvious Tarkovsky references at the beginning of the film, I wonder why von Trier has seemingly completely failed to understand the message of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice? The Sacrifice also deals with a possible apocalyptic event. It also has a self-obsessed character, being the father in the film. However, in Tarkovsky’s film, through the father’s spiritual awakening and through his act of sacrifice of all he loves, the world is renewed – not destroyed. In Tarkovsky’s film, the world awaits our discovery and really represents, in essence, a leap of faith. But von Trier has gone over to the dark side – albeit with his considerable panache. He can make any film or situation look beautiful, but he misses the spirituality possible in this instance. Instead, we get strains of Wagner to fill in the blanks.
Overall, after the bleak but consistently more thoughtful effort of Antichrist, this was a disappointment. My advise to von Trier after seeing this film: Get some professional help soon.
I just saw this recently and had a good discussion with some friends after the viewing. FWIW, my viewing of Antichrist definitely colored my interpretation and perception of the film. Here are some thoughts and comments off the top of my head:
>The first section felt like von Trier’s way a dramatic representation of von Trier’s depression and the way his family and friends truly don’t understand his condition. For example, I got the feeling that Justine’s husband, mother, father and boss all represented von Trier’s SO, parents and business associates (manager?).
>The second section was a bit more interesting, imo. Claire seemed to be “in between” Justine and her husband, John—Justine representing the irrational/mystical (Chthonic ), while John represents the rational (Apollonian). Claire doesn’t rely on reason or science as John seems to, but she’s not as “mystical” as Justine (who knows what’s going to happen). What was interesting was the way Justine becomes calm, comfortable and almost normal, while Claire gradually becomes unhinged.
I thought my friends had some interesting comments about this section. For example, one of them felt that Justine reacted this way because a) what she always knew was going to happen was finally happening—whereas in the past, no one would understand her depression and anxiety; b) seeing her sister go through the anxiety—something that had been Justine’s reality for a long time—was strangely comforting—as if she now had another person in the same boat. I’m not completely sure if I agree, but, for now, this seems to make sense.
>Here’s a question I had: does Justine’s depression stem from her knowledge that the world will end, God doesn’t exist, or the finality of death? If this is true, then this seems a bit different from my sense of von Trier’s depression Actually, I don’t know any details about his situation, but for some reason I assumed the he had the type of depression that doesn’t have a reasonable cause, e.g., death of a loved one, etc. (I have no idea why I assumed that.)
Or is von Trier saying that a good explanation(s) for his depression exists, but the people around him just don’t understand those reasons?
Or maybe the ending of the world via by the planet crashing into it and Justine’s awareness of this symbolizes clinical depression.
>So, what is the film about? Is it mainly about the nature of being clinically depressed? And is the film partly addressed to von Trier’s family, friends and professional peers—i.e., here’s what it feels like to be me? Does the film also have deal with the tension between the Apollonian and the Dionysian (Chthonic)?
>One of my friends made the observation that while Justine’s depression stems from her realization of the truth, wthe people around her live happy lives because of self-constructed illusions (i.e., lies). The very real possibility that Melancholia will hit the planet shakes the foundations of Claire’s illusions, and when that reality is certain John completely crumbles. I’m not sure if I agree with this reading or not, but it is interesting and something I want to think about.
The scene where Justine rejects Claire’s suggestion that they sing a song, drink a glass of wine while the planet crashes in to earth seems to fit with this idea. If the reading is correct, Justine rejects this notion because it seems a part of the lies that Claire and everyone else has used to cope with reality—while Justine has rejected such an approach.
>What do people make of Justine bathing nude in the moonlight?
>Any thoughts on the final scene, with the magic cave and the two sisters sitting next to each other with their nephew/son?
I recently watched this as well. I read it as a moody meditation on death, and how we confront it. The planet clearly represents our death. It is looming, and obviously THERE and approaching. We can ignore it, rationalize it away, or even say there’s a magical cave (heaven). On the other hand we can kill ourselves as John does. I think the scene when Claire falls down near the end is when it overwhelms her, but in existential/Sisyphean fashion, she overcomes and carries her child up the hill, through the hail.
@Jazz: The nudity scene was unexpected, and I can’t help paralleling it to her other nude scenes. When Claire helps her take a bath I see her nudity as infantile. But during the planet scene, she is sort of embracing it, really becoming one with her impending doom. Perhaps what’s more important to the viewer is Claire’s haunted reaction shot.
The magic cave I’d say just is a metaphorical visual. The sticks are such an obviously impotent shield and it makes for a powerful contrast with the collision. I thought it was moving the way Justine begins to cry in that scene, and shows a bit more nuance on von Trier’s part.
Question: What is the significance of the bridge that they are unable to pass, like three or four times?
I recently watched this as well. I read it as a moody meditation on death, and how we confront it. The planet clearly represents our death.
Hmm, that wasn’t my first thought, but you could be right. My first thought was the planet represented depression and the maybe Chthonic* forces—irrational, nature/chaos, etc. (My viewing and intepretation of Antichrist strongly influences my reading of this film.) Despite what science says and does ( represented by John’s reassurances), these Chtonic forces can’t be controlled or denied.
The planet crashing into the Earth could represent the growing understanding of depression and these Chthonic forces by those around von Trier. Or maybe von Trier does this as an indication that he wants those around him to understand this.
(FWIW, I’m feeling less confident about this reading—especially applying the Apollonian-Chthonic dichotomy to the film.)
The nudity scene was unexpected, and I can’t help paralleling it to her other nude scenes. When Claire helps her take a bath I see her nudity as infantile. But during the planet scene, she is sort of embracing it, really becoming one with her impending doom. Perhaps what’s more important to the viewer is Claire’s haunted reaction shot.
I like this observation; the thought of the other nude scenes didn’t occur to me for some reason, but I think it’s a valid connection. My friend suggested that the planet’s imminent collision allowed some relief to Justine—as in, it’s finally here, and it’ll be over soon.
As for Claire’s haunted shot, this made reinforced my idea that Claire represents some point between Justine (Chthonic/nature/irrationality) and John (Apollonian/science/reason). Justine, in the nude and in the light of the planet, could be a pure and intense representation of the Chthonic—which would unnerve Claire.
Good question. My friend suggested a couple of possible readings: 1) Justine’s ability to get over her depression and become normal; 2) Justine’s unwillingness or inability to give up her “hard-truth” perspective and cross over into a normalcy that is built on illusions.
What about the significance of the horses in the film?
(*I use this term in the way based on this wiki entry about Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy: For Paglia, the Apollonian is light and structured while the Dionysian is dark and chthonic (she prefers Chthonic to Dionysian throughout the book, arguing that the latter concept has become all but synonymous with hedonism and is inadequate for her purposes, declaring that “the Dionysian is no picnic.”). The Chthonic is associated with females, wild/chaotic nature, and unconstrained sex/procreation. In contrast, the Apollonian is associated with males, clarity, celibacy and/or homosexuality, rationality/reason, and solidity, along with the goal of oriented progress and Apollo and Dionysus is the quarrel between the higher cortex and the older limbic and reptilian brains.”4 Moreover, Paglia attributes all the progress of human civilization to masculinity revolting against the Chthonic forces of nature, and turning instead to the Apollonian trait of ordered creation. The Dionysian is a force of chaos and destruction, which is the overpowering and alluring chaotic state of wild nature. Rejection of – or combat with – Chthonianism by socially constructed Apollonian virtues accounts for the historical dominance of men (including asexual and homosexual men; and childless and/or lesbian-leaning women) in science, literature, arts, technology and politics.)
What a Nietzshean interpretation. While this film could be called a tragedy I’m unconvinced. I must give you some credit, however, as I am woefully ignorant of the director.
It’s worth noting that Claire couldn’t cross the bridge in her golf cart either.
The horses are interesting and surely of significance. My initial view was that they were a stand-in for nature or something. Von Trier shows that they sense the planet too, and he uses them for cinematic tension and pacing. Calm in the beginnIng then quick shots of restlessness and then of course the scene when justine notices the silence.
I think the remarkable thing about this film as far as genre goes is that it (for the better IMO) avoids becoming a “disaster movie” wouldn’t you say? I was pleasantly surprised for instance to not see the film cheapened by a montage of cable tv shows commenting on the planet. The film never even shows outside of Claire’s home.
The subconscious desire for apocalypse feeds the depressive’s imagination.
I don’t think I’d call the film a tragedy. I’d say it was more conceptual, than dramatic or narrative-based. And I want to emphasize that my experience and interpretation of Antichrist is heavily influencing my reading of this film—and that’s also based on my knowledge of von Trier suffering from depression as well. (If you haven’t seen Antichrist—and it sounds like you haven’t—I would recommend seeing it—if you really liked this film, although you should there are some controversial aspects of the film.)
Good point. Maybe the cart represents “science/reason” while the horses represent “nature/irrationality.” In either case, Justine can’t become normal and live a normal life like Claire. (I’m not sure I buy all these interpretations, but I’m just throwing them out there.)
My initial view was that they were a stand-in for nature or something. Von Trier shows that they sense the planet too, and he uses them for cinematic tension and pacing. Calm in the beginnIng then quick shots of restlessness and then of course the scene when justine notices the silence.
There’s also the scene of the horse toppling over in slow motion. Btw, what did you make of the opening sequence? My sense was that it was a kind of poetic overture.
I think the remarkable thing about this film as far as genre goes is that it (for the better IMO) avoids becoming a “disaster movie” wouldn’t you say?
The thought of a disaster movie didn’t cross my mind, but again, having seen Antichrist and hearing comments that the two were linked, definitely contributed to this.
I always saw Melancholia as far more literal: The planet is a physical manifestation of Justine’s depression. Depression, in its worst stages, always feels all-consuming, all-destroying. And von Trier literalizes that in probably the most beautiful way possible.
I haven’t been able to shake this film ever since I first saw it, which is really the highest praise I can give any film.
@Jazz: I definitely would like to see Antichrist then. (netflix/hulu?)
Well the opening sequence is arguably the best part of the film, perhaps even to the extent of undermining the following two hours for certain viewers. My friend had described it as an overture as well and I think that’s brilliant. Both a brilliant analysis from you guys, and brilliant of von Trier!
@Dan: That is keen but if it were so then it would seem to me that von Trier is pretentiously romanticizing depression.
Sorry, double posted due to site maintenance.
I definitely would like to see Antichrist then. (netflix/hulu?)
It’s streaming on netflix. (You might want to read a little or ask others about the film before checking it out as there are some elements that can be problematic for some, maybe even many or most.)
Well the opening sequence is arguably the best part of the film, perhaps even to the extent of undermining the following two hours for certain viewers.
Yeah. You mean because the rest of the film might not live up to it? I can see that, although I don’t that was the case.
I mean because it so perfectly and effectively captures the film’s essence.