"The Earth is Evil". On Lars von Trier's 'Melancholia'Jun/23/2016
1. Speaking Like an Idiot
There can be no serious discussion on Melancholia without recalling that, on occasion of the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival (May 2011), Lars von Trier gave an interview that appalled a good part of the world. Taking advantage of the presence of international journalists, Lars, who is part Jewish, made anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi statements, which resulted in his being banned from the festival, and his film being rejected by some distributors. In short, there is not much more he could have done to ruin his career and reputation. Had it not been for his outburst, Melancholia could have won the Palme d’Or; the jury’s awarding of the Best Actress prize to Kristen Dunst was meant, arguably, to make up for this. Someone as intelligent as von Trier could not but have expected such reactions.
Yet, the film he sought to sabotage with his statements reflects his own conduct: in a matter of a few hours, one of the protagonists destroys all she had socially achieved. And, like his heroine, Lars sought to have himself banished. His scandalous interview was itself an integral part of the film, and provides us with a key to further understand it.
Lars’ outburst also recalls an episode from Idioterne (The Idiots, 1998), the only film in which he scrupulously complied with the rules laid out in DOGMA 95, the 1995 excessive cinematographic manifesto he co-signed with Thomas Vinterberg. The film follows a group of young men and women as they wander about Denmark, behaving on occasion as though they were mentally retarded. The group’s leader, Stoffer, states the ethical aim of a game that, at first, appears to be no more than a students’ prank: each of them must bring out the “inner idiot” hidden within oneself. Yet, Stoffer’s mission shows its limits when he asks his friends to “play the idiot” not in some anonymous public place, but in familiar, work or home, surroundings. In such contexts, no one dares howling like an idiot. None but one.
The group had co-opted a woman met during one of their forays. Sweet and quiet Karen seems very distant from the libertine ways of these fake imbeciles. When Stoffer asks each of them to “play the idiot” in familiar surroundings, Karen goes home.
There, we discover that she had recently lost her son, and that, haunted by her sorrow, had run away from home—she had then met with the group of “idiots” during her aimlessly wandering. A few shots depict her household clearly: a grim atmosphere, col-hearted parents who despise her. In the midst of their family dinner, the enveloping silence is broken by the senseless scream of the idiot. A relative slaps Karen. Eventually, we understand: the scream of the idiot is an acute, unacceptable expression of human sorrow, of that mal de vivre which fuddles us. The sequence of Karen’s homecoming is an especially touching cinematic moment.
The actress who plays Karen, Bodil Jørgensen, unknown outside Denmark, received various international awards; I believe, because of that final scene. Many of von Trier’s actresses have been super-awarded at Cannes, including Bjork in 2000, Gainsbourg in 2010, and Dunst in 2011. Even if one detests von Trier, he must be admit that this legend of cinema succeeds in eliciting from his actresses a sort of hubris, an astonishing feminine excess, as if a woman were banging into the walls of the earth.
At Cannes, Lars, like Karen, was inviting the whole world to slap him in the face. He sought to destroy his reputation by screaming like an idiot.
2. A Grand Failure
Von Trier lives in a country – Denmark – that, according to the World Happiness reports, is one enjoying the highest well-being in the world. Along with the other Scandinavian countries, Denmark achieved top ranking in quality of life, per capita earnings income, democratic liberties, social services, environmental awareness, level of culture, etc. Denmark is part of Scandinavia, a healthy corner of our planet. And it from such an impeccable country that Lars’ radically tragic cinema is delivered to us. Many people have told me that they avoid his films, because although they appreciate them aesthetically, they cause too much suffering for them; they surpass the limit beyond which tragic pleasure deteriorates in pure suffering.
Melancholia seems to confirm that turning point in von Trier’s cinema, which we first noted in The Antichrist. His early films, albeit bizarre, were well-constructed, and had a more or less linear storyline; they were like parables, a little evangelic and a little Brechtian, in the wake of Brecht’s “didactic dramas”. Yet, in his recent films, this form is falling apart; the storyline is patchy, the film is poorly constructed. This is because the very deconstruction of life is becoming his principal theme.
Someone referred to Melancholia as a grandiose failure. There is a certain stylistic grandiosity to some of Lars’ films, which seems to express the massive failure of his heroes. They share the destiny, so to speak, of the film itself.
Melancholia seems to be made of two different films. The protagonists are two sisters, Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg). These two French names can be interpreted as Justice and Clarity; Justine is the name of the larger-than-life victim in De Sade’s novels, object of all possible atrocities. The two sisters are very different from one another. Justine, who at first glance seems a brilliant woman, a winner, quickly reveals herself to be totally self-destructive, a super-loser. Claire, neither a winner nor a loser – seemingly, an “average” woman – lives with her husband and young son in a magnificent and austere countryside mansion, overlooking a breath-taking Scandinavian archipelago; it seems as if this terrace were open to the solemn spectacle of the planet. Most of the film takes place here.
Even before the opening credits, there is a series of disconnected sequences which – as we will later understand – epitomize the meaning of the film. This Prologue, like the brief summaries that used to appear in books at the beginning of every chapter, is one of von Trier’s favorite techniques; like Brecht and Godard, he is fond of dividing his films into chapters. This prelude ends with the planet Melancholia entering into Earth’s atmosphere, much like a spermatozoon penetrating an egg; in this case, not to generate life but to annihilate it. Following the Prologue and the opening credits, we have the first part of the film, which is called Justine, followed by the second, Claire – however, the two sisters are protagonists in both parts.
The first half of the film focuses on Justine’s wedding reception; she has just married a sweet, but ordinary, young man. The event, organized by Claire, takes place in the house-palace she inhabits with her husband, a rich but incredibly miserly man with a passion for astronomy. Justine appears to have reached the pinnacle of success: she is art director of an important advertising agency, and bride of a rich and handsome young man. Yet, this wedding reception will result into the complete destruction of her success: by the end of the evening, the newlyweds will separate forever, and Justine will renounce her enviable career. In her path to self-destruction, she vainly seeks help from her parents. Absorbed by their own fervors, both of them are deaf to her needs.
In the second part we meet Justine again, but this time she is mute, in a sort of catatonic state, unable to look after herself—a human wreck. The film now focuses on a small family nucleus: Claire, Justine (“adopted” by her sister), the stingy husband, Claire’s young son, and their servant. This part seems to bear no relationship to the theme of the first. Yet, the destruction which in the first half only involved Justine’s life, will now become a cosmic one: a wandering planet, Melancholia, luminous and blue like the daytime ocean, is approaching Earth and will engage it in a cosmic Dance of Death. Many believe that Melancholia will only pass close to the Earth without making a head-on collision; in the end, though, the two planets do collide, like the Prologue had already shown – real tragic play in Ancient Greece is never surprising, the finale is always already known. And when Claire’s miserly husband finally realizes that there is no hope for Earth, he cowardly commits suicide by an overdose of lethal pills. John dies on the sly, leaving his family alone to face the Apocalypse. The final scene shows the two sisters and the child together, holding hands, facing the catastrophic impact. Darkness.
3. Marriage with Thanatos
The task of interpreting works of art is usually annoying. Films like Melancholia, precisely because they are badly constructed, cannot be enmeshed in the discipline of key-signifiers, be they anthropo-cultural, psychoanalytic, Marxist, psychiatric, mystic, feminist, etc. If we forsake universal keys, we may recognize a certain, opaque idiosyncrasy in the author’s choices. For example, why are some famous paintings insistently mentioned in the film, especially the “Hunters in the Snow” by Peter Brueghel the Elder? Could it simply be because von Trier particularly likes them?
And why does the Prelude of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde recur so obsessively? It is perhaps because Wagner is the composer who gave sublime form to the fall of the gods? Evidently, for Lars, that Prelude evokes the End of the World.
Yet, in the film we can grasp a nearly obvious central thread: both parts stage the undoing of everything, an absolute deconstruction. Here comes Thanatos, the Freudian death drive, namely, the fragmentation of organic wholes into inorganic elements, the very shattering of life and meaning. The film, so much deformed, stages a hyperbolic tragicalness: the end of all life in the cosmos. Justine had already set in motion this process, by destroying her marriage and career in a matter of hours. Yet, of the four characters in the second half of the film, she is the one who eventually proves to be the wisest, she speaks and acts like a Stoic or Epicurean philosopher. Lars has made it clear that Justine is himself. “My analyst,” he has said to Thorsen, “told me that melancholics will usually be more level-headed than ordinary people in a disastrous situation, partly because they can say ‘What did I tell you?’ But also because they have nothing to lose. And that was the germ of Melancholia.”
Indeed, the melancholic person – referred to by present-day psychiatry as “major depressed patient” – is someone who has lost all hope. Of the three theological virtues Fides, Spes, and Caritas, the first two are extraneous to him. Yet, the lack of two highest virtues inscribes him in the field of the third, noble one: Caritas. Back then, this virtue stood for love. The end of the world can be read as an allegory for the end of all Hope (Spes), after which all that remains is love.
The “crazy” Justine is endowed with a secret knowledge. She guesses the precise number of beans in the jar, and knows already that Melancholia will collide with Earth, destroying it. At the beginning of the film, we see electricity rising from her fingertips, which contrasts with a slow and inexorable falling of dead birds from the sky. In another scene, she strives to move forward but is held back by branches and liana; stuck in her depression, a surplus of energy is restrained by an outrageous impediment. Justine is like Cassandra, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba. Cassandra’s prophecies were always catastrophic, as they always involved the destruction of Troy; yet, even if people had trusted her, things would not have changed. The Greeks believed that one’s Fate could not be altered, and knowledge of the truth would serve no purpose. Thus, it was better for the Trojans to ignore her; in short, it was better for them to delude themselves. Like Cassandra, Justine predicts the catastrophe, but Claire and John, the stingy but optimistic husband, choose not to believe her. Here, von Trier is certainly reproducing an ancient motif of Western thought dating back to Aristotle: the melancholic person knows, which is why he dedicates himself to science and mathematics; his madness is the flip side of an excessive misanthropic lucidity.
Through Justine, Lars seems to give substance to a profound conviction shared by the majority of depressed people, namely, that they see the world as it really is, while others, carefree and distracted, do not. Reality has a certain wickedness to it, life is a useless passion, there is no reason why we live and proliferate. “Will”, Schopenhauer would say, forces us to live, to enjoy, and to suffer, but this Will is meaningless. The moody nihilism of the depressed exudes a sense of metaphysics: there is nothing in the world that is worth the trouble of doing it.
So it is that the melancholic Justine, who has nothing else to lose because she has already lost everything, consoles her sister who is unable to accept the end, saying to her: “The Earth is evil”. Human beings, life, they are just errors to be erased.
And, little by little, as the cosmic catastrophe approaches, Justine becomes more and more steadfast, firm and lucid – a “steel-breaker”, as her nephew calls her – while her “normal” sister is falling apart. In the end, the “madwoman” will give courage and strength to Claire and her child. With Hope gone, what remains is the nearly invulnerable triangle of Love. The beauty of Justine is the beauty of death. And, in a most pre-Raphaelite scene, a completely naked Justine bathes in the blinding light of the planet Melancholia. She sunbathes in the light of death.
When Claire’s son shows to Justine Internet sites which predict the catastrophic effects of Melancholia, Claire scolds him for frightening his prostrate aunt. And Justine actually says she cannot possibly frightened “by my planet”. Justine sees Melancholia as her planet, and this will set in motion the only thing that can free her: the destruction of all life.
4. The End of the Opus
Unless we, too, are depressed, how can we possibly digest this encomium of absolute death recited by the film? How can we enjoy the end of everything performed before our eyes? If we think that, in any case, art creates connections, if we think that art is the instrument of Eros, a question must be asked: why are we so powerfully seduced by those excruciating artistic creations that, insistently, signify the notion that the end of everything is the best that can happen to us?
Nevertheless, we are always already greedy of catastrophic spectacles. From time to time, of course, we seek distraction in more uplifting, even thrilling, works. However, what we consider the highest expressions of our civilization, the Greek tragedies and those of Shakespeare, did not usually end very well. Greek tragedies were stories whose conclusion was already known, there was no suspense, the audience would hope for no happy ending. And so resounded the cavernous voice of the tragic actor who – in Oedipus in Colonus – cries: “It would be better not to be born!” And yet, we take pleasure in tragic downfalls, even when the deadly descent is astronomical, as is the case in Melancholia. Von Trier provokes his audiences when he declares: “You claim to have nobly tragic hearts. Well, let’s see if you can endure this film!”
One may argue: “But if Justine is quasi-Lars, then Melancholia belongs to a longstanding tradition of autobiographical novels where the protagonist-author lets himself die – e.g. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrook, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version, and so on. The writer who dies – one may say – exorcises his death through his character; by “killing” his “double”, he allows himself to survive, as if death in effigy could magically save him from his real death. The author thus derives satisfaction from surviving, through his work, his own disappearance; by representing it, he “overcomes” it.
The end of the film, which exalts the spectacular end of everything, reminds of a different finale, that of Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno – a classic of XXth Century Italian Literature. At the outburst of WWI, Zeno is a middle-aged man, serene in the comfort of his decently mediocre life. Zeno is not excessively troubled by this event, and the novel ends as follows:
Perhaps, through an unheard-of catastrophe produced by devices, we will return to health. When poison gases no longer suffice, an ordinary man, in the secrecy of a room in this world, will invent an incomparable explosive, compared to which the explosives currently in existence will be considered harmless toys. And another man, also ordinary, but a bit sicker than others, will steal this explosive and will climb up at the center of the earth, to set it on the spot where it can have the maximum effect. There will be an enormous explosion that no one will hear, and the earth, once again a nebula, will wander through the heavens, freed of parasites and sickness.
Svevo’s end of the world is the work of a man “like anybody else”, but “sick” – and, maybe, he is sick because he is like everybody else. Conversely, the end imagined by von Trier comes from outer space. Nonetheless, both works end with the explosion of the earth, which does not frighten the protagonist; on the contrary, this is what they wish for themselves. The difference is that Svevo’s novel, dealing with the death of all hope, does not offer any flower of mourning out of a futile, and extreme, caritas. We can suppose that Svevo’s cosmic end is the final undoing of a resilient knot of rage; when we are prey of uncontrollable anger, we scream “I’m going to explode with rage!” Both in Svevo and Zeno, an un-payable credit has accumulated behind their veil of elegant irony; a credit turned into rancor against humanity. As previously mentioned, von Trier’s planetary end looks like the deadly and disastrous version of a fecundation process. When Justine says she does not fear Melancholia because the latter is her planet, it is as if she were saying “this is my husband”. Melancholia is the spermatozoa of death.
Not by coincidence, the film poster has been clearly inspired by John Everett Millais’s painting Ophelia. In the painting as well as in the cinematographic sequence, a drowning woman, young and beautifully dressed, lies on the surface of a stream. Both Ophelia and Justine hold flowers in their hands, which they had been picking up and are now dispersing on the water surface. Von Trier’s representation of Justine shows her in her bridal dress; it is a frontal portrait. Basically, Justine marries death – a word which, in Germanic languages, is masculine. Death (Danish: Død) is the handsome groom of the beauty. Two contrasting ceremonies, wedding and funeral, are here reunited. We are invited by von Trier to Mr. Death’s wedding. Yet, he concedes us the extreme consolation of love.
5. Extroverted Melancholia
Von Trier, whose life has been affected by mental crisis, knows psychiatry as well as psychoanalysis. He has been undergoing treatment for a lifetime; apparently, with little therapeutic outcomes (but with good artistic results). If he has chosen the title Melancholia, it is because he intended to make a film on melancholia – now known as ‘major depressive disorder’ – also in a psychiatric sense. This, however, has not simply resulted in the portrayal of Justine’s mental breakdown.
The depressed melancholic reproaches himself for all sorts of failures, sins and flaws, so much so that he ends up considering himself as the most abject being on earth. Freud’s analysis of the melancholic subject, in his Mourning and Melancholia, deals with concepts that are at the same time straightforward and incredibly complex. Melancholia, the psychotic depression, would be a kind of mourning, the reaction to the loss of something valuable to the subject – a person, an ideal, or a cherished object. The melancholic does not blame the precious, lost object: the shadow of this missing object is projected onto the Self, which thus becomes the object itself, loved and hated at the same time. In a nutshell, raging against himself, the melancholic becomes a substitute for the object that has let him down. Because, according to Freud, the beloved object, which has betrayed or disappointed the subject, was never an object in the first place – that is, something completely separated from the subject – but something of his own: his ideal; what he would have liked to be, or to have, so as to Be in the magnificent appearing of the world.
Justine’s melancholia is no textbook case, since in the first part of the film she does not get mad at herself, but at others. At some point of her life, she feels the compelling need to destroy all of the relationships she had built, both amorous and social. Nowadays psychiatry tends to classify this kind of melancholic subject as “borderline”. Sometimes, as soon as they realize something they had dreamt of, they suddenly destroy these achievements of theirs, in a glorious dance with death. Yet, I prefer to call this subject an extrovert destructive melancholic – by untying social and amorous bonds, he destroys himself. Or, better, he reduces himself to the minimality of being-only-himself – or, as we see at the end of the film, to the minimalism of loving his closest blood relatives.
It is as if, in the perspective of a spiritual decease whose metaphorical representation is an astronomical death, what really counts are our closest, nearest, affections, the familiar ones, the only bonds that Melancholia cannot destroy.
Melancholia depicts the end of all living things. But where does this joyous feast for everybody’s destruction, and even self-destruction, derive from? It is hard to give an answer. This is the big mystery of Thanatos path, which, from the ancient times of Athens on, continues to seduce and, paradoxically, console us.
 L. von Trier, “Longing for the End of All”, Interview With N. Thorsen, (http://www.melancholiathemovie.com/#_interview).
 I. Svevo, William Weaver (trans.), Zeno’s Conscience (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), p. 437.