by Tom Kohut
Monday, April 9th, 2012
To begin with a declaration: I am not Lars von Triers’s biggest fan. I have seen Breaking the Waves, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark – a small number of films by someone who, despite the controversies and unpleasantnesses that seem to surround him, is nevertheless undoubtedly a significant filmmaker. (I made a point of not going to see Antichrist, although I can no longer remember what point exactly I was trying to make with this boycott, and given my enjoyment of Melancholia I am willing to revise that position.) My objections to his work are the familiar ones: misogyny, emotional manipulativeness, etc.
Having dispensed with these preliminaries, let me say unequivocally this: Melancholia is a flawed masterpiece. Triers’s film is spectacular, both in the sense of being a hypnotically watchable film as well as being a spectacle. And this makes sense, given that the film has the diegetical structure of a fairy tale. Understanding Melancholia as a fairy tale, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, enables one to dispense with at least some of the problems that some critics had with this film. To begin with, the Grand Hotel Abyss problem: its probably far more pleasant to endure the end of the world in a mansion overlooking the ocean than it would be in a Peruvian favella, to take a random example. To some degree, we could accept this, insofar as the function of the “Justine” section of the film (the wedding reception which ends with the marriage breaking up and our protagonist quitting her job) is gradually to subtract the social from the narrative. Through this gradual subtraction, the shedding of wedding guests, fathers, mothers, husbands and bosses, Triers is able to bracket everything extraneous to the depressive trajectory of global cataclysm.
If the subtraction of the social is one of the first diegetic devices that Triers uses to produce the fairy tale scenario, than the second such device would be the (over)valorization of depressive lucidity. As Dominic Fox has shown in Cold World, the depressive is always certain of one axiom above all others: she is right. Or, to put it more fully, her perceptions of the world and its functioning are clear of obscuring illusions; she is dis-illusioned, which condemns her to unimpeded realization of the fundamental wretchedness of the world. In Melancholia, Justine’s sense that all of terrestrial life is “evil” and that its incoming extermination is nothing to get upset about is part and parcel of the phenomenon of depressive lucidity. Unfortunately, it is here that Triers fumbles, in my opinion. That Justine believes that the rest of the universe is absent of life is believable within the axiomatics of depressive lucidity, and that she should insist on this point to her sister Claire (and she should exhibit a degree of self-satisfaction in this insight is also to be expected in this context. But this lucidity is not the same as omniscience. How does Justine know with certainty that the world is, in fact coming to an end and that the planet Melancholia is going to crash into the Earth?(1) Or, for that matter, how does she come to have knowledge of how many beads there are in the vase at her wedding? Does Triers take depressive lucidity as a metaphysical position, rather than as a philosophical predisposition? Or is the problem more serious than that? By this, I mean to point to Triers’s serious shortcomings when it comes to dealing with mental/emotional illness, as evidenced in the Grand Guignol of The Idiots. To be sure, and I say this with some experience in these matters, “depression” is a seriously disabling affliction. But one senses that there is, again with Triers, a certain desire to show this affliction in all of its humiliating debility: the scene at the bathtub, for example, in which the act of raising her foot is too much for Justine. This may be uncharitable, but it is hard not to have the suspicion that Triers is up to his old tricks in his depiction of women in abject, humiliated postures.
The problem might be formulated in a different manner by examining the other diegetic device that is used to subtract the film’s elements down to the only those necessary to the fairy tale narratological framework. This last device is the postulation of the uselessness of men. (There is an important corollary to this, about which more presently.) For Triers, men are, to misquote J. G. Ballard, an “evolutionary rustbowl.”(2) The father is feckless; Justine’s employer is a blowhard and his nephew a nitwit; Claire’s husband John is smug and dismissive until he realizes that Melancholia is indeed going to crash into the Earth, at which point he is happy to leave his wife Claire to deal with it. The corollary to this is the assertion of seemingly inexhaustible resources of endurance on the part of the female protagonists. While this is preferable to the usual pile-up of rapes and abuse that are the usual fate of Triers’s female leads, its not exactly Gloria Steinham, is it?(3)
The end result of these subtractive procedures is we are left with a child and two sisters – one dark and one fair, one named Justine and the other one Claire – in a fairy tale landscape. While I am not particularly interested in the anthropological discourse that surrounds the “classic fairy tale”, one should at least point out that most fairy tales have a sense of mythic inexorability about them which is achieved precisely by their willed bracketing of the social; that is, by stripping the narrative down to such a degree that it cannot follow any progression other than its own, Triers achieves a certain universalization of the phenomena he is describing. The world must come to an end. Why? Because it must.
But this leads to another flaw in this imperfect masterpiece: the note of sentimentality that rings so falsely at the end. Even before that, there is a curious imbalance of tone throughout Melancholia. One the one hand, we have the exquisite slow motion of the overture,(4) and then the jumpy Dogme reality effects of the handheld camerawork. The two filmic techniques never seem to quite cohere, in my opinion. Or perhaps they are simply not meant to cohere, and that the slower, more smooth sections are meant to further indicate what I’ve been calling the bracketing of the social in favour of the fantastic, the fairy tale. The problem then becomes less of inconsistency of tone as to what happens within each tonal section. In the Dogme scenes, we have, or at least seem to have, actual people doing actual things (arguing, ending marriages, having breakfast etc.). Then there are the “fantastic” sections (planets colliding). They have little to do with each other, which, to be fair, makes sense if the latter sections are to be considered most purely as the fairy tale segments. But my sense is that Triers is trying to embed the fairy tale into the “realistic” narrative, and that this attempt doesn’t entirely succeed. This is what I mean when I note the false ring of sentimentality: why does a seemingly “realistic” Justine, who hitherto has not been conspicuously sparing of others’ feelings, suddenly start talking of “a magic cave” to her nephew. Indeed, almost all of the scenes in which Justine interacts with the child are marked by a crude, if not perversely naive, emotionalism. This emotionalism reaches its zenith (or rather its nadir) at the end of the film, in which the end of the world takes on the affective tone of the forest fire scene in Bambi. (Which, to be fair, was terrifying in its presentation of an apocalypse when I saw it… at the age of eight. I suspect few eight year olds will be seeing Melancholia, unless they have rather unusual parents.)
The source of my criticisms, of my misgivings, of a film that I otherwise thought brilliant are connected to the fairy tale structure. To hazard a grand sweeping statement: if fairy tales are “realistic” stories writ large, than fairy tales are also myths writ small. My sense again is that Triers aimed for the mythic – and it is here that the use of Wagner might become explicable – but fell short. To be fair, I tend to prefer it when filmmakers are ambitious and dare to make “big statements” and am willing to be lenient when they don’t quite deliver, but here I suspect that while Triers aimed for a mythopoeic consciousness, he was unable to quite manage it and ended up with myth in the sense that Roland Barthes uses the term in his essay “Myth Today” (in Mythologies, 1957) – that is, in depoliticized speech.
Tom Kohut is a writer and film connoisseur based in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
1. The fact that, in the overture section at the beginning of the film, we see Melancholia crash into the Earth removes any dramatic tension that might have been built up in possibility that the planet might just swing around the Earth and then go. As a result, the husband John’s assertions that the end of the world is not nigh are hollow, and audiences are able to congratulate themselves on this fact, a point that will become important presently.
2. The actual quote is from an interview with Will Self republished in his Junk Mail. Ballard opines: “Of course men, on account of their greater physical strength, were the dominant figures in most social activities: commerce, industry, agriculture, transportation. These activities no longer require man’s great physical strength. A woman can just as easily fly a 747 across the Atlantic. A very small part of industry requires brute muscle. A woman computer programmer can control a machine tool that cuts out a car door. A large number of traditional masculine strengths, in both senses of the term, are no longer needed. The male sex is a rust bowl.” (34-5). Whatever.
3. There is the question of why the depressed woman is named Justine, a name familiar from the work of the Marquis de Sade. In Justine, the eponymous heroine is (forcibly) enlightened through a agency of the various libertines she encounters through a series of sexual encounters of the type one may expect in Sade. Rape as pedagogy: Justine learns of the meaninglessness of virtu in the face of a Godless, mechanistic and innately cruel world. We are not fair from Triers here; is it possible to argue that Justine (in Melancholia) has already experienced the abjections required of the Sadean heroine prior to the film’s diegetic beginning and that Triers cues this by using the name of one of Sade’s most famous protagonists? There is clearly work to be done on the Sadeanism (as opposed to sadism) in Triers’s work.
4. The use of the musical analogy is not accidental. Melancolia is a fairy tale, yes, but it also retains elements of the operatic (and how many tales have been made into operas?) as indicated by the obsessive use of Tristan und Isolde as incidental music for most of the film. I am not familiar enough with Wagner to discuss the role of his music in Melancolia, but my sense is that the role Wagner’s music plays in Triers’s film is not incidental and that there is work to be done here as well.