The madness of Melancholia – making sense of Lars Von Trier


Dir: Lars Von Trier | Year: 2011 | Cert: 15 Country: Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany

Running Time: 136 mins | With: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland

…This little life is all we must endure,
The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,
We fall asleep and never wake again;
Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,
Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh
In earth, air, water, plants, and other men.

The City of Dreadful Night, James Thomson, 1874

As a literary prelude to Lars Von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia, The City of Dreadful Night by Scottish poet James Thomson might have been written by the controversial director himself, over a century later. (Visitors to London during August’s riots this year may yet find a degree of truth in Thomson’s bleak title and outlook towards the capital). Neither men were strangers to depression, the directorial imprint for much of Von Trier’s condition is seemingly apparent within the darker elements of Breaking The Waves (1996) and more recently Antichrist (2009).

In revealing more than just a empty interpretation of London’s sprawling metropolis, Thomson hinted at the hopelessness of the human condition itself. The idea that death alone can provide oblivion to all inherent suffering endured in life is a notion that Kirsten Dunst’s character, Justine, brings startlingly to Von Trier’s film Melancholia.

Attempting to decipher the plot is unhelpful as we very quickly learn the entire premise of the film anyway. Amid the mother of all plot spoilers, the opening scene depicts the blue planet Melancholia, a narrative and wider metaphorical device for Dunst’s own psychological devastation, smashing catastrophically into Earth just as it will by the closing credits; Justine forseeing the final moments of humanity in a sequence awash with beautiful, extended, swooning Wagner-scored images. And yet despite all, the film still works; namely through the narrative tension developed in Part Two as we head expectantly towards a doom-laden finale.

The dismantling of romantic rituals in Part One of the film is a direct nod to Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998), the first of the Dogme95 films. We follow the wedding reception of Justine’s marriage to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) within a separate, distinct segment from the impending disaster yet to follow in Part Two. Yet here Von Trier plays a significantly weaker hand. The remainder of the wedding reception seem impervious to the drama unfolding before them. Much of the characterisation doesn’t hold together such as the Groom’s curious choice of Jack as Best Man, Justine’s career driven, overbearing and significantly older boss (played by Stellan Skarsgård) unless we are to assume that the role embodies father and son (though the relationship is unimplied anywhere else).

As a resistance of film makers to ever powerful Hollywood studios, Dogme95 swore a ‘vow of chastity’ to only produce pictures through natural lighting, handheld camera and zero special effects (to name but a few). Von Trier was co-author of the original manifesto along with Vinterberg, and the wedding section of Melancholia signposts Dogme95′s trademark febrile camera and jump cuts. Nevertheless, as the later computer generated images of planetary collision demonstrate, he has long since departed from the club. Perhaps it is significant that Von Trier since expressed disappointment at the final special effects depicting Earth’s destruction in the finished production of the film. There is no doubt that given his directorial history of making dark, pessimistic pictures, Melancholia could have cut even deeper, and the visual brilliance of the second act significantly dilutes the bleak message of the piece. Whilst there is no material evidence to substantiate the possibility of Von Trier unintentionally wrong footing himself  in the film’s directorial design, Melancholia is arguably the richer for it.

Still, while Thomson’s 1874 poem was well received in the literary circles of the time, winning acclaim from several leading English novelists, Von Trier’s film continues to garner mixed reviews today. Many critics seem to overlook that his pessimism is actually challenging us, we should be asking, why do we exist at all, why does anything exist?

George Saintbury wrote of The City of Dreadful Night that “what saves Thomson is the perfection with which he expresses the negative and hopeless side of the sense of mystery …” and so could be said of Lars Von Trier.

Despite an empty perception of human existence, Melancholia offers up a certain lyricism in the way any of us attempt to make sense of life and death.

In doing so, Von Trier delivers cinematic moments not easily forgotten.


♦ Recommended ♦


4 thoughts on “The madness of Melancholia – making sense of Lars Von Trier

    • I was surprised by how many critics disliked Melancholia; it sort of stands as an unlikely companion piece to Tree of Life in many ways.

      Both offer very different perspectives on life and suffering, both include a sort of cosmology in the narrative, however I thought Melancholia actually used it to far greater effect.

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