Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
directed by Lars von Trier
In a recent issue of Time Out London, an almost full-length photograph of Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier accompanies an interview promising to explain his “Nazi claims.” Four months earlier at a Cannes Film Festival press conference, von Trier had jokingly described himself as a Nazi and said he understood Hitler. The firestorm of condemnation that followed was far more newsworthy than the premiere of his film, Melancholia. In an unprecedented reaction, the Cannes organizers expelled von Trier from the festival. When Melancholia opened in London the media were still flogging the controversial press conference, not the film.
Von Trier’s remarks were widely interpreted as anti-Semitic. The Time Out interview retold the filmmaker’s explanation: that they were about his Jewish and German identity, and that they were misunderstood. Although after Cannes he was contrite about the comments, Time Out reported that he recently went to Berlin for a retrospective where he repeated his remarks and got a rock star reception from his German audience. So is he or is he not an anti-Semite? I suspect that not even von Trier knows the full answer. Time Out’s interviewer describes him as “sniggering” about the whole situation.
But von Trier’s carefully posed photograph is perhaps more instructive. The erstwhile enfant terrible is a middle-aged man of 55. Dressed in a dark suit and looking out through black-rimmed glasses, he holds at his side a large hourglass. The overall impression is unprepossessing; however, the hourglass draws attention to the hand holding it. There, one can clearly make out the word “FUCK” tattooed across four fingers. The tattoo says it all: von Trier cannot resist the vulgarian equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded room.
One does not have to be a faithful Freudian to believe that von Trier’s Nazi comments, indeed all his perverse preoccupations, go back to his family. His parents were the radicals of their day—Communists and nudists who set no conventional limits. His Danish mother told him when she was dying that her German boss, with whom she had a long affair, not her Jewish husband, was his biological father. Von Trier’s psyche is undoubtedly a mass of ambivalent contradictions. He has a long-standing anxiety disorder and recently suffered a profound depression.
But while von Trier’s vulgarian impulse may be perverse and exhibitionistic, it is not stupid, as the New York Times’s Manohla Dargis suggested after the infamous press conference. It flows from that same stream of creative consciousness that has produced so many provocative and brilliant films: Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and now Melancholia. These films are painful to watch. All portray women suffering and von Trier’s sadomasochistic fixation.
Melancholia premiered 48 hours after Terrence Malick’s extraordinary The Tree of Life. The two are in fact similar in theme: both auteurs make the cosmos part of their story; both deploy special effects demonstrating how realistic and awesome an imagined universe can be; both films seem autobiographical. But where Malick penitently looks for redemption and grace, von Trier mocks faith, civilization, and conventional sentiments.
I confess that I went into the London opening of Melancholia not wanting to like it, but from the opening scene it was undeniably the cinema of a great artist.
Unexpectedly von Trier’s film begins with a stunning sequence of tableaux of painterly beauty—something that, as a founding father of the purist film movement Dogme 95, he had declared anathema. Each tableaux suggests a moment in the history of art, and then an actual painting appears—Bruegel’s famous The Hunters in the Snow, a sanctification of nature. Birds begin to fall from Bruegel’s sky, and the world of the painting comes to an end. On reflection one realizes that the tableaux form a narrative in images that foretells what is to follow.
Melancholia is the name von Trier has given to a planet that will collide with Earth and destroy it. And at the same time it becomes clear that Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the protagonist, is herself being destroyed by melancholia. Her symptoms are so clinically accurate that it seems reasonable to conclude that von Trier is portraying his own melancholia through her. (I believe all his best films express his own suffering along with his fixations.) Most people with melancholia contemplate ending it all, and Justine welcomes the destruction of Earth. As the apocalypse approaches, she proclaims that we are alone—there is no God—that life exists only on Earth, and that all life is evil. Then, in a line that only von Trier could write, she tells her terrified sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), “No one will miss it.”
Von Trier’s vulgarian impulse is perverse and exhibitionistic, but it is not stupid.
Justine doesn’t simply depict the experience of profound depression. All through the film, ominous strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde stir up the deepest layers of our psyche. The opera tells the story of the great and tragic romance in which Isolde betrays her husband the king and chooses to follow her lover Tristan in death. For Justine, the planet Melancholia is not just the end of the world. It is her Tristan, an object of passion.
At the narrative core of von Trier’s film is a dysfunctional family brought together for a wedding. Marriage is a rite of passage for the creation of a new family, but in Western society the new bond often fails to hold. One might even say the more elaborate the wedding, the more likely the divorce. Von Trier’s couple does not even make it though their wedding night.
The parents of the bride are divorced, and their war has not ended. The father (John Hurt) shows up with two young Betties. He has no shame about what the guests at his daughter’s wedding might think of his mÃ©nage; indeed, he takes obvious pleasure in drawing attention to them. The mother (Charlotte Rampling), attending the wedding unaccompanied, bristles with resentment and disapproval. The parents are at separate tables so there will not be a scene. But when the father toasts the bride, he cannot resist saying something about his ex-wife. She stands up to retaliate and announces to the assembled guests that she does not believe in marriage and thinks what her daughter is doing is dangerous. So much for family values. The father and mother of von Trier’s imagination are so egocentric and childlike that it is difficult to believe they were ever capable of parenting.
They, however, had two daughters. Justine, the bride, is creative, unpredictable, and prone to severe depression and impulsive episodes. Claire is controlling and compulsive. She and her wealthy husband have arranged an extravagant and elaborate wedding celebration organized by the world’s most expensive wedding planner. All of it has been worked out on a rigid schedule. And the sisters agree not to tell the rich, handsome bridegroom about Justine’s past.
Von Trier begins his unrelenting mockery of this pretentious event in a lighthearted way. The bride and groom are meant to arrive in a super stretch limousine, but it cannot navigate the narrow, twisting dirt road. They arrive at their own wedding celebration two hours late having had to walk.
Claire and her equally compulsive wedding planner are at their wits’ end, but their troubles have just begun. Justine’s psychic melancholia implodes, and she cannot control herself. In the most unforgettable moment in the film, a Dionysiac moment, Justine betrays her husband on her wedding night. In her wedding gown, she mounts a man she barely knows and does not respect and has sex like an animal. Later we see her lying naked on the grass, bathed in light reflected from the approaching Melancholia. For the first time we see the voluptuous Justine; she is offering up her body to her true object of passion in a pagan ritual invented by von Trier.
Justine disrupts every scheduled event and the romantic expectations of her new husband, who packs up and leaves. In the second half of the film, Justine lapses into a depressive stupor, and only the approach of the planet Melancholia—we don’t know if it will fly by or collide with Earth—rouses her.
Dunst took best actress at Cannes despite von Trier’s debacle, but Gainsbourg gives an equally impressive performance. French psychiatrists in the nineteeth century believed that different mental disorders had characteristic physiognomies. Gainsbourg’s face would confirm that theory. It is the face of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The bones peek ascetically through the spare flesh. Claire’s life is so structured that every activity is ritualized. The sisters love and hate each other; Claire controls and Justine resists. The clash between the sisters comes to a head when it becomes clear that Melancholia will not fly by. Claire instantly devises a ritual—they will sit on the veranda and sing songs and drink wine. Justine dismisses the plan as “shit.”
Von Trier of course has the last word in this, and it is compelling. Claire has a young son beloved by both sisters. When he realizes that Melancholia will strike, he is terrified and his mother cannot console him. But Justine reassures him that they can build a magic cave of branches that will protect them. The sisters and the boy hold hands in the rickety structure. We see them huddled together when the magic cave and Earth are annihilated. Von Trier mocks us: the only kindness is make-believe. Then the screen goes dark, and the silence is palpable. Some in the audience sniggered.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.