[This review of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia was written and posted elsewhere, anonymously, on 24 November 2011. I repost it by request, largely unchanged, timely references to Occupy and all. I haven’t seen the film since then, so I’m not sure how much I still stand by what follows. It sounds about right, though.]
After I went to see Rachel Getting Married, I came home and read something about it on Gawker or Jezebel or suchlike. I was strangely surprised at the reactions of the gossip class to the film: they seemed to sympathize with Rachel, the reasonably well-adjusted titular sister of Anne Hathaway’s addict anti-heroine who shows up and almost ruins the wedding with the forceful negativity of her person. Believe me, I don’t romanticize addiction, having known my share of sufferers, but at the same time sympathizing with those who are able, nay keen, to do sensible things didn’t even occur to me. That, I suppose, is what it means to be decadent, or, putting it less glamorously, what it means to be part of a decaying and parasitic class that produces nothing for itself. Or does it? More on that at a later time, but first let me hasten to the thesis of this post:
Lars von Trier’s Melancholia can be read as a remake of Rachel Getting Married that so weights the narrative toward the perspective of the depressive, the maladjusted, the fuck-up, that its narrative obliterates the entire earth to foreclose audience identification with those good people who would say, Life goes on, It is what it is, Take some responsibility, Have some self-respect, Life is what you make it, Why can’t you just be normal? etc. etc. Or as the well-adjusted sister’s husband in Melancholia keeps saying of the behavior of the depressive sister and her downer mother: “Unbelievable!” (This surely echoes the last line of another good Scandinavian anti-bourgeois drama, Hedda Gabler: “Good God!—people don’t do such things.”)
Melancholia comes in two parts, after a dazzling painterly overture showcasing the end of the film’s world. The first part focuses on Kirsten Dunst’s Justine (named after Sade’s much-put-upon heroine of a novel I didn’t finish reading and probably never will). It is Justine’s wedding day, and her sister and scientist brother-in-law, who live in a manor on a golf course, are throwing her a fancy reception. Even before she gets there, things get messed up when the extravagant stretch limo she wanted to arrive in gets stuck on the road. When she does arrive, the reception is awkward. Her divorced parents, who make mortifying speeches, are the quintessential post-1960s couple: a lecherous father and a militant mother, the perfect Boomer-narcissist pairing of the sexually-liberated man and the politically-liberated woman. And yet, for all those who would understandably accuse von Trier of misogyny, the militant mother, railing against marriage in general, seems to be the only one at the wedding who displays the affect appropriate to it.
For Justine is an interesting woman marrying a perfect non-entity, a drawling and brainless boy who is furthermore the best friend of her smarmy employer at a public relations firm, where Justine writes copy even though she’d rather be an artist. Her boss serves allegorically as the replacement parent, the money-man who exploits the children of the personal revolution as the revolutionaries wallow in their self-discovery. This wedding is accordingly meant to ensure Justine’s future participation in the system: to usher her at last into the order of normality–jobs, kids, cars, and the rest.
But our female Bartleby would prefer not to, and so she doesn’t. At first passively–by leaving the ceremony to pee on the golf course; by taking a bath in her veil; by re-arranging the displayed art in her sister and brother-in-law’s study–and at last actively–by rebuffing her new husband’s advances; by fucking (in effect, raping) her new co-worker; and by quitting her job–in a series of wryly amusing scenes she undoes her perfect day and resigns from the normal forever.
Melancholia‘s second part, focused on Claire, is on the other hand aggressively boring. The flat low to the manic high of depressive affect, it returns a Justine, completely immobilized with sorrow and ennui, to the manor in the days before a planet named Melancholia is due to pass by the earth–or else to collide with it. Claire’s part–the part of clarity–has little of the humor or narrative momentum of the first section, even when the apocalypse finally arrives. I found the whole second half difficult to watch and finally unmemorable, even as Claire is progressively wrecked by the knowledge that her world, kid, golf course, van and all, are about to come to an end. Justine gives a few speeches of gnostic prophecy, seemingly left over from Antichrist, about how life on earth is evil, but they’re unnecessary. The point is clear enough: the melancholic is the true realist, and failure to conform with humanity’s brutalizing enforcement of its own illusory mastery over nature is paradoxically to be closer to that nature even as it annihilates you.
But it’s really not so clear, is it? Von Trier knows his Freud well enough to know that melancholia means an ego-wasting inability to let go of the lost object, which in this case is life itself. The melancholic is emphatically not a Buddhist or Stoic or monastic, one who has superseded her own attachment to the world; instead, the melancholic actually loves the world more than those who are successfully able to mourn, to bury the dead, to get married, to go to work, to efface themselves in the name of perpetuating things. The melancholic doesn’t discipline herself to turn away from the world; she remains in the world and brings it down by the force of her own abjection. A Freud explicator explains it this way:
In melancholia, however, the libido withdraws into the ego and identifies itself with the lost object. This would make sense in ambivalent relationships where the love/hate relation to the object simultaneously wills it to stay and leave at the same time. This identification with the object can become dangerous when the melancholic desires the object to disappear enough to harm him or herself.
As at the wedding Justine at first brings the object (life/herself) down emotionally, but then she may bring it down in a more literal sense, as the planet Melancholia smashes the world (subject and object at once). Justine’s nephew has a nickname for her, presumably premised on his fantasy that they will build an underground retreat together: he calls her Aunt Steelbreaker. That is not the nickname of someone who passively resigns from the earth.
Which brings me around to Neil Simpson’s very good essay on the film, which asks about its relentlessly German aesthetic:
The clues are everywhere. The Kandinskys are unceremoniously dumped in this film, replaced by Brueghel the Elder and Millias. The strains of Wagner’s prelude to Tristan and Isolde reoccur throughout, and the striking blonde and blue-eyed Dunst is seen riding horses through misty pine forests.
For Simpson, the film endorses German Romanticism’s hostility toward the Enlightenment’s mathematical/materialist order. This is probably true, but in light of Lars von Trier’s statement, “I understand Hitler….I sympathize with him a bit,” the reading will almost certainly have to be carried a bit further, toward a sense of the dangers that come when the Romantic melancholic, who would rather will nothingness than will nothing, bursts into some violent action in or on the world. The key scene for this reading of the film is the one in which Justine, in a fit of rage, assaults her beloved horse: a melancholic who acts–in effect, a revolutionary–may destroy what beauty actually exists.
If the planet Melancholia is the world-destroying force of a refusal to mourn-or-conform turned outward on the beloved world, then Justine’s ultimately feminized passivity is the therapy Lars von Trier ministers to himself to treat his sympathy for his Uncle Steelbreaker, Herr Hitler. Better to be an artist than a politician. Better to be Ophelia than Hamlet, who may in the end have toppled the state, as some observers hope our latter-day melancholic Bartlebys on Wall Street will do, but in so toppling it, do recall, he only cleared the way for Fortinbras (whose name more or less means “strong-arm”). What, then, should a melancholic do if she should not revolt? The question answers itself: he or she should make art. Alongside that, as Antichrist‘s conspicuous concluding dedication to Tarkovsky might hint and as von Trier’s Catholic conversion attests, he or she could also turn to God. Haven’t these been the modern artist’s options all along?