Melancholia by Lars Von Trier: An Allegory for the Inescapability of Death and Emotional and Psychological Turmoil

melancholia
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Released in 2011, Lars Von Trier’s film, Melancholia, follows sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsburg) as they grapple with earth’s imminent doom. What commences as a film about a newly married couple—on the surface—gradually spirals into an amalgamation of familial dysfunction, complicated work dynamics, and mental chaos. Meanwhile, amidst the stars orbits a planet named Melancholia that threatens to end life on earth. A visually arresting cinematic experience, Melancholia is a captivating masterpiece in motion. Via scenes whose cinematography and mise-en-scene capture allusions to biblical anecdotes and artistic works, and slow-motion editing that suspends characters in time, Melancholia is an allegory that reflects the lurking inevitably of death and emotional distress.

Within the film, specifically in the opening scene, the audience is presented with multiple allusions to religious symbols and art pieces that work to establish certain components of the characters’ identities, and the narrative as a whole. For instance, there is a shot of Justine’s majestic, black horse, Abraham, with a key light on him as he slowly falls to the ground. The name “Abraham” could be referencing the biblical character Abraham who is the mediator between God and the human race. In Genesis chapters 18 and 19, there are two cities named Sodom and Gomorrah that God is intent on destroying because, “their [sins] are so grievous” (Genesis 18:20). Abraham tries to plead and bargain with God to spare the lives of a certain number of “righteous” people. Unfortunately, Abraham is unable to save Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities are completely wiped away. This story can be viewed as a parallelism to Justine’s role in the narrative because she ultimately becomes Abraham in that she has this very intimate and intuitive connection with Melancholia and nature itself.

Another shot that alludes to religious symbols is when Justine is standing in the middle of the forest with her legs together and her arms out at her side. This position resembles Jesus’ body on the cross, connoting that Justine is a type of savior figure. Which is not only significant because a woman is being equated to Christ, but also because throughout the film she acts as this savior and all-knowing being. For example, there is a scene in the film where Justine and Claire are conversing—Claire anxiously pacing the room because their father did not come to work, and the audience knows that this nervousness has also arisen due to her fear of Melancholia hitting Earth. Meanwhile, Justine is calmly sitting at the desk. Justine asks Claire if their father has a family, to which Claire responds, “I don’t know if he has a family” (Vesht). Justine then tells her in a low tone of voice, “Well, maybe this a time he needs to be with them” (Vesht). Immediately, as an audience member, we can make the connection that their father needing to be with his family is indicative that something tragic is going to happen. The camera zooms in on Claire’s face with her mouth slightly agape as her breathing starts to become heavier—which is a stark contrast to Justine who sits there with a blank stare.  She begins to talk about Melancholia passing by the earth and her fears, to which Justine responds, “the earth is evil, there is no reason to grieve for it, nobody will miss it. All I know is, life on earth is evil” (Vesht). During the scene, the camera continuously cuts between Justine and Claire’s faces, highlighting how different their physical reactions are to their upcoming fates. Claire tries to rebut against Justine’s dark conclusion about earth and proposes that “there may be life somewhere else” to which Justine promptly responds, “but there isn’t.” And when asked by Claire how she knows, Justine responds, “because I know things, we’re all alone” (Vesht). This is a momentous scene in the film because audience members recognize Justine’s omniscient, all-knowing abilities. Now, in the Bible when the happening of the apocalypse in inquired about, it states, “but about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). Thus, in Melancholia, Justine is “the Father” who knows when the fate of the world will occur.

In the opening scene there is also a shot of a bay window, tightly framed by brown pillars. This tight framing leads our eyes directly out the window to where we can see a burning bush. However, the bush is not disintegrating from the flame; which alludes to the story of “The Burning Bush” in the Bible: “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.” (Exodus 3: 1-2). Jesus comes to Moses via this burning bush and designates Moses to be the person to lead the Isrealites out of Egypt and away from the abuse they are experiencing under Egyptian rule. In terms of the film, Justine becomes this Moses-like figure, especially in the end when she helps Leo create this cave that he believes will protect them when Melancholia crashes into the earth. Justine leads Leo into this psychologically protective space so he will not be afraid of his looming death. This final scene also alludes to the religious number, three, that represents the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. At the beginning of the film, there is an establishing shot of Justine, Leo, and Claire standing in the garden behind Justine’s estate. Above their heads are three planets: Melancholia over Justine’s, a quarter moon over Leo’s, and a full moon over Claire. This shot foreshadows all three of their deaths that take place at the end of the film.

Along with biblical allusions, artwork is incorporated through either physical recreations by the actors themselves, or simply as part of the mise-en-scene. During the film’s opening, there is a close up of “Hunters in the Snow” by Dutch artist, Pietre Brughel. The image depicts a winter scene where hunters seem to be coming back to their village after a hunting trip. The image depicts a fairly simple way of living, especially in comparison to the characters’ lives in the film. The connection of the image to the film was not quite clear, but perhaps it is an homage to Brughel and his work. Also, in the film’s iconic opening scene is a shot of Justine in her wedding gown, holding a bouquet of flowers, while floating down a river. Her body is framed by nature like lily pads and other rich, green vegetation. Her body is centered in the frame, and our eyes are immediately drawn to her face that has a zombified expression. Upon seeing this shot, I immediately thought of Ophelia from “Hamlet,” specifically the painting Pre-Raphaelite painting by Sir. John Everett Mallais (special thanks to Dr. Jamil Mustafa’s British Literature class). In Mallais’ painting, Ophelia dons a long gown, and holds a bouquet of flowers as her body lays in the river. She too is framed by vegetation like Justine. Knowing the backstory of Ophelia’s tragic ending—purposefully getting in the water knowing the weight of her dress will drag her down because of her relations with Hamlet—this medium shot of Justine is representative of her relationship with her husband, Michael (played by Alexander Skarsgård). Early on in the film the audience sees how much Justine feigns her happiness and excitement over her wedding day. From her eagerness to escape through little actions like putting Leo to bed, to rejecting Michael when he wants to have sex and instead having sex with her new coworker, her desire to evade the relationship is made very clear. There is even a scene during the reception where Claire tells Justine how “Michael [has been trying to] get through to [her] all evening, with no avail.” Justine responds, “That’s not true, I smile, and I smile, and I smile,” to which Claire angrily replies, “you’re lying to all of us” (Vesth)! Thus, it makes sense that Trier chooses to allude to Ophelia, a character so troubled over her relationship that she chooses to kill herself.

During the scene mentioned in the previous paragraph, after Justine and Claire finish arguing about Justine’s pretending to be happy, there is a close up of her crying, and then the camera cuts to a pan of a wall in the study. Along this wall are books of art, of which are pieces of geometric shapes and abstract patterns. Justine gets up and immediately opens to new artwork. The first piece is Hunters in the Snow (1565) by Dutch artist, Pietre Brughel that appears in the opening of the film. The second image that Justine turns to is Mallais’ The Woodman’s Daughter (1851):

It shows the first meeting between Maud, the woodman’s daughter, and a young squire, the subjects of a poem by the same name by Coventry Patmore. They have an affair year later but cannot be married due to their differences in social rank. She has a child but goes mad and drowns it in pool of water (Miller).

The second image that is shown is Mallais’ Ophelia (1851-1852), another painting whose narrative concludes with the death of a woman. The third and fourth images the Justine turn to is The Land of Cockaigne (1567), another Brughel painting. The image depicts “a soldier, a farmer, and a clerk—are shown sleeping off the effects of their overindulgence” (The Land of Cockaigne). This image’s critique of greed and gluttony can be seen as Justine’s feelings of disdain towards her family and their desire of wealth and happiness, even though it may come at extreme costs. The next painting Justine props up is David with the Head of Goliath (1610) by Caravaggio. In the painting, David holds the severed head of, gazing at with a look of relief. The final image is of a deer, an animal that symbolizes protection. This scene in particular is an attestation to the power of mise-en-scene and texts communicating with one another across various mediums. These pieces of artwork symbolize the emotional complexities of the narrative and Justine’s attempt to grapple with her internal struggles.

Cinematographically, Melancholia is a striking composition of various editing styles that create a portrait depicting the intricacies of the film’s characters and its narrative. The first eight minutes of the film is shot in slow motion, a “[decelerating of] action by photographing it at a rate greater than the normal 24 frames per second so that it takes place in the cinematic time less rapidly than the real action that [takes] place before the camera” (Barsam and Monahan 275). In each shot, the characters’ movements are significantly slowed down, which, interestingly, creates a sense of panic and unease. There is one shot of Claire holding Leo and she walks across a golf course (and later on the film the audience realizes that in real time, she is trudging back towards the house after an unsuccessful attempt at leaving the property). As she is sluggishly walking on the golf course, the ground beneath her sinks, making it even more difficult to escape. Her inability to move faster, induces a visceral feeling of anxiousness in the audience because we see Claire trying so hard to move, and yet she is restricted from doing so. Claire’s inability to physically move is symbolic of her obsession with attempting to escape the harsh reality that the world will be ending soon. For example, once she realizes that Melancholia is gradually getting closer to the earth, she grabs and Leo and tries to head into the village. When neither of her cars will start, she decides to take a golf cart which dies before it evens leaves the property grounds. She then grabs Leo and tries to quickly return to the estate. Claire’s desire to go to the village is ultimately her refusal to accept that her life, and her son’s life will end. It does not matter where she goes, they are going to die anyways. Thus, the editing that dramatically slows down her trudge through the golf course speaks to her fear of being stuck and inability to escape death.

Slow motion editing in the first scene also captures Justine’s internal struggles as a woman with depression, as well as a woman who does not want to be caught in the restraints of marriage. The shot of her slowly running in her wedding dress, with roots grabbing on to her arms and ankles can dually symbolize both the act of marriage in which two people are bonded together through a contractual agreement. Also, the roots holding her down can be seen as her depression and the psychological weight she has to endure. There is even a moment during reception scene in which Justine tells Claire that she is “trudging through this gray, wooly yarn holding onto [her] legs. It’s really heavy to drag along” (Vesth). Thus, the “gray, wooly yarn” and the tree roots, and the slow-motion editing all become a metaphor for Justine’s depression; it is this forces that she to sluggishly tries to fight through, and most times to no avail. In turn, when Justine calmly tells Claire about the approaching end of the world, she is not afraid or worried. Due to her depression, her life seems to become suspended in time, a journey through which she has to “trudge” through:

The lens of depression deprives its wearer of seeing the world as a hopeful place. Cognitive psychology explains depression as threefold in cause: it comes from a more realistic view of the world, of ourselves, and of the future, than that of the average person. It is the absence of illusion, in other words. We may even call this triad “the cognitive illusions” that protect the ego from reality. Justine’s vision, though, is unobstructed by any such illusions; she is unprotected from reality – but this means she does not fear death either (Pinter).

Justine’s calm acceptance of the apocalypse, which results from the effects of her depression, it very much similar to the slow-motion editing that is implemented within the film. This slow-motion effect suspends everything in time, giving off almost an illusion of stasis. While she is moving, she is not really getting anywhere that truly matters. Thus, she floats throughout the film in this state of hopelessness, expecting the arrival of her death.

Lars Von Triers’ Melancholia takes the concept of an apocalypse film and completely turns it on its head. Rather than the cities crumbling to ashes, or the world flooding, Triers’ creates a film in which the apocalypse becomes a metaphor for the characteristics’ lives. Melancholia is more than a planet, melancholia is an emotional, oppressive force that wreaks havoc on the Justine’s and Claire’s lives. Through cinematographic elements such as mise-en-scene that allows various mediums of art of communicate with one another, and slow-motion editing that transcends motion and morphs into a metaphor for denial and depression, Melancholia becomes more than just a film, it becomes a visceral experience. The audience becomes engaged in an apocalyptic narrative that presents the complexities of the human brain, to the point that when the end of the film finally arrives, we realize that “earth is evil, [and there is no] need to grieve for it.”

References:

The Holy Bible New International Version. New Concepts, 2006

“The Land of Cockaigne.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/338703.

Miller , Amy. “’Melancholia’ as Wagnerian Music Drama.” Aristocrats of the Soul, 21 Feb. 2017, aristocratsofthesoul.com/melancholia-as-wagnerian-music-drama/.

Monahan, Dave. “Cinematography.” Looking at Movies, by Richard Barsam, 4 ed., WW Norton & Co, 2012, p. 275

Pintér, Judit. “The Lonely Planet: Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.” Senses of Cinema, 2 Dec. 2013, sensesofcinema.com/2011/feature-articles/the-lonely-planet-lars-von-triers-melancholia/.

Vesth, L. (Producer), Trier, Von., L. (Director). (2011). Melancholia [Motion Picture]. Denmark: Zentropa.

— Zakiya Cowan, Managing Editor

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