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Melodrama of Melancholia

by Priyaa Ghosh

Freeze the time and slow down its passage, I am mourning my own death;  I am afraid to meet with the moment…cripplingly alone. This is what I took home from Melancholia,


From Terminator to Day after Tomorrow, Hollywood had already churned out a gamut of “end of the world” films playing out the threat of natural disasters and invasion of the aliens on our planet. Lars von Trier takes off from that legacy, but does he really propose a trajectory to the great threat to human existence, advancing the  American obsessive fear  of being wiped out, the fear of the limitations in putting things under control.  Perhaps for the film, the approach of the planet melancholia, only partly emanates from this discourse and the rest of the deeply entrenched nihilism emanates from a shadow of the self, looming large and threatening. It is  a disintegration of the Nietzschean figure of the all controlling superman.  Melancholia is in us, a part of us, which is sent to retreat in the unconscious depths of the mind, by the exuberance of an assurance of rationally generated happiness, wholesomeness and a well being predicated on visibility and control. The impossibility of sharing the suffering of death is the primary predicament which sows the seeds of futility and decay in the film. The impossibility of meaningful communication aggravates the suffering to a state of paranoia and neurosis.

Raising another toast to the soul of the feminine in, Breaking the Waves, Idiots, Dogville, Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist, and now Melancholia, von Trier continues to capture women in their various facets in relation to men who have been posited in his films as weak, insensitive and shortsighted. Women have been the center of all of Von Trier’s films, where either they are the epitomes of selflessness, or custodians of natural human values or embodiments of anti nature, or a born seer who is also doomed. Melancholia explores the various dimensions of death, of the fear of death which almost every human being experiences, and the anticipation of death. Let’s think of the film by beginning to ask what does melancholia mean? Is it sadness, emanating from heavy heart; is it mourning over the death of someone close, or is it  persistent sense of sadness, of possession of a certain knowledge of being doomed, and a simultaneous inability to be in any harmonious relationship with  the presentness of an existence in the congregation of the life world and the affected self. Taking its cue from Antichrist the film opens up the classical dichotomist relation between man and the beautiful, bountiful nature. The big question is, “will it be a friendly planet? Will Melancholia pass us by?”.

Melancholia tries to knit a matrix of complex issues of time, eros, death, eternity, science, consciousness, absence of faith, and nonexistence. It is within this that von Trier tries to cast a hypothetical story, set in an almost theatrical ambience, shot with spot lights and soft key lighting.  A certain shade of light which fills the sky before and after an eclipse.  The narrative unfolds with  a set of extreme slow motion shots, carved in hyperreal temporality. A sense of the surreal pervades each of the shots, like the stag in labor and the acorns in Antichrist , as the three main characters, Justin,  Claire, and her little son Leo, are caught in action and frozen by virtue of the apparatus of cinema. A cut suddenly unsettles this intoxicating imagery half like real, half reel, and highly picturesque with a hint of gothic illusionism, reverting back to an enlarged version of Peter Breugel’s hunting scene in the snow. Thus flows the narrative as a huge tech savvy car tries to make way through a narrow alley, carrying the bride and the groom. The story is in a flash back, but strangely without a point of view, and if there has to be a perspective, it is of the dead, of all of them who will be subsequently living to die until the slow motion shots in the opening matches to complete the circle. Who survived then to narrate the story, none…. But cinema alone! Or may be one of them,  but, the high angle introductory shot into the narrative flow, belongs to no one, not a tree nor  a building on either sides of the woods. The film is chaptered like a novella, as Justine and Claire; named after the two sisters by the Danish auteur. So begins the anachronistic journey into dead time, a time frozen in eternity. There are no ghostly horrors in the narrative world, although the opening shot of Justine’s face in close up with her jelled locks fashioned as thorny outgrowths, framed by birds and leaves caught in their descent, coupled with the bellow of a haunting soundtrack sets the mood of an anticipated horror. The grotesqueness of the horror is underplayed by the characters who live in their own ghostly shadows, the breath and intensity of the impending horror does not befit the tools of representation, and thus is treated as an overwhelming, all encompassing affect. The sheer enormity of the sensibility of death paralyzes Justine in the latter part of the first chapter. The inability to share it pushes her into neurosis. Her disease pertains to the order of the mental and not her physical status, until she has come to terms with the truth. We are alone is what Justine will tell Claire when Claire tries to comfort her in the second chapter. Loneliness accentuates the heaviness of the irremediable sadness.  Quite interestingly both the sisters look whitish and lost in their stone cold faces, even Claire who tries to apparently remain on top of things is always pallor faced, who pulls herself with an innate courage into a long way until her suspicion becomes a reality. Claire had hoped against the odds, and so her plight was more intensified than Justine who believed in  certitude of her knowledge, and therefore towards the end appears more composed.

Melancholia evolves as a site of debate between accuracy and capability of calculative scientific prediction on its paradigmatic axis, and intuition and unscientific predictions and knowledge on its syntagmatic axis. The ground of this debate is tactfully set in the game of beans in the bottle, and the accuracy of predicting the correct number by the guests. Of course Justin is correct, that the bottle has 678 beans, because she can sense things beyond what is manifested in its material forms, before the sight of the rationally trained eyes. The event of the approach of the planet is like an eclipse, only, maybe this time the sun shall never shine on earth again… casting an eternal shadow of death and oblivion.  Finally, the debate meets its resolution, when John’s claim that melancholia has been predicted by scientific calculations to be a “friendly planet” proves to be a miscalculated conclusion on an alien object. John defeat had forced him to commit suicide when plethora of scientific analysis went awry.  But, John too perhaps had a haunch of this and therefore had hung on to scientific analysis and predictions with vehemence as a belief system. His constant iteration became his sign of doubt. The entire scientific apparatus symbolically the telescope, and scientific belief( the fact that Leo had invented a tool to measure the speed and map the approach of the mammoth Melancholia) falls flat, and much before the earth is shattered we see both the most active men in the film are lost, John and the servant and their father.  The scientists tried to witness and archive the moment but ironically became archived by the lashing Melancholia, stowed away in oblivion, maybe in the recesses of the cosmos.

My question after having watched the film is, was Melancholia only affecting the secluded mansion and its inhabitants, is it not uncanny that the affect is never addressed among the villagers? Yes, the servant goes missing and the horse shows signs of an imminent natural calamity, but what I wish to ask is, are they too, not a part of the very same household which goes through this crises in negotiating death and life. Is the affect then not an extension of the thinking mind of  certain social group of people, and therefore by default  becomes a contagious malady caught by the servant and the horse. What is “thought” then – a rational means to render clarity on things beyond tangible control/supervision or things which autonomously exist. Von Trier sets the film almost like  a chamber drama where the space of the chamber flows and meanders itself within the precincts of the mansion.  One thing that cannot escape being noticed is the huge sun dial or some ancient devise to measure time, stands tall in the prim green courtyard before the house. Several times in the course of the film Justine had walked through this stretch, but this mammoth piece of artifact is never seen.  What lies in front of the house, is it a lake – island with silvery water or does its meadow stretch into an infinity merging with an ocean of nothingness. Remember, Melancholia rises from this vast stretch to hit onto the trio of the two sisters and the nephew who had tented up outside at the final call of death, hoping to battle against strategically. In Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, thanatos or death personified loomed on the shoulders of the brave knight, but the affect was not hyperbolic, he simply reminded the Knight of his time left on earth to wind up things. In Melancholia the melodramatic affect of death is accentuated by an acute sense of loneliness, of deafness, of insensitivity, perhaps it is not the same Kierkegaardian existential crises of a Christian world view, but a crises in a milieu of the absence of any God, the absence of any religion has already been iterated.( we do not see a church wedding, but all other paraphernalia of the event unfolds in this film, unlike in Breaking the Waves). Does religion help in compromising with this degree of acute affectation? The film of course does not answer these, but unsettles a set of contemporary worldview by positing these alternative thoughts. “This is why I hate you so much Justine”, has been a refrain from her sister, the hate is for seeing and sensing truth and its ugliness. Strong willed and vivacious Claire contacts the malady of affectation and passes on into an existence of fear, horror, and inability to prepare for death. Melancholia prepares for death, it reminds of a close end, her affect has been too late and therefore she dreams of a dramatized ending with a song and wine on the terrace as the earth passes into non –existence, swept off by the invasion of the approaching planet.

Morality has never triumphed in Von Trier’s. It’s a sort of cliché which has mutated over centuries to take the shape of a generative, affirmative value,  growing into an ethics of the self. The self is the protagonist which deconstructs itself contesting its very own self fashioned image of a “self” it performs in its everyday practice,  and in doing so, sometimes loses  out on the essences of  each of its individual fragmented beings, throwing up a contradiction for any singularity in its existence. Von Trier opens up a play of this kind of ethics and the desire of the “self” versus the two most human drives: of death drive and sex drive.

Every life that manifests itself on our friendly planet comes into being by its unique guarantee of non –existence in its materiality. What then has the planet Melancholia got to do with death. Historically western philosophy had always pointed out to an umbilical relation between eros and thanatos. Eros affirms life and thus confronts or mitigates with the death drive in human beings. Melancholia in its first part plays out this binary and its implicit disharmony through its façade of a lugubrious marriage of Justine, an ornate, extravagant event set in the heart of a no where( where the film is actually situated). Like Dogville, it is also a closed world, and at least in Dogville the film’s narrative navigated its way through a network of relationships that the female protagonist had woven, each a double edged sword. In Melancholia, the diegetic world is completely cut off from its larger whole, throughout the sumptuous banquet we hardly ever see any conversation between people who don’t form a part of Justine’s everyday. Claire runs to the village with her son Leo as a last bid to save their lives from the life engulfing planet, but there is no shot to establish the village space other that the lush green vicinity.

Justine the bride is an epitomic celebration of this sense of melancholia which diffuses and captures her other closest kin, her sister Claire and her nephew Leo. So what is Justin’s character like? Is she straight out of the Gold Heart Trilogy of Von Trier; or does she figure as a new type. Even before death literally approaches the deep affectation by a strong sense of its impending, inevitable, appearance, Justin looses faith in any of the relationships she has or even on the very day of her marriage. Justin commits   the sacrilegious act of having sex with a stranger  Tim (the man who had been planted by Justine’s employer to get the “tagline “ out of her) on her wedding night, leaving her husband in the midst of their lovemaking; but doesn’t she implore him to just sit with her for a while?. The moment marked the failure of the husband to sense the grief in his wife and therefore signified the emptiness, the void in the relationship. Is this defiance a test to see if she can defy the impending horror of death.  Nobody gives her a hearing or asks of her discomfiture, her husband is also deaf to her utmost need, and once again the stranger becomes the chosen partner.  In the beginning of the film  Justine is shown in a bridal dress sinking without a ripple into a pool of still water… sinking into an irretrievable ocean of melancholia, which will squeeze out the life from the being before it has actually gone.  She is like an archetype of the order of Tiresius of the Theban tragedy , and the irony lies in the fact that she is a part of what she sees and senses. She is doomed to see the real, and feel it with its harsh intensity.

Melancholia is itself the melodramatic excess in the film, it is also the lament and resurfacing of a lost schema of the world, as Peter Brooks had suggested. The lull and the foreverness of this feeling coming from an ancient ritual of mourning ( ancient both in the sense of being historical in the parlance of tradition and society and also as historically determined by the body itself, from its very moment of being into existence as an entity through the trauma of umbilical severance.), becomes an alien element in a scientific, post-postmodern world view, offsetting the rational and the controllable. The soft lighting is symptomatic of this unconscious, the film is like a bad dream, with its elemental roots in the real. The harrowing sound track of violas and violin provide an anti climax to the visual track of the film, persistently and deliberately from the very opening.  As the couple set afloat the balloons lighting them under the nocturnal sky, the happy celebratory moment recedes into a mournful score. A pervasive sense of unreal, fictitiousness, and a sense of losing out, conjures the film as an important take on the melodramatic.


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