Steven F. Walker explores the threads of archetypal symbolism, world destruction, and personal depression woven through Lars Von Trier's luminous Melancholia.
Melancholia (2011), a film directed by Lars von Trier.
Reviewed by Steven F. Walker
Melancholia is a beautiful—and sometimes depressing—film on the theme of depression, whose background music restates insistently a gloomy leitmotif from the prelude to Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. It is also an unusual—if somewhat implausible—apocalyptic science fiction film, whose science is more than a bit wobbly. Finally, it is an archetypal drama of a high order, which Jungians—and not only Jungians—will relish for its powerful symbolic impact. It is all three kinds of film at once, and this makes it both baffling and fascinating.
The director Lars von Trier has experienced depression personally, and so has his leading actress Kirsten Dunst (who received the Best Actress Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of Justine in this film.) Speaking of his character Justine in an interview on the recently issued DVD of the film, the director states that “she gets a depression, and this is more or less a description of my own depression.” The film’s first part evokes a wedding reception and a wedding night from Hell. The bride (Justine) and the groom (Michael) arrive hopelessly late, and the bride’s family (her mother, her brother-in-law John and her sister Claire) are in nasty moods. Her arrogant boss Jack (whom later Justine will call to his face “a despicable, power hungry little man”) has shown up at the reception with Tim, a young man he has just hired to keep her working on an advertising tagline even on her wedding night. To make things worse, Justine falls into a severe depression and can barely function. Although the reception has been lavishly financed by her brother-in-law John in a grandiose hotel and golf course, nothing goes according to plan. The wedding night goes even worse. As Michael and Justine withdraw to the bridal suite, Justine asks him, just as they are on the point of disrobing, “Can I have a moment, please?” At this point she leaves the room in the middle of the night, goes down to the empty golf course followed by the assiduous Tim, and initiates a brief sexual encounter—something close to a rape—with her new assistant, after literally forcing him down into a sand trap. For all intents and purposes her marriage with Michael is now over, and when she meets her seriously disappointed groom leaving the hotel with his luggage, the very depressed Justine can only say to him, by way of farewell, “What did you expect?”
This has surely got to be the worst wedding party in all of film history, and its mood of sad and savage bitterness is linked with gloomy background music that opera fans will be familiar with: the so called “Tristan Chord,” from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which is introduced right at start of the Prelude to Act One, and is restated frequently throughout the opera. It’s musically unresolved nature expresses a mood of frustrated romantic longing for perfect union. At the very end of Wagner's opera, the chord is resolved, when the lovers have just died blissfully in each other’s arms, a love which finds its fulfillment in death (Liebestod). But Lars von Trier never lets us hear this last minute musical resolution of the Tristan Chord. (In fact, as the credits role after the end of the film, the director uses another unrelievedly gloomy bit of music from Wagner’s prelude to Act Three—there is apparently not even the musical ghost of a happy ending!) The Tristan motif appears over and over again in the film to highlight the mood of utter hopelessness and depression. Although Wagner’s opera had ended on the ecstatic note of the mystical union of Tristan and Isolde’s love-in-death (Liebestod), the film, in stark contrast with the opera, seems to provide no such thematic resolution at all. In it, there is no mystical union through a love stronger than death; rather, Justine and Michael’s marriage is brutally trashed before it is even consummated. And the young man Tim’s last minute proposal that he and Justine could form the “perfect couple,” as he puts it, is only met with Justine’s terse refusal: “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Not only is an intended marital union destroyed, but, by the end of the film, the Earth itself appears to be being destroyed. In terms of the apocalyptic science fiction plot devised by the director, the destruction of Justine’s marriage is a prelude to the destruction of Earth by an exoplanet named Melancholia that has been hiding behind the sun and is now on a near-collision course with Earth. Justine’s brother-in-law John assures everyone that astrophysicists have calculated that Melancholia will narrowly miss the Earth and so will remain just a “fly by”—but as it passes close to Earth it will provide a magnificent sight such has never been seen before by human eyes! This science fiction dimension of the plot lacks plausibility, since our current understanding of astrophysics makes it seem extremely unlikely that scientists would make such a monumental miscalculation. Furthermore, even if we grant that possibility, the second half of the film departs from the disaster-movie convention that the cataclysm must involve large populations. Von Trier only shows us the experience of a small group, which, after the departure of all the wedding guests and the death of John, is reduced to Justine, her sister Claire, and Claire’s young son Leo.
Leo has invented a simple wire apparatus that allows them to ascertain that the apparent size in the sky of the exoplanet is growing larger, then that it is growing smaller (as Melancholia begins to finish its fly by), and then—to Claire’s extreme consternation and then panic—that it is growing larger again, since it has apparently changed its course and is now heading directly for the Earth. It is this new twist in the plot, which might seem a bit clumsy from a purely science fiction point of view, that signals a turn away from apocalyptic science fiction in the direction of archetypal drama. From now on it is no longer primarily a question of faulty astrophysics, but rather of visionary experience. As the magnificent spectacle slowly begins to unfold—as the exoplanet Melancholia’s beautiful silvery blue sphere rises and sets in the sky, looming ever larger with each passing day—the viewer might well begin to leave behind worries about world destruction. The increasingly visible mandala form of Melancholia in all its splendor suggests that the film is now entering into the domain of the archetypal and the symbolic.
In retrospect, one realizes that the earlier scenes dealing with Justine’s depression and her impulsive destruction of her marriage, along with the Wagnerian motif (the unresolved Tristan Chord) that constitutes its insistent musical background, are symbolically the opening scenes of an archetypal drama of a desperate longing for unity and wholeness that is initially disappointed. The marriage of Justine and Michael is brutally aborted, and the symbolic unity celebrated in the wedding reception is broken. Everything goes wrong, and Justine’s depressive outlook ultimately seems to fit reality perfectly. The frequent repetition of the Tristan Chord highlights musically the mythological power of Wagner’s opera, but with its ecstatic union in the last scene left out. It is as though the archetypal image of the Couple (the archetypal union of Male and Female) can no longer express in our day, as it could for the Romantic composer Wagner, a plausible image of unity and wholeness. Lars von Trier is resolutely post-Romantic, however drawn he is towards the moody depths of Wagner’s romantic vision: no more Liebestod for him! This is because he has something else in store for his viewers, a new vision of archetypal simplicity and grandeur: the wonderful silvery blue sphere of Melancholia, as it appears frequently (but never for very long, lest the viewer grow tired of it) and ever larger in the course of the film. In the depths of the Cold War Jung famously wrote of flying saucers as representing a new myth of comfort and consolation for a divided world. But all symbols need to be adjusted to the concerns of the age. With Melancholia ,Lars von Trier has created another and more modern myth, perhaps better adapted than Jung or Wagner’s to the needs of a less romantic, more individualistic and more psychologically oriented age.
Jung himself was fascinated by the potentially psychological significance of the flying saucers so frequently sighted after World War II and the onset of the Cold War and the Nuclear Age. But now, with the demise of the Cold War, Jung’s flying saucers are no longer quite the objects of public fascination that they were in the 1950s, perhaps because our hyper-individualistic age is less mesmerized by the drama of collective political tensions. But the vision of the exoplanet Melancholia approaching the Earth is truly mesmerizing in the film. In similar fashion, Wagner’s romantic vision of the Couple--intensely moving as it still is (the Wagnerian background music is definitely a part of the film’s compelling power)--may not have been able to withstand the impact of contemporary cynicism regarding perfect love and union, as savagely illustrated in the wedding reception scenes of Melancholia. All the same, Lars von Trier’s film may be said to end with a scene that is a kind of Liebestod, but with a radically different cast of characters: not a man and a woman such as Tristan and Isolde who die together ecstatically, but rather two sisters finally reconciled (significantly, one light haired and one dark haired), and a boy who links them together as his mother and his aunt.
What is surprising as the film moves towards its conclusion is how Justine becomes less a victim of her depression and self-loathing and more the organizer of a therapeutic ritual. Her dark haired sister Claire, realizing that the end of the world is near, and in a state of increasing panic and despair, wants the three of them to come together on the hotel terrace and enact a sentimentally and conventionally romantic ritual involving wine, song, and candles. To this desperate appeal Justine replies savagely: “Do you know what I think of your plan? I think it is a piece of shit.” But, having brutally rejected her sister’s need for ritual consolation, Justine soon turns to her young nephew Leo, and at that moment an unexpectedly loving and compassionate side of her suddenly appears. The young boy is terrified; his father has told him before he died that “there is nothing to do and nowhere to hide.” His aunt Justine assures him, however, that “if your dad said that, then he has forgotten about something. He has forgotten about the Magic Cave.” So she leads the boy into the nearby woods where they cut and sharpen branches in order to build a kind of open type of structure on the golf course grass which will serve as the protecting sacred space (temenos) for their final ritual of joining hands. It is sheltered by this Magic Cave that they await the imminent impact of Melancholia, now appearing hugely and beautifully over most of the sky. Leo is still afraid, so she asks him to close his eyes, and then grasps his hand. She also takes her weeping sister’s hand, remaining calm and serene throughout, consoling both her sister and her nephew as the impact of Melancholia’s wave of light and energy engulfs them. The screen turns white with light, and then turns black as the apocalyptic rush of sounds continues for a brief moment.
So this is the end—or is it? It is hard to decide, for the film Melancholia manifests an intriguing and sometimes irritating thematic disconnect between personal depression, world destruction and archetypal symbolism. Yet I think the director just manages to link them in the end. Justine’s depression, literally represented, is implicated in a science fiction drama of world destruction, and then transcended by the numinous beauty of the mandala-like exoplanet Melancholia and of the final ritual of the Magic Cave. The film thus ends not as a personal drama or as a science fiction drama, but rather as a sacred drama. By the end of the film we are in ritual space, where a ceremony is enacted by a Bright and a Dark Sister, and a Boy appropriately named Leo (the Lion). This is a realm of archetypal representation, not of literal reality. The archetypal symbolism is simple and powerful: the loving union of the dark feminine, the bright feminine and the Divine Child (Puer) signaling the potential for the renewal of the archetype of wholeness (the Self) under the sign of the beautiful silvery blue mandala of the exoplanet Melancholia.
At least, that was my response to the film. However, it might be fairer to state that, by the end of the film we as viewers are in all three realms simultaneously: that of personal tragedy (Justin’s depression), science fiction (world destruction) and sacred drama (the archetypal revelation of light and wholeness). Still, the yearning for a lost sense of unity (represented by the failed union of bride and groom in the opening scenes, as well as by the unresolved Tristan Chord) would indeed be depressing and tragic, if no further hope for union and wholeness were extended. But the powerful symbols of renewal and reconciliation that appear in Melancholia’s archetypally apocalyptic finale suggest a new vision of hope for the future.
Or do they? In the end, Lars von Trier leaves it to the viewer to decide. One option would be to see the film’s ending as the fitting culmination of a depressive fantasy: the end of an evil world that, says Justine, nobody will miss. A second option would be to see in it a poignant and soulful (as opposed to sensational) ending for a science fiction film about the end of the world. The third one would be to see the archetypal numinosity of the ending as taking the viewer beyond both personal tragedy and science fiction into the world of archetypal process. Or . . . one could choose all three options. I’ll leave it at that.