This is from the Great Grotesque Thing I’m writing, but it has some topical relevance now so I’ll post it. Basically, it’s a reading of the film as Romantic art (with a little Buddhism as well).
Melancholia announces its Romantic intentions immediately. The title itself claims a place alongside the great romantic spiritual laments, like Coleridge’s “Dejection: an Ode,” Shelley’s “Stanzas: Written in Dejection, Near Naples,” and Keats’s great “Ode to Melancholy.” But the film’s true romantic touchstone is a little later in time: the film opens with the ethereal gloom of the overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
There is, I suppose, a plot in this film, although (as in most opera) it is unsubtle and mostly a frame for supporting other purposes. There are two ground situations, both in the same location: a mansion on a large estate with, as we are reminded by the proud owner (John, played by Kiefer Sutherland), an 18 hole golf course.
The first situation is a lavish wedding reception that is gradually but completely destroyed (and the marriage with it) from the bottom up, as if it’s foundation were eroded from beneath by waves. The problem is that the conventional rituals of love, marriage, and celebration cannot withstand the bipolar realism of the family of the bride (Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst). Her manic father Max (John Hurt) explodes the idea of monogamous fidelity by picking up two women guests both of whom are named Betty. The Pan-like Max cavorts like a goat among women who have no identity at all. He seems to ask, “What is there in women to be faithful to? They’re all just Bettys.”
Justine’s mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) is the depressive end of this bipolar family. Her destruction of the illusions of marriage and romantic love is most unsubtle. She represents the brutal realism of the depressed person, the ultimate realism. She says, essentially, why are you allowing yourself to assume the stupid role of blushing bride in this preposterous ritual with these deluded people? I know you see as I do. So, why don’t you admit it and leave? If you stay, this evening may be pleasant, but in the long run the delusions will come to the fore and everyone will suffer. But worst of all, you will be guilty of dishonesty.
Of course, the “normal” people at the party have their own unwitting role to play in this twilight of the idols. John is constantly reminding people about how much money this party is costing him, as if the wedding were not much different from his golf course, a mere status statement. In this, John has much in common with Justine’s employer, Jack (Stellan Skarsgard). They are both “hungry ghosts,” people lost to money and materialism. Jack is surely the most unpleasant character in the movie, even if he is an operatic overstatement of the hollow, heartless capitalist.
Even the groom, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), contributes to the demolition. When he is asked to make a speech to his bride, he fumbles the opportunity as if struck with stage fright, or as if it had never occurred to him to wonder why he wanted to marry Justine, beyond the bounty of her breasts, of course. (And, the audience wants to know, just how did he get to this point without getting beyond the conspicuous fact that she has great knockers? If he thinks these perfect breasts are the stuff of eternity, his delusion is an abyss.) When he finally manages to say something, what he says is either vulgar (“I never thought I’d marry someone so gorgeous”) or hopelessly trite (“I’m the luckiest man in the world”). As the camera turns to Justine, her hopeful smile at the beginning of Michael’s speech slowly dissolves until it is nothing less than the end of all illusions. Michael is not giving her any evidence with which she can refute her mother. Or her father: Michaels impatience to get the rigmarole of the wedding over with so that he can have free access to Justine’s body suggests that he is not entirely unlike Max.
The second situation, and the second half of the film, concerns the approach of a “rogue” planet on a collision course with the Earth. Because the two have already been shown colliding in the films “overture,” there is not much suspense. The audience knows what’s coming. What the audience may not understand is that the world—the world of human conventions—has already been destroyed in the apocalypse of the wedding.
All the nice, comforting social fictions of marriage, social status, and career have been essentially laughed into oblivion (a bitter laugh to be sure). The contrast between the deluded hypocrisies of how we’d like life to be and the grim honesty of the depressive’s view of how things really are does not condemn the film’s characters but ridicules them. They are not evil. They are a fragile tissue of preposterous fictions. They are ludicrous. They are afraid, like children, of the truth. Their childishness makes them ridiculous. For example, when Justine’s sister Claire (played by the uber-brilliant Charlotte Gainsborough) suggests that they experience the end of the world on the terrace, embracing, and drinking a glass of wine (the ’48 Lafite Rothschild, one hopes), Justine replies that her idea is a “piece…of…shit.”
Yet another world destroyed by the film is the world of Hollywood conventions. In Melancholia there are no major world cities in flames, no frantic media reports, no panic, no anguished politicians, and no nuclear missiles launched into space. This catastrophe happens not on a world stage but in the eyes of the characters. Von Trier’s confidence that the transition from illusion to understanding can happen in his actor’s eyes is rewarded in scenes that are microscopically complex and emotionally visceral. Every major character, even the stolid John, experiences this movement from hopeful illusion (in his case, the illusion of science) to realist acknowledgment. For Michael, his eyes must acknowledge that, first, he’s not going to consummate the wedding that night, and, second, that his fantasy of married life (lived under fruitful apple trees, for God’s sake) is not going to happen either. (Pluck an apple, pluck a breast, ah!, the good life.) Claire must accept that her expectation of domestic felicity will not last, that all her carefully measured homeliness, especially her fantasies of her son’s growing up, are not going to happen. Even Jack has a transition, even if it is one of angry denial. Justine tells her employer exactly what she thinks of him (she “hates” him), but she’s only telling him what he already knew. What infuriates him is that someone actually said it to his face, so he jumps in his car and runs away from this moment of recognition, tires squealing. The only major character who doesn’t experience this transition is Justine’s mother because… she’s already there! Her disappointments with Max provided her with reason for this transition a long time ago.
The last eye we see, the great Cyclops eye of the death planet itself, is, like Yeats’s sphinx, blank and pitiless. It knows nothing. It simply is what is. It is both Nietzsche’s twilight of the idols (put aside all foolish things) and Wagner’s Gotterdammerung.
As Brunhilde sings with the flames of Valhalla illuminating her from behind:
“All things! All things!
All is clear to me now!”
But that is only one part of von Trier’s Wagnerian fantasy. This is Tristan, not the Ring.
As you might expect, Melancholia’s debt to Wagner is only superficially understood in popular commentary. Most critics seem to assume that von Trier simply used Wagner’s music to create a mood. It’s just a film score. Background music. Annoying background music. As Dana Stevens contends in a Slate review of November 11, 2011:
“The Wagner cue…struck me as a little much the first time it was used; by the fourth, fifth, sixth time it was bordering on risible.”
Actually, I think von Trier’s use of the music is appropriately Wagnerian. It’s a leitmotif. Early in the film, it is obscurely ominous. Later, it becomes clear that its ominousness is the ominousness of the rogue planet itself; the music is the rogue planet’s leitmotif. When the music returns, we know that the planet is returning as our central concern. The two, the music and the planet, come back persistently, as if they were Beethoven’s four note “fate motive” in the Fifth Symphony. They return whether you think they’re “risible” or “a bit much” or not. Even the characters think it’s a bit much. They seem to think, “Maybe if I look again it will be gone.” But then, “That again! Is this real?” Again and again, the music, the planet. They are not going away. They are the insistence, like a knock at the door, of the Real.
The worst thing is that if you think that the Tristan overture is just music that von Trier happened to choose because he needed a film score and, hey, this sounds pretty good, you miss all the other ways in which the film is Wagnerian. The great theme of Tristan und Isolde is liebestod, or love/death. Liebestod is Wagner’s version of the romantic project to resolve or harmonize the opposition of the subjective and objective. As Schelling asked, “…how does intelligence come to be added to nature?” How do knowledge and the object of knowledge become one thing? For Wagner this question becomes “how does the subjectivity of love resolve its opposition to the denial of love that is grim nature, social convention, and, ultimately, the explicitness of death (the finite)?”
For Wagner the answer is in finding that love achieves its infinity, its perfection, in death itself. Liebestod transcends the opposition of love and death. Wagner deconstructs the opposition, if you will, finding them mutually dependent in origin. Or, at least, that’s how Tristan comes to see it. Wagner also holds out the possibility that, in his last moments, Tristan is merely deluded and Isolde only a betrayer of his trust. She’s not dead, not going to die, and not coming to join him (even though she pledged her troth that she would). She is still married to the king. It’s not even clear that she’s unhappy about it. Could be playing whist for all he knows. One thing’s for sure, as much as Tristan scans the horizon for her expected sail, it’s not there. But, for good or bad, I don’t think von Trier has much interest in this ambiguity. He’s all in with Tristan’s way of looking at things.
Of course, what makes Tristan’s faith plausible to the opera’s audience is not my prose translation of the idea but—and this is as it should be—the power of Wagner’s music. The amazing satisfaction of the music of the third act of Tristan confirms liebestod in a way that no mere dramatic ambiguity can challenge. The music creates the world’s “ought”; this is how the opposition of subject and object ought to be resolved, even if that resolution is, as Yeats put it, only the “artifice of eternity.”
It is also revealing that von Trier decides to end his movie on what looks like a hilltop, just where Tristan endured his last moments, with Justine, Claire, and the boy looking expectantly toward the End. It is also revealing that von Trier allows Justine to stage, to make theatrical, their deaths. This is remarkable because Justine has just finished telling Claire that her version of apocalyptic theater is a piece of shit. Justine’s theater, apparently, is good shit. Why?
In that last moment Justine ceases to be “Aunt Deal-Breaker” (in the boy’s words) and becomes Aunt Promise-Keeper. Justine does not conclude by saying, “See? I told you so! Evil! The world is evil! I’m glad it’s ending! Good riddance!” No, she ends in creative play. That fact is crucially important to any adequate reading of the film. She and the boy spend their last moments gathering sticks to make a “magic cave,” suggestive of so many of Wagner’s enchanted places, but especially of the cave in Siegfried where the dwarf Mime raised Siegfried, and Siegfried became the heroic bearer of a magic sword. This cave is not merely Justine’s effort to calm a little boy who might otherwise freak out. In its relation to the movie’s other great movements it is an affirmation, an affirmation of the only place where the consolation of liebestod makes sense: in art, Nietzsche’s “healing enchantress.” In the cave, Justine is herself transformed, beyond illusion and beyond the despair that follows the end of illusion. She becomes heroic and compassionate.
Once in their magic cave, yet another layer of complexity is added to the film. The faces of the characters express something Buddhistic, especially the boy who seems to be sitting in zazen, his eyes closed. (Buddhism, that other great deconstruction of opposites.) This moment was anticipated oh so briefly earlier in the film, in a moment that seemed almost gratuitous at the time, when Justine looks out of her bedroom window and sees her depressed mother assuming a yoga pose while looking out at the evening sky and, whether she knows it or not, the approaching planet.
Von Trier’s trust is placed in art but also in that gesture that Buddhism calls “putting on your original face.” Unlike Isolde, these three characters keep their promises; they live to the end in a kind of faithfulness to each other (a faithfulness that seems to exclude men). It is neither a happy ending nor a depressing ending. Our characters put on their original face and become part of what is. The dominant mood is simply clarity. They are at last awake. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, “They would have been wise if there had been a planet to destroy them every minute of their lives.”
 One of the few serious continuity conundrums of the film is the scene in which John, convinced at last that the planet is on a collision course with the Earth, commits suicide. But he doesn’t do it with his family, with his wife and little boy. First, he selfishly takes all the cyanide for himself (just how dead did he think he had to be?), and, second, he wanders off to the stables and commits suicide with Justine’s horse. What? Earlier in the film, when Justine said that the horse only cared for her, John had protested that that wasn’t exactly true, that sometimes he rode the horse. In other words, “No, Justine, the horse likes me too.” Is von Trier saying that John is so shallow and false that even this “sometimes” relationship with the horse was more important than his family? Or just what kind of relationship did he have with the horse?
 For Schelling this was the question of philosophy. He writes, “…the whole of theoretical philosophy has this problem only to solve, namely how the restriction becomes ideal….” Put in Wagnerian terms, the fundamental question of philosophy is how death (restriction) becomes love (the ideal).
Curtis White has published eight books of fiction, including
Lacking Character, Memories of My Father Watching TV, America's Magic Mountain, Requiem, Anarcho-Hindu, The Idea of Home, Metaphysics in the Midwest, and Heretical Songs. His non-fiction includes The Middle Mind, The Science Delusion, and We, Robots. His essays have appeared in Harper’s, The Village Voice, Salon, and Playboy.