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Crazy Wisdom: von Trier’s Melancholia

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).

Crazy Wisdom

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.[1] 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)?”[2]

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.”

[1] 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?

[2] 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).

15 thoughts on “Crazy Wisdom: von Trier’s Melancholia

  1. Well Curt, I appreciate your analysis a thousand times more than the film, but because the film didn’t work for me on many levels: http://htmlgiant.com/film/lars-von-triers-melancholia-homage-without-artistry/ – I can’t agree with the analysis as it relates to the film.

    Just this morning I was rereading Stevens’s “Imagination as Value” (I believe you have written about his essays) and this excerpt seems quite pertinent:

    “The imagination is one of the great human powers. The romantic belittles it. The imagination is the liberty of the mind. The romantic is a failure to make use of that liberty. It is to the imagination what sentimentality is to feeling. It is a failure of the imagination precisely as sentimentality is a failure of feeling. The imagination is the only genius. It is intrepid and eager and the extreme of its achievement lies in abstraction. The achievement of the romantic, on the contrary, lies in minor wish-fulfillments and it is incapable of abstraction.”

    Perhaps romanticism is Von Trier’s undoing. As a “dominant,” maybe romanticism’s time has come—but to be treated very distinctly from whether the earth’s time has come (it certainly has). Romanticism can’t save the world, but neither can anything or anyone. I certainly adore Romanticism, but I don’t think it’s Von Trier’s native place. Most of his other films don’t have this glut of sentimentality – which I believe accounts for many film critics (who think films like The Artist, Dances with Wolves, and Driving Miss Daisy are great films) roundly embracing this tepid Von Trier film.

    Ironically I have to cut this short to go to yoga, but I will be back to the internet soon and hopefully we can have a nice back and forth about this.



  2. The essay is a wonderful homage to both the film and Wagner. I don’t know Wagner at all, and this was an interesting read concerning the score and it’s use.

    However, whatever you make of Von Trier’s use of Buddhism it is a flawed use. The problem is a simple one: when you say that Von Trier is showing that these people are “finally awake,” depending on the type of Buddhism you’re saying he’s using (and there are vastly different kinds), in Zen, there is no “finally awake”; there is simply “awake,” even if one knows it or not. There is no finally. The finally is the story one tells oneself about being asleep after believing one is awake, the story Von Trier probably thinks Buddhism is about, but unfortunately, at least in Zen, it isn’t about “finally” anything but rather “always” everything, no sleep, no wake. The problem here is that Von Trier still sees all this as dualistic: asleep vs. awake, when, in Soto Zen at least, this is not even close to accurate. In any case, I’m using Zen in this example because you reference zazen, which is Shikantaza, which isn’t “realizing” anything, not clarity or compassion: it’s something more like just being, without realization, without anything, with nothing.

    The problem with the end of the film, at least from a Zen perspective, is that something is “gained.” Clarity. No such thing.

    So, this is Von Trier’s idea of reality.

    Anyway, other Buddhist traditions would probably find Von Trier’s ending even sillier, since practice is the main component and even death itself is just another thing with which to be deluded over.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the read and glad to be thinking of these things.

  3. I saw your review, Greg, and understood much of what you said. You certainly saw things in it that I didn’t. And perhaps you’re right. The things I saw were admittedly things that I was happy to see, even if they weren’t there.

    The thing about Stevens is that he was of course the greatest of the Romantic poets! His use of romanticism here seems as if he’s merely equating it with sentimentality. Properly understood, through the German’s–Schiller first, but also Schlegel, and Schelling–there is nothing sentimental about Romanticism. They were the first to turn the idea of play/imagination into a social principle, an ethical principle, as well as an aesthetic principle. People, including Stevens apparently, are wrong to think that Romanticism was an aesthetic movement. It was social first and always. Stevens called himself a “philosopher’s man.” The poet as philosopher’s man did not exist until the Romantic era, then it was everywhere. Keats is surely the best English example, but so is the Biographia Literaria if you can call that a poem. I can. Or Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode.

    It’s not possible for Romanticism to be a “dominant” unless it is a debased Romanticism. It is always the standpoint of alienation. Some artists occupy that standpoint with more awareness than others. I think that von Trier is remarkably awake to it.

    I give Melancholia credit for thinking. It is not remotely a realistic film, although he may use the filmic conventions of realism more than he usually does. Just as in his more overtly abstract films like Dogville, everything is a part for arranging and the arrangement is finally a thought.(Joyce called himself an “arranger.”) A long artistic thought full of doubts, contradictions, second-thoughts, ironies, etc. So, for example, when I say that John dying with the stupid horse doesn’t make sense I’m not saying that it doesn’t make sense because there is no motivation for John to behave that way. I say it doesn’t make sense because the juxtaposition doesn’t make sense; it isn’t part of the film’s “thought.” Unless he’s saying something like “this sort of person, the materialist, once deprived of the comfort of science reveals that he has no human connections at all, not even to his family; he is reduced to the level of a horse.” Even that seems a little strained to me.

    If I were to question your approach to the film it would be over the point you make concerning whether or not the characters “know why they’re doing something.” (Hope I’m remembering your words somewhat accurately.) But that judgment can only apply if we believe that the film wants that kind of “plausibility.” I don’t think it does. As I said, I think the characters are too operatic for that, just as they are in all of his films. To question motivation in Dogville is to descend into incoherence. I kept expecting the characters in Melancholia to do a Dancer in the Dark and start singing. Arias, of course.

    Anyway, yrs in the fog. Curt

    1. Curt,
      This is why I love the internet. It gives people a chance to exchange ideas over great distances.

      Certainly Stevens was greatly influenced by the romantics, especially Wordsworth and Keats. He heard the birds differently in a different century. I wonder if it can just be that “time passes.” Something else happens, right? Our minds change, we get taught different things, there are more books about China. When I think about Stein, Stevens, Picasso, Rilke, Jung, Joyce, and Woolf all being born within nine years and how what they did collectively changed how we saw and thought of ourselves…well, that’s about as far as I can get. Didn’t Stevens take his influences and shred them? Maybe what I’m trying to say is he wrote verse as he was influenced by Shakespeare, Keats, and Wordsworth, but what he wrote couldn’t reflect their philosophical underpinnings. Maybe that is too obvious to state.

      Isn’t sentimentality a danger in Romanticism? I call on Mr. Spielberg as an exhibit. Not his early action films, most of the others. Romanticism can be too elevated—and I don’t mean this as a criticism, I’ve bathed myself in Keats and Chopin. The clouds can’t always shroud the mountain tops, right? Where are the switchbacks in those mountains of Wordsworth’s verse? Did Stevens think there wasn’t enough abstractness in Keats? I defer to you in these matters.

      Your reading of John and the horse and what is not working there seems pitch perfect. The horse in cinema…many places to go from there. Yes, there is some thinking in Melancholia, I just wish his thinking had led him to write and shoot the film in a different, which is an impossible wish. To have made Melancholia a musical seems a wonderful idea. And this leads to the key, very key difference, in how to read this film. You say, “But that judgment can only apply if we believe that the film wants that kind of “plausibility.” I don’t think it does. As I said, I think the characters are too operatic for that, just as they are in all of his films.” I don’t think the characters are operatic enough. If they would kill a policeman like Bjork in Dancer and then wander outside and start singing about it on a train! – what compelling cinema. Instead they stew inside the manmade house. I think the film holds the residue of melodrama too much to let it descend into the wild, wooly abstract. They are playing too straight. But the film hinges on the plausibility on the end of the world – and how that is portrayed is certainly plausible down to the inferno engulfing the great globe itself. It’s the axis of the drama. It’s what is keeping people in their seats, they want to see if the world ends.

      Into the breach, best


  4. Alan, I have no idea what kind of Buddhism he’s thinking about. It may be only the diluted Buddhism that one gets in psychotherapy these days. It’s hard to avoid the connection though, given the boy’s posture in the last scene.

    When I say “finally” I meant in the temporality of the film. Finally after all that came before in the film. But even taken the other way, let’s be honest, the Mahayana tradition of emptiness, out of Nagarjuna, or the idea that you are never finally awake as a kind of telos achieved, is part of the struggle of Buddhism, for all Buddhists. It’s too much, I think, to say that von Trier is “wrong.” That’s why Buddhism has two truths, the highest (in which there is no ego and nothing to wake up) and the lower (where compassion is compassion for Judy and Joe and all sentient things). Here these characters, in this fiction, change and become for the first time awake in a way that they haven’t been up to that point. What I would venture is that von Trier was very conscious of his audience’s tendency to say “happy or depressing” and was trying to invent, for his own purposes, a “middle way” using Buddhism. He needed it for the work of art, not for a statement on the true Buddhism.

    Anyway, as Buddhism tends, we’re high flying. Many thanks for your thoughtful engagement with the essay.

    Oh, and by the way, you’ve got a great pleasure waiting for you in Wagner. I’m only recently acquainted with his work, but its scope is truly humbling. There are moments in his opera, like Act III of Tristan, that finally just feel larger than anything else you’ve ever experienced. And the Ring. My God. If you live in NY, the Met will be doing the whole cycle next year. I’m tempted.

    1. This might be a merely semantic disagreement, but Buddhism’s idea of reality doesn’t have two truths: it has one truth which is both universal and particular (or higher and lower). But that’s just the thing, it’s one, not two, and the problem, I would say, for von Trier isn’t that he doesn’t understand Buddhism or whatever, but that a film doesn’t “show” the two which is one not two. The problem is that the “wake up,” the way a film works, gives the audience the conceptual divide between delusion and enlightenment: all moments before delusion, all moments after awake. This is what a Buddhist might call “wrong view.” This is probably merely a matter of the film itself being temporal, but it’s also what I would call “easy” Buddhism and therefore incomplete. You’re right, in that von Trier’s characters change, but see, Zen would say, in reality, no change, the same as before, you just know it now. So yeah, like you say, he’s appropriating something for the art, but it creates a deluded view of the thing he’s appropriating.

      I like what you say concerning the Middle Way, the no good or bad at the end. That’s much more the Zen mind.

      Anyway, I don’t live anywhere near New York, but will certainly look into Wagner regardless.

  5. Alan, all I’m saying is that von Trier is under no obligation to get Buddhism right. I use Buddhism a lot in my work often in ways that are mostly playful. As far as I’m concerned, the most important Buddhist truth is “life is the play of energy in the void.” And I don’t even remember where I first read that. One Trungpa or another. But that’s a very Romantic temperament looking at it. As an artist, I feel under no obligation to get Buddhism right. It’s available material. In another moment, as a non-artist if I’m ever that, I’m quite sober about it and sincerely, as S. Suzuki says, seeking its nobility. In the end what has to be “right” for Von T. is the Work, not his understanding of Buddhism. It is enough for him to suggest that there is something beyond the ugly dualism of good and bad. A certain calm awareness of the Real.

    1. I see what you’re saying. I don’t hold him under that obligation as an artist, though it seems careless to me from another perspective. I guess my point: Why use it if you’re going to use it in this superficial, easy way? Why not just have the characters change? Why rely on the zen pose? You can show the change without the zen pose, I would argue. It would take more work, but it’s possible. Also, you can show the Real without using Buddhism. And, as we all know, in the end, part of the darhma is giving up the darhma. I guess what I’m saying is: “C’mon, the best you could do was this Buddhist posture at the end?”

      From an artist’s perspective, I think it easy. From the other, from the Real, it doesn’t matter. I’m just playing the artist role right now, which is all it is for me.

      But anyway, no hard feelings. We may just have accept our disagreement. A good conversation.

  6. Greg: Your clarification here of your critique is legitimate. I think any work of art, at least initially, either elicits a yes or no from us and then we look for the reasons why. Sort of like an intuition about whether the artist before us is of the faith. I intuited a powerful yes and then asked why.

    Adam says you’ll be in Chicago for the AWP. We’ll be dining at 5 on Friday at the Rhapsody restaurant in or near Symphony Hall. I’m going to watch Boulez conduct Mahler Das Lied von Der Erde at 1:30, so it’s convenient. Adam is supposed to be there unless he finds another birthday party to go to, as well as Cris Mazza (an old FC2 mate), and Cheston Knapp of Tin House magazine. Davis Schneiderman is a maybe too I think. You’d be welcome.

  7. I’m kind of obsessed with Von Trier but don’t always know why. This helped me make better sense of my love of this film. Thanks for such a careful and well-written review.

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