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Real depression is boring, […] there’s not usually a lot of cinematic stuff going on. And Lars had a very creative way of making it not boring.1

– Kirsten Dunst

‘Why is it’, the author asked […] ‘that all men who have become outstanding in, philosophy, politics, poetry or the arts are melancholic, and some to such an extent that they are afflicted by the diseases arising from black bile?’2 

– Aristotle (Angus Gowland)

The Phantom camera is a scientific instrument for splitting seconds.3 

– Manuel Alberto Clara

Sensation

The ‘earth-shattering’ finale, when planets collide in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, releases a cumulative strange sensation. Instead of dissipating, this fallout permeated my body. While the atmospheric-gaseous-white final image swiftly cuts to black, Wagner’s overture to his opera Tristan and Isolde which accompanies this climax, also cuts out leaving sonic after-shocks and then a sustained silence. I wish to explore why and how this sensation left me exhilarated. Despite the total annihilation, Melancholia left within me a heightened physical sense of motility, a sense of fluctuation of intensity, long after the screening, when in bed that night, having seen the film at the small retro one screen cinema in Avoca, on the Central Coast of NSW. That night, far from sleep I lay awake, calm, hearing the wind, the distant waves, sensing the slightest movement, the filtered moon light. 

It felt as though the film had tuned me like some old instrument. The German word stimmung, meaning both mood and tuning an instrument, perhaps captures this state in a word, more or less, in as much as words can do that. This state (I later came to understand), was an unfamiliar proprioceptive vibration within my body and sensorium, of the barely perceptible micro-movements, fluctuations of intensity, pulses, activated by the sonic and optical images of the digital film. The Wagnerian dissonant chromatic sound and unnerving silent voids were constitutive elements in this unfamiliar temporal process. Here, I am drawn to exploring these sensations by delving into the dynamism of this threshold zone of intensity, so as to find a way of being able to articulate its seeming ineffability and import. This will entail exploring von Trier’s ethico-aesthetic film project, an integral part of which is the singular, interrelated use of painting and the super high-speed Phantom camera. I believe this is an original approach to the film which has a strong body of critical writing and scholarship dedicated to it.

The Anatomy of Melancholy 

While the film invites the viewer to perceive the planetary event of Melancholia as a cosmic disturbance, it also corresponds mimetically with the profoundly internal, debilitating mental state of melancholy depression suffered by the main character, Justine played by Kirsten Dunst. Mimesis here appears to draw on an occult, rather than a causal, relationship.4 Personifying this pathology as a planet is von Trier’s generative, grandiloquent, cinematic Romantic conceit. 

This idea appears to draw on Renaissance occult astrological ideas about Melancholia as a pathology under the baleful sign of Saturn or Chronos. The European historical archive on Melancholia as a multifaceted phenomenon (medical, philosophical, theological, aesthetic), is both vast and dense in scope. In Renaissance Italy, Marcilio Ficino synthesized the Greek knowledge on it as ‘divine madness or enthusiasm.’ Robert Burton in turn provides a formidable summation of this history from the perspective of 17th Century England, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, creating a sense of the astonishing encyclopedic scope and cultural significance of this privileged male pathology. The European Romantic Movement from the 18th Century on developed its own affective life with its cult of loneliness, also seeking a sense of oneness with nature, to counter instrumental reason. Von Trier says that, in using Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde he ‘plunged into the abyss of German Romanticism’. Von Trier, (as a post-Brechtian director, also uniquely in the direct lineage of Carl T Dreyer, his compatriot), intervenes in this history for his own purpose. 

Mourning & Melancholia

In the twentieth century Freud’s meta-psychological essay, Mourning and Melancholia, has been foundational for a theoretical understanding of the illness, which has certainly lost its traditional masculine romantic gloss.5 It is evident that mourning and melancholia are a result of profound loss. But unlike mourning, which is linked to an actual loss of a beloved person, according to Freud, the loss of the melancholic is withdrawn from consciousness. The loss is un-nameable because objectless, hence the sense of an all-pervasive sadness, dread or emptiness. The melancholic does not know what it is that has been lost. For Freud melancholic sadness is a pathology that may be linked to a disturbance in the oral function of the infant. He says: 

“[…] we should not hesitate to include among the special characteristics of melancholia, a regression from an object-cathexis to the still narcissistic oral phase of the libido. Some of the features of melancholia therefore are borrowed from grief, and others from the process of regression from narcissistic object-choice to narcissism”.6

Narcissism here is understood as a pathological inability to emerge into the symbolic realm because of a disturbance in, what Freud called, ‘primary narcissism’ (both dyadic and symbiotic), as distinct from ‘secondary narcissism’ (object-cathexis), which enables the processes of inter-subjectivity and ego formation to take place. 

Haptic Vibrations of VFX

Sven Sauer (one of the VFX designers at Pixomondo studio in Frankfurt), explains in detail how they composited the two planets and composed their collision, having researched the scientific literature and discussed it with scientists, including an astrophysicist.7 They were interested in what a gaseous planet like Melancholia would look and feel like if it collided with the earth, with its atmosphere, crust, its oceans and tectonic plates. They experimented with ideas of textures such as ‘thick, tough’ and viscosity of matter and their variety of properties, when shown in extreme slow-motion images created by the super high-speed Phantom camera. Sauer again, “…the planetary collision shouldn’t seem to be frightening – it should be associated with a quiet fascination, with almost beauty”.8 The significance of this qualitative aesthetic formulation for embodying and expressing melancholy depression will be taken up shortly. 

The all-encompassing vision of the small sphere of the earth crashing into and being very slowly sucked in by the large gaseous planet Melancholia is, indeed, a ‘quietly fascinating’ spectacle to behold, exactly as the VFX team intend it to appear. The hyper-slowed-down image produced by the Phantom camera is crucial here. While the earth slowly disappears into Melancholia, a small residue remains outside, changing texture and density, thereby converting the planet Melancholia itself into a round breast like modulated volume and the unassimilable part of the earth into a ‘thick, tough’ nipple, in the final seconds of the last (extreme slow-motion), shot of the overture. 

This transfigured image is unexpected, startling. The extreme slow speed at which Melancholia sucks in the earth, without being able to totally incorporate it into itself, synesthetically evokes a sucking reflex, orality. The residue (from sucking), is what reconfigures itself as a tough nipple, with a gaseous cloud enveloping the image, fading to black and silence. May be, if one does not perceive film in a mimetic mode which is a human capacity to perceive similarities, or ‘read the unwritten’ (the sky for instance as the ancients did, in developing astrology), as Walter Benjamin would have it, one may not see what I see here, though Steven Shaviro and others have noted it too. To conceive the planet Melancholia as a phantasmatic, gaseous planet, reconfiguring as a gigantic torn breast, is no doubt, a macabre envisioning of an infant’s emerging sensory world, shattered. An infant filled not with milk, but with black bile (the etymology of melancholia in Greek), which will course through the body slowly across life’s vicissitudes, discolouring them with, what is now mundanely called, ‘mood disorder’ or depression. 

Mood

The super-high-speed digital camera (which captures this un-symbolisable state or mood), is aptly named Phantom (HD Gold), by the company, Vision Research. The cinematographer of Melancholia, Manuel Alberto Claro, describes it poetically as, ‘a scientific instrument for splitting seconds’. He specifies its powers further by saying that, ‘the extreme slowed-down movements of the image have the quality of anxiety sometimes’. It is indeed this hyper-slowness that enables us to perceive with fascination the conversion of the two spheres of the earth and of Melancholia into a large malignant breast, in the shot described above. The singular, spectacular composition of the overture is powered by the technical capability of the Phantom camera operating at 1,000 frames per second. This technical capability (developed to study car crashes and other such super-high-speed, hence imperceptible, nano-second events), is harnessed by von Trier and Caro to create an aesthetic able to attest to (if not capture), the fluctuating mood of melancholia, a state (according to psychoanalysis), famously resistant to symbolic expression. This is so because the normal developmental progression, from primary to secondary narcissism, according to the psychoanalytic narrative, is disturbed, the source of trauma. It is a state of ego loss. How does the von Trier aesthetic attempt to conjoin the organic fragility of the human sensorium (aesthesis), with the logico-mathematically produced informatic Phantom digital camera image? So, it’s a search for indeterminacy within the determinate so as to understand an aesthetic, which is generative for thought and life at the limits of the live-able, for a girl. 

As a first move in understanding this intricate process, I ask if there is a substantial difference to be made by distinguishing between the ideas of affect on the one hand and mood on the other, composed with the Phantom camera. Does this digital camara apparatus (which can split seconds), enable us to hear microtones or sense ‘a nebula of impulses’ in perception? In Indian classical music, which is not notated, the vocalisation creates the microtones, enabling the listener to hear it. It is sung and heard at the same time by those who know how to listen, it has no archive from which it can be retrieved, except perhaps in ecstatic-memory. There are specific Ragas (melodic patterns), for specific times of day and also for the seasons, so it’s a system of music attuned to atmosphere, light, rain and delicate variations, in nature itself. So, is there an equivalent in the zone of vision? Can waves of fluctuating intensity, vibrations, ‘the wonders of minuteness’, ‘a-signifying particles’ of energy be sensed and be stabilised as moods say, through the mediation of the Phantom vision and also painting, used for aesthetic purposes? This conjunction enables both ‘speeds and slowness, movements and rests’ of a molecular body.

I will explore these questions in the overture. There, the camera opens up a threshold of energy, a dynamism of an incalculable energy, where the idea of mood might be more serviceable than that of affect or emotion because of its temporal sensitivity to fluctuations of intensity, which appear to elude linguistic capture. Can a coherence of mood be registered and also sustained in our sensorium through the mediation of von Trier’s singular aesthetic deployment of the Phantom camera and Wagner’s music from Tristan and Isolde, in the overture of the film? And if so, what might its libidinal and intellectual yield be, seen from a feminist perspective invested in understanding the power of film, to draw out a therapeutic sense of innervation, from a profoundly deadened state of enervation?

Dissonance & Chromaticism

The spatio-temporal composition of the film’s overture presents four decisive ‘breaks’ from familiar, ‘normal harmonic’ structures in several fields, prefiguring nonverbally, the events to come at the wedding reception and after. Firstly, Richard Wagner’s overture to the opera Tristan and Isolde (1855), heard in the overture of the film breaks from the harmonic system on which western classical music is based. The famous ‘Tristan chord’, with its dissonance, irresolution, and the chromaticism, create glissandos in an audio-visual continuum, rather than fragmentation via montage. The Wagnerian phrase is repeated as leitmotif multiple times across the film, and at the grand finale when planets collide. Secondly, the planet Melancholia breaks away from the ‘harmony of the spheres’ by violating its elliptical orbit, colliding with the earth. Thirdly, the extreme slow-motion of the Phantom film image itself displaces the smooth floating lyrical effect of the ordinary slow-motion image made familiar to us over a century. Fourthly, within this dissonant milieu, the harmonious rhythms of the highly evolved, sensory-motor nervous system breaks down into aberrant bodily movements of Justine. Von Trier’s entire overture appears to draw a rich audio-visual chromaticism from the Wagnerian dissonant leitmotif. This is usually the realm of experimental cinema, rarely seen in feature films with this degree of conceptual rigor and imagination.

Running in the Wedding Dress

What then are the cumulative effects of this formidable audio-visual orchestration of dissonance understood affirmatively as the multiplication of ‘chromaticism’ in several fields, including that of the organic human body and its sensorium? It is only by examining the singular nature of the breaks that one might approach a response. Actually, ‘break’ may not be the best word to use in sensing and understanding some of these aberrant movements, these shifts. Perhaps what we see (in mid-long shot), when Justine runs vigorously across the whole width of the green field, are paradoxical movements. She runs forward in extreme slow-motion as though it requires great strength and effort wearing her wedding dress with veil and train (running in a wedding dress? a wonderful idea in its self!), while at the same time she appears to be trammeled by vines around her feet and pulled backward by long flying tendrils. Instead of floating lyrically, as in conventional slow-motion, Justine appears to be resisting a gravitational pull of the earth as it pulls her down as well. Justine’s movements appear paradoxical (pulled forward, pulled backward and pulled downward, all at once), and therefore especially compelling because it’s hard for the brain to make normal sense of, compute. Her bridal dress has a weight and vitality all its own. 

Death

Justine standing frontally in mid-close-shot (wearing a black T-shirt), looking out and away from the viewer is the devastating and brutal opening image of depression, in the overture. The expression in her eyes is as dead as the dead birds falling down around her (in extreme slow-motion), from the sky. Wagner’s music softly emerges over this image. The silence, which follows each dissonant chord, appears interminable, creating an acute sense of anxiety as it plunges one into an atemporal void. ‘Time is out of joint’ in a world permeated with melancholia under the baleful sign, as the ancients put it, of Saturn. This confronting, difficult to watch, opening image gives us a sense of what depression might feel like for a young girl. I see Dunst’s Justine as a girl because of the way she moves, runs, speaks. Also, the idea of a girl, as a force of becoming, is not determined by a punctual, normal chronological event; ‘now you are no longer a girl, you are a married woman!’ A girl as a force of becoming may permeate an old woman of seventy-six even. 

Painting’s Motility 

Manuel Claro speaks of the importance of the painterly image for von Trier in conceiving his film image in the overture and in the final climax. Andrei Tarkovsky, who von Trier admired immensely, was an important point of reference in developing a painterly expressiveness, stillness and consequent freedom, on film. Von Trier appears to pay tribute to Tarkovsky by including Breugal’s painting, ‘The Hunters in the Snow’ which has played a prominent role in the latter’s films. It is the third shot in the overture, which is held in close-up as it mysteriously burns slowly (via CGI), into ash. According to Claro the super high speed Phantom camera enabled them to create an image hovering between the stillness of painting on the one hand and slowed down phantom movement, on the other. Detailed CGI effects were added to obtain minimal movement and a sense of depth.  I believe this peculiar rhythm (if one might call it that provisionally), is a new kind of embryonic motility, a chromaticism, enabled by the Phantom camera put to aesthetic use by coupling it with the non-computable, non-organic expressive vitality of painting in its stillness. The digital burn of the painting is a thought-image which can only be thought, it does not primarily function as VFX.

Von Trier’s image therefore has the power to take us into threshold states difficult to capture in language because the subject-object relations of solid perception and of grammar and the laws of classical physics are inoperative in these zoned-out states of motility. This aesthetic evocation of motility of mood might be the last homoeostatic refuge of melancholia beyond which lies total psychomotor collapse. In fact, Justine’s descent into such a state is prefigured in two scenes very near intolerable to watch, in the second part of the film. Trying to eat her favorite food, (meat-loaf specially prepared by her sister Claire), Justine cracks up inconsolably like a child, saying ‘It tastes like ash”. When Claire attempts to help Justine to get into the bathtub to soak and relax, the weight of her body is such that it seems an impossible task. Unable to hold up her body, it succumbs to the force of gravity, thing-like, the psycho-motor collapse total. Dunst has said that she had experienced depression herself and von Trier has said that he suffers from manic-depression and that he wrote the script from that experiential core. 

Durer’s Melencolia 1 As Ur Text

I believe there is a cryptic relationship between von Trier’s Melancholia and Durer’s popular engraving. It is quite clear from the title (as well as from formal elements within the film), that von Trier was deeply engaged with the dense history of this privileged pathology, aspects of which appear obliquely in the narrative too. Also, like film, an etching has no ‘original’ because (unlike with painting), it is mechanically reproduced and marketed in multiple copies which gave Durer greater freedom from the prevalent system of patronage. As such Melencolia 1 is an Early Modern expression of the archaic malady.

According to the ancient theory of the humors and temperaments the human body was governed by four different humors and melancholia was associated with one of them, the earth and the qualities of dryness and coldness. While traditionally melancholia was thought to be under the baleful sign of Saturn (as mentioned earlier), von Trier’s conceit personified the state itself as a planet, making it an all-encompassing cosmic force, just as in Durer’s Melencolia 1, marketed just three years before the drama of Luther’s Protestant Reformation of 1517, formally ending the European middle-ages. As an allegorical engraving of the pathology, it offers food for thought in that the genre invites robust exegesis, it appears with the injunction ‘read me!’ Raul Ruiz classification of the four ways of reading allegorical images according to medieval rhetoric; literal, allegorical, ethical, anagogical (mystical, theological), is useful here. 

In Durer’s allegory Melencolia 1, the pathology is personified as a hybrid, winged angelic female figure, seated in a pose that has been variously described as dejected and/or reflective or both (why is reflection always figured as grave!). The winged, weighty persona holds a geometric instrument in her right hand, appearing to make a calculation by actively looking out. Yet there is something about her bodily posture and the iconic clenched fist of her left hand on which her head rests, suggesting, generically, its futility. But then again, the posture might suggest, according to Aby Warburg, the bipolarity of ‘contemplative genius’, (manic-depression one might say now).9 The persona is therefore dynamic, appears to move in two different directions, subtly. The human, the animal and the celestial are all crammed together. The generic rabid dog filled with black bile is replaced with an emaciated domesticated one. In the engraving an array of craft tools lye scattered on the floor. An hour-glass, scales and a square of magic numbers are hung on the wall. Time appears to signal a declivity of life. An airborne bat like creature holds up the banner ‘Melencolia’ offering us a pedagogical image. A night-bow spans the sky and irradiation spreads out from an astral body. The shallow depth of the interior contains a large geometric structure of a polyhedron. The entire image is very cluttered, feels heavy, with no room to move. The water and city seen in the far distance offer no relief or pleasure to the eye. The human powers of geometric abstraction and measurement are clearly of no avail in warding off melancholy. And yet paradoxically, Durer accrues great cultural and aesthetic capital by being able to bring forth and visualise allegorically, in such fine ambiguous detail, the psychosomatic state resistant to symbolisation. The winged female figure is central to this composition. It’s her silent presence (muse-like), that enables the eloquence of Durer’s masterful artistic achievement.10 

Male Genius

So, it would appear that the engraving encapsulates the bipolar psychopathology of the creative artist; melancholy-enthusiasm or divine frenzy, as formulated by the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Fucino, following the ancients. The male artist can both eat his cake and have it. While both men and women have evidently experienced the deep sorrow of melancholy depression over the ages in Europe, it is the case that the power to symbolise and thus eroticise the state, has historically been the privilege of male artists of genius who experience this bipolarity. The category of ‘genius’ was one applicable exclusive to exceptionally gifted men.  The different semantic values attached to the word melancholia as distinct from depression (a later diagnostic medical category), is an indication of the historical gendering of the pathology. The aura of Melancholia was such that it was even considered a fashionable (male) malady during the Romantic Movement. The problem with the gendering of melancholia, within European cultural history at large and in medical history, is an issue that feminist scholars have explored and theorised through interdisciplinary work, now for many decades, and it’s an issue I take up in relation to film history.

Gendering of Melancholia11

Feminist scholars have explored the curious fact that from Greek antiquity on, Melancholia has been gendered and valorised as a malady of gifted men of genius, indicated by one of the epigraphs (attributed to Aristotle), framing this piece. But Thomas Elsaesser has shown how central the depressive woman has been to Modern European cinema. This trend appears with Ingrid Bergman in Rosselini’s post war trilogy of melancholy depression, Voyage to Italy, Stromboli, Europa 51 and most recently the work of Juliet Binoche who, according to Elsaesser, has crafted the figure of the melancholic woman to perfection as her signature persona.12 So, within this strand of film history, the American Dunst brings something new to the figure, this time round as a girl who suffers from depression. 

In this history women’s experience of loss and sadness was undervalued as they lacked the power of symbolisation, the malady being inseparable from the body and its inarticulate weeping and mourning. Here the sharp differences between the roles of Hamlet and Ophelia show us what is at stake. In the history of classical acting playing Hamlet is a crowning achievement because of the astonishing eloquence with which he expresses his melancholy, the complexity, tonal color and exquisite detail the poet infuses into ‘black bile’.  There is not a single memorable line like, ‘To be, or not to be…’ given to Ophelia. It is hard to imagine that playing Ophelia offers the same cultural credit for an aspiring young actress who has to resign herself to an inarticulate, untimely death, in a watery grave. The image of John Everett Millais’ pre-Raphaelite Ophelia seen in the film, which Justine enacts uncomfortably, ripples out in my mind to pose questions about female actors and the roles available to them in the history of theatre and film. Penelope Cruise, Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg have said, with appreciation, that von Trier is among the rarest of directors creating complex, difficult, roles for female actors to explore.

Experimentation 

Von Trier approaches filming with an experimental attitude which appears to be an ethico-aesthetic imperative for him up to this day, which Elsaesser has also noted. As numerous actors have testified, he is as much interested in the process of making his films, as in the final product. And the actors and Claro and the visual effects supervisor Peter Hjorth and the VFX designers have all given the most illuminating accounts of von Trier’s directorial practice, as one of improvisation, within precise limits. Improvisation as a disciplined practice, within precisely demarcated limits, is found in Indian classical music and Jazz, for example. Postmodern dance also has had important improvisatory practices, since the 1970s. It is done best by people who are highly skilled in specific crafts, and practices and are then willing to relax their internalised rules so as to find another movement, something unforeseeable, within their own training as habit or even outside it. This is a risky process, mentally. Therefore, it can happen only when there is a production ethos, a method of working that allows for the possibility of making mistakes, of actually failing. For such a working method a high degree of trust is required in an ethos of collaboration. 

Trier did not give the actors directions as to what to do exactly, in wedding sequence, with a large number of people. Once he called ‘action’, they had to find their way in the scene and Claro had to look around with his camera and try to catch what was going on. There appeared to be no central focus for the camera to capture. There were no exact directions as to what to look at or where to look at or how to look, or move or hear. The result was a feeling of stuff happening all around at very close quarters as in a cinema verite documentary. Claro says that von Trier did not want him to go back and try and ‘correct’ a shot in the usual proper way. He was told that the ‘mistakes’ should be retained, that they were gifts, because unforeseeable. 

The Non-Computable: Chance 

Hand held camera and improvisation go hand in hand in von Trier’s stylistic practice. In this aesthetic work, von Trier’s digital tools of measurement are in the service of exploring what may be incalculable or non-computable, hence indeterminate, in the image and sound and in the human sensorium too. He and his actors and crew are after a degree of freedom (from that which is determinable through logico-mathematical calculation of the digital cinematic apparatus and of the market as well), one might say, and it is this gift, I feel, that the film offers the female scholar too.

Programmatic Wedding

The temporality of the wedding ceremony unfolds in a halting but continuous predictable manner, but when Justine repeatedly leaves the ritual, her movements are unpredictable, aberrant and time takes on strange rhythms, hard to compute in terms of clock-time. Time does not flow chronologically in Justine’s zone activated by impulses, perhaps, a zone of fluctuating sensations – mood takes over and her social self begins to unravel, haltingly. Justine, with Claire’s help, guzzles down alcohol directly from a bottle, in the middle of the wedding celebrations, in order to be able to cope with its demands. 

There appear to be at least twofold movements in this unravelling, a polarity. In one, she appears to be slipping into a deep depression when she removes her wedding dress and soaks in the tub, as well as when she tells her mother explicitly, balanced on a stack of chairs, that she is afraid and receives a brutal rebuff. In the other movement, Justine is energetic and defiant, attacking her boss angrily for his unethical, nasty behavior, at the expense of her job, subjecting her young assistant to a violent sex act on the golf field, for suggesting that they form a team against their boss. This scene occurs in extreme long-shot but the violence is still palpable with Justine astride the young man, taking out her pent-up rage on him. Later, in a similar violent emotional register, she mercilessly beats her beloved horse Abraham with a crop, when he refuses to cross the bridge as though he senses a danger viscerally, as in Nosferatu. This act is all the more alarming because she is shown to have a deep, instinctive connection with the horse and her only other such connection is with Leo, her nephew. A horse and a child, two creatures whose instinctual life is robust despite the training they receive. She squats on the large lawn and empties her bladder. She roughly replaces several Malevich abstractions (in art books on display in a study), with figurative images. She drives the golf cart and gets out of it abruptly, yanking her wedding dress, which rips. And again, she is attentive to Leo by carrying him to bed and falling asleep beside him. All the while the wedding party goes on. 

An Intensive Cinematic Field

Dunst and the VFX design teams, Caro and von Trier, all together, have created a continuum of sensations, both organic and non-organic, that sensitize us to feel threshold states of motility referred to earlier. The delicate oscillation of these states may appear to signal a certain minimal homeostatic equilibrium in the midst of the gravitational pull of melancholic depression. Wagner’s dissonant music provides a rich chromatic matrix, sustaining (without dispersal), these states with a degree of coherence and intensity. The image-sound-leitmotifs of the poetic overture interact with the narrative in an aleatory manner, depending (I should imagine), on each viewer. This degree of narrative freedom for the mind can take us into strange zones. The idea of ‘leitmotif’ (lead motif), was developed by Wagner as technique of repetition of a melodic phrase linked to a specific character, object or idea. So, this idea of repetition of a leitmotif, as mechanism of recognition, was subsequently taken up by Hollywood genre cinema as durable device. 

However, in von Trier’s use of the Tristan chord as leitmotif, the mechanism of recognition is made unstable because of the disjunction between the sound and image. For example, none of the sixteen poetic images from the overture is repeated exactly in the main narrative, though the musical leitmotif is repeated many times almost like a cliché, playing with nausea. The unique temporality of the overture enables innumerable circuits to be drawn between each of its sixteen shots and the unfolding narrative. The diffusion of the familiar mechanisms of cinematic suspense from the narrative, via the overture, leaves ample room for an exploration of other modes of engagement with the image and sound of a cataclysmically traumatic apocalyptic event.

The improvisatory capacity of the viewer is precisely constrained by the sixteen shots and their strange ‘phantom rhythms’, which then become the matrix for stimulating our creativity as viewers. Von Trier constrains and sensitises us precisely, in the overture, so as to set us adrift within a chromatic vibrating zone of sound and image. Von Trier speaks movingly of the vital difference he feels, in adding a very small quantum of movement into the images of the planets, shot on a stable, static camera. These barely perceptible movements are, I think, registered subliminally by any receptive viewer. They leave an afterimage, a sensory trace, a subtle vibration in the body which stimulates the mind to wander, improvise, make connections.

Transference of Painting’s Occult Powers 

Justine appears to be fascinated by the streams of charged light flowing from her fingertips held up high in the air. This emanation from her body, links her to the electromagnetic energy streaming from the electricity poles in the background. Her occult power contrasts sharply with the images of extreme depression and yet together as dyads, they form a strange chromatic matrix (womb), within the overture itself, composed with the music. A particular synesthetic sensitivity to sound, light, color and movement is cultivated and nourished in the overture, when the horse Abraham is pulled down into the earth’s gravitational force, while the background is a chromatic swirl of red, blue, green and violet of the untimely Aurora Borealis. 

In the second half of the film Justine gradually emerges from the pole of total psychosomatic collapse to its opposite pole of being open to an elemental, empowering occult relationship to both the earth and the celestial sphere. A remarkable image shows Justine (in long-shot), reclining naked on a rock, beside a stream, bathed in the strange light of the planet Melancholia, at night. The relaxed ease of her naked body, her arms stretched above her head, a leg bent at the knee (forming a triangle), the quality of the light, makes her (though reclining), appear light rather than heavy, for the first time, connected both to the earth and the celestial sphere. Claire who has followed Justine to this river-bank, hides among trees and observes her sister with fascination. There is no voyeurism here as in the painting of, say, Suzanna and the Elders watching her bathe. Here, we are in a zone of motility, a threshold state of only barely perceptible movements, which feel internal to her body, now radiant with potential energy. Two close-shots show her contemplative, grave expression. She is not ‘cured’ of melancholia. This is not a before and after scenario at all, though there is a marked difference between her total psycho-motor collapse and this image of Justine lying with ease in a state described positively as ‘ataraxia’ (equanimity), by Steven Shaviro, drawing on a Stoic virtue.13 

This image is arresting and its iconography is similar to other such figures in art history. The reclining figure with one leg drawn up and relaxed arms above the head, sometimes naked, are said to be pagan River Gods incorporated later into Christian art. Surprisingly there are two such figures in Durer’s woodcut, Two Angels with the Holy Family (1503-4). Two naked figures in miniature, a man and a woman, are present at the top of this painting, on either side of an arch. It is their relaxed posture that Justine appears to embody here. It would appear that gradually Justine has been freed of the medicalization of melancholia as a pathology and remarkably, she does not suffer ‘romantic melancholia’ linked to sexual love either, despite the wedding and the traditional expectation it set up. Remarkable, because Tristan and Isolde is the high point of Western Romantic music about tragic love and yearning. 

This much is clear – Justine has traversed through the pathology at different levels of intensity, on a continuum and through it accessed a capacity for mental quietude, an aesthetic ability to respond to nature at both its infinitesimal and cosmic scales, at a catastrophic moment. This most unusual state of awareness is not presented as a cure. The two close shots of her face indicate a sense of introspective awareness open to the cosmos, which we might call contemplative intensity, historically the prerogative of the male melancholic subject, allegorized by Durer’s female angel in Melencolia 1. But now, this ‘divine’ introspective awareness, contemplative intensity, manifests anew within the sweet young modern girl who is, thankfully, no angel. 

Playing House

The final medium long-shot of the two sisters and the child seated holding hands, in the skeletal make-believe cave, made of branches tied together at the top with a circular base as in a tepee, with Melancholia looming over earth is a marvelous image of the fragility of the earth itself and of human life upon it. The scene appears like something out of a Danish fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson. To be so receptive, we need to perceive and be absorbed by the image itself and by the calm child seated with eyes closed in a startling act of make believe that only a child is capable of. A total focus on the idea of ‘The End Of The World’ tends to subsume the last image, obliterating its poetic simplicity and richness, reducing it to a cliché. A cliché is simply a sensory-motor image of the event itself. That is to say it becomes generic. We always already know then how to look at it, what to say, and think. Consequently, we are blind to its singularity, its freshness and novelty. 

Is the Earth Fucked? 

But if we look at the image itself in that flash, the half-completed tepee with the three huddled inside (seen in a silhouetted long-shot), may trigger memories of indigenous modes of living in time immemorial (cave, tepee), on the earth. It is an ecologically resonant image of a ‘home’ unable to provide shelter from the storm. ‘Life is only on earth and not for long, no one will miss it. The earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it’, says Justine to her distraught sister. 

Von Trier leaves us with an acute sense (sensation), of the finitude of the earth, its fragility and also the subtle powers of our sensorium and the high energy of the cosmos. Perhaps for the very first time, I have felt the rich potential of digital film aesthetics to stimulate threshold states hovering just below conscious awareness. If we tap into these, riding Wagner’s by now overly familiar dissonant music, this grand finale might feel exhilarating, in that instant. 

I wrote this essay to find out how and why this film left a sustained delicate vibrating proprioceptive sensation on my body that night after seeing Melancholia and why ‘the end of the world’ as we knew it felt so exhilarating. The film modulates us in a most unusual manner, so as to restore to the human body and sensorium a ‘nebular of impulses’, particles of energy or vibrations, at a threshold of energy one does not normally experience in a cinema of catastrophy and of the every-day. It suggests, through Dunst, the little boy and Abraham the horse, and even the creepy-crawlies we see in close-up, under Justine’s footprint in the forest, that such mimetic qualities might be of some value to us now, facing ecological devastation.

Endnotes

  1. Nigel M. Smith Interview with Kiersten Dunst, IndiWire (September 13, 2011). <https://www.indiewire.com/news/general-news/melancholia-star-kirsten-dunst-thank-you-penelope-cruz-for-not-doing-this-52349/> Dunst says that von Trier communicates without words with actors. She thinks that he and Almadova are the only auteurs writing challenging parts for women. Accessed, October 10, 2023.
  2. Angus Gowland, “Burton’s Anatomy and the Intellectual Traditions of Melancholy”, Babel, 25 (2012): 221-257.
  3. Rob White Interview with Manuel Alberto Caro, Film Quarterly, 65/4 (Summer 2012): 17
  4. ‘Mimesis’ here is used in the Frankfurt School tradition of theorisation of the concept and is not meant as representation. See Benjamin’s cryptic statement; ‘Mimesis is the compulsion to become and behave like something else’. Mimesis also indicates the power to ‘read that which is not written’, for instance, like the sky. See Walter Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty”, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, Schocken (New York: 1978): 333-36.
  5. Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia”, 1914-1916, In The Standard Edition of Psychological Work of Sigmund Freud, vol.14, Hogath Press (London: 1986): 243-60.
  6. ibid. 252.
  7. Sven Sauer, ‘Lars von Trier, VFX’, at Pixamondo Studio, Frankfurt.   https://www.behance.net/gallery/8078353/Lars-von-Trier-Melancholia-VFX. Accessed, October 5, 2023
  8. Ibid.
  9. Michael P Steinberg, Aby Warburg’s Kreuzlingen Lecture: A Reading. Cornell University Press (Cornel: 1995).
  10. Claudia Wedepohl, “Warburg, Saxl, Panofsky and Durer’s Melancholia 1”, Schifanoia: A Cura Dell ‘Instituto Di Studi Rinascimentali Di Ferra, ed. Fabrizio Serra (Rome: 2015): 27-44. Warburg and Benjamin wrote about Durer’s Melencolia 1, in the inter-war period during the Weimar era, and von Trier made his version during the continuing ecological crisis.
  11. Juliana Schiesari, The Gendering of Melancholia, Feminism, Psychoanalysis and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature, Cornell University Press (Ithaca: 1992).
  12. Thomas Elsaesser, European Cinema and Continental Philosophy: Film as a Thought Experiment, Bloomsbury (London: 2018).
  13. Steven Shaviro, “Melancholia or the romantic anti-sublime”. I wish to thank Shaviro for his brilliant insight. https://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/sequence1/1-1-melancholia-or-the-romantic-anti-sublime/ Accessed October, 30, 2023.

About The Author

Laleen Jayamanne taught Cinema Studies at the University of Sydney. She wrote Poetic Cinema and the Spirit of the Gift: In the Films of Pabst, Parajanov, Kubrick and Ruiz (Amsterdam University Press, 2021) and directed the film A Song of Ceylon (Australian Film Commission, 1985). Her recent writings on art and politics in Sri Lanka for The Island newspaper are being translated into Sinhala.

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