Melancholia: The End of a World, Not the World
by Elliot Sperber
While his latest film, Melancholia, appears to deal with the end of the world, Lars von Trier expressly stated in an interview conducted at the Cannes Film Festival at the time of its release that it is not about the end of the world; rather, he said, his film is about a state of mind.
With its lush effects and languid pacing, the movie has struck many as being decidedly dreamlike. And, as such is the case, it does not seem to be much of a stretch to see the film as expressing the subconscious — or unconscious — anxieties of the rich, as a class, who fear not the end of the world so much, but the end of their own particular world.
It is immaterial whether this anxiety is intentionally expressed, or not. We will examine it as a symptom, or set of symptoms. Indeed, in the year 2012 it is hard not to see this type of anxiety in the wide array of symbols that are employed throughout Melancholia. The movie begins with a prologue depicting, among other things, the Earth being destroyed in a collision with the larger planet Melancholia. Before this occurs, however, we are submitted to, among other images, several shots of dead birds falling to the ground in slow motion — reminding one of the mysterious mass bird deaths that occur from time to time in the present age of global warming. Additionally, the part of the world that directly collides with Melancholia is Africa — the part of the planet that is arguably experiencing the worst ravages of the capitalist-bourgeois economic order.
After the prologue, Part One, Justine, begins. Justine and her new husband are heading to their wedding reception in a limousine. There is something allegorical in the limousine’s inability to navigate its way. The car is too big to negotiate the narrow roads, frustrating its own raison d’etre. At any event, the couple arrive at the castle — Sweden’s Tjoloholm Castle, surrounded by a golf course — and Justine is greeted by her sister and brother-in-law who are angry at the newlywed’s tardiness. Hardly has she concluded her apology when Justine is distracted by a star in the night sky. What is that red star? she asks. Her brother-in-law, John, replies that it is merely Antares.
What appears to be a red star, however, is in fact the looming planet Melancholia. It is hard not to be reminded, in the year of Occupy Wall Street, among other uprisings, that the Red Star is an almost cliched symbol of popular revolution — i.e., something decidedly hostile to the rich, and to the castle.
Justine at first seems to be enjoying the lavish wedding party, but it is not long before she begins to withdraw into a deep depression. In one striking scene Justine is alone in a study, looking at art books opened to images by the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich. She suddenly tears down these images deeply associated with the Russian Revolution and the Red Star and quickly replaces them with ones by the very non-revolutionary Klimt, the counter-reformation painter Caravaggio, and Pieter Breughel, the elder. This is hardly the only allusion to the bourgeoisie.
One scene toward the end of Part One involves a wedding tradition in which guests are asked to guess the number of beans collected in a bottle — literally becoming bean counters. Bean counters, of course, have long been associated with accounting and economics. Interestingly, there are only two people in the entire wedding who seem at all concerned about honoring this tradition: the wedding organizer (who directly profits from these rituals) and the one character in the film who does not appear to be wealthy: the servant, a butler named Little Father. Given that Melancholia, one of the four humors of medieval physiology, is associated with the skills of counting, numbering, and measuring (particularly the activities of counting money and measuring land), this scene functions, albeit obliquely, irrespective of von Trier’s intentions, as a critique of consumerist ideology. Aside from the butler (the only character who is a member of the working/serving class) and the wedding planner, no one is interested in participating in the game, yet the game proceeds nonetheless. Indeed, by the end of Part One, Justine has detonated her just launched marriage and destroyed her hitherto valued career.
Part two, named for Justine’s sister Claire, begins with Justine returning to the castle after what seems to have been a relatively brief absence. Unlike the first part, which featured a wide variety of characters, Part Two has only five: Justine, Claire, Claire’s husband John, their child Leo, and the butler.
While Justine spends most of Part Two in various stages of withdrawal and depression, Claire worries about what is now known to be the advancing planet Melancholia. Invoking the authority of mainstream science, John insists that her anxiety (which led her to buy a bottle of lethal pills) is simply paranoia and that, on the contrary, the passing of Melancholia will be a glorious, once in a lifetime experience — meanwhile, we see John stashing emergency supplies in the garage.
In one scene Claire, seeking to comfort her increasingly depressed sister, decides to prepare Justine’s favorite meal for dinner, meatloaf. After Justine takes her first bite, however, she begins to weep, exclaiming that the meatloaf tastes like ashes.
That is, this quintessential Middle Class dish has become fused with a symbol of death in general and one of the bourgeoisie’s most unforgettable crimes — Nazism’s crematoria — in particular. Less hypothetically, the colossal wastefulness of beef production, of which Justine is likely aware, involves large-scale deforestation deforming sensitive eco-systems into millions of tons of ashes annually.
When he finally realizes that the Earth is in fact doomed, John wastes little time purloining his wife’s pills and killing himself. In a scene that evokes Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus, Claire finds John’s corpse in the stable. Meanwhile, the butler has disappeared, presumably having left the castle for the village, which we are notably never shown.
In a scene toward the end of the film, a panicking Claire attempts to flee with her son to the village. Although the family’s cars won’t start, she gets their electric golf cart running and leaves. Due to natural forces, however, they cannot make it and are forced to return to the castle on foot. Upon their return they find Justine calmly waiting for them. Admonishing Claire for attempting to leave, Justine says: “This has nothing to do with the village.”
This ambiguous statement may be interpreted to mean that the world’s destruction has nothing to do with the village. Not only did the village not cause the destruction of the world — something that the the citadel, and cities, are responsible for — but the village is in some respects another world entirely, and one that Justine and Claire are restricted from entering. To be sure, while the capitalist class may have originated in the village, they have long since taken over the world and now rule from the castle (indeed, the film’s castle is surrounded by the typically bourgeois golf course). The village, according to this construction, is not simply a place, it is also a relatively innocent time. Perhaps this is why the viewer is repeatedly shown the medieval village in Pieter Breughel’s painting The Hunters in the Snow.
The film concludes with Justine and Leo collecting sticks with which to construct a magic cave that (so Leo thinks) will protect them from the arriving planet. Having collected these sticks, they arrange them into a sort of teepee (a too-late neo-primitivism?) and the three of them sit inside of it as their world is devoured by Melancholia.
While it is unlikely that Lars von Trier intended that his film should express a certain type of anxiety attending capitalist destructiveness — a certain “state of mind” — it is uncanny that all of these symbols (Red Star, Malevich, Melancholia, Meatloaf as ashes, Bean counters, etc.) not only appear in Melancholia, but are also ordered into a narrative so amenable to such an interpretation. Of course, destructiveness is not strictly the purview of the capitalists. At this point in time, however, it does seem that the capitalist world is, indeed, consuming itself into oblivion.