Anatomy of Melancholia

Unraveling the Aesthetic Granny Knot of Lars Von Trier’s Darkly Jaunty 2011 Masterpiece
The Ring of Fire, Kirsten Dunst in a Stream, A Premonitory Sand Trap, Incapacitating Depression, Sacrificial Women, A Typical Woody Allen Movie, An Even-Larger Telescope, Happy People, The Ancient Tradition of the Humors,The Sadness of the Well-to-Do, Naked Witches Mounted on Boars

Anatomy of Melancholia

Victoria Nelson
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I. Leo’s Loop

At 5:30 p.m. on May 20, 2012, to the aggravation of motorists trying to get to the Trader Joe’s three blocks away, the people on our block gathered in the street to watch an annular solar eclipse, a.k.a. the “Ring of Fire.” Peering through a specially fitted telescope, I watched the sun slowly disappear behind the moon until it was nothing but a tiny rim of light edging a large, mysterious black globe. The air darkened around us. Neighbors exchanged uneasy glances. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck bristle. For a split second in that uncanny twilight, before the shadows on the pavement quit trembling and the sky brightened again, we seemed completely at the mercy of massive heavenly bodies hurtling through the sky.

It was a Melancholia moment.

Melencolia I, 1514. Engraving. 24 × 18.5 cm. By Albrecht Dürer. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As if in anticipation, the year leading up to this major astronomical event gave us not one but two films in which a large planet intrudes into Earth’s atmosphere with cataclysmic consequences for a handful of human characters. Melancholia, released in the U.S. in November 2011, appeared hard on the heels of a movie with the same unlikely theme—the connection between a bereft young woman and a strange new planet that suddenly appears in the sky. This was Another Earth, directed by Mike Cahill and written by Cahill and Brit Marling, who also plays the starring role of Rhoda, a young woman who kills an astrophysicist’s wife and child in a drunken car accident. After her release from jail, Rhoda gets herself hired as a housecleaner by the grieving widower, who is unaware of her identity until she finally confesses. Resolution occurs in this understated and underrated little film when Rhoda gives the astrophysicist the ticket she has won to travel to the alternate reality of the second Earth, where he’s presumably reunited with his loved ones. In a last-frame reversal, Rhoda’s double shows up at her front door, leaving us to wonder what calamity back on her own Earth this pulled-together, professional-looking woman might be fleeing from.

The invading planet of Danish writer-director Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, in contrast, delivers not the hope of an alternate life, but total destruction. What are we to make of this oddly jaunty tale of dark moods (in contrast to, say, Bergman’s on-the-nose depressive treatment of depression in Hour of the Wolf) and an even darker resolution (the literal end of the world) that combines psychological melodrama, sci fi–fantasy, and apocalypticism? At once ragged and slickly beautiful, formally abstract and subjectively psychological, von Trier’s Melancholia, like its immediate predecessor Antichrist, offers its audiences a tricky but fascinating aesthetic granny knot to unravel.

The movie opens with a stylized procession of discrete slow-motion sequences, one-off symbolic comments on what is to come: dead birds fall from the sky behind a deranged-looking Kirsten Dunst. Dunst floats Ophelia-like in a pond, clutching her bridal bouquet, then runs through a Gothic forest where cartoonish animated branches and tendrils grab at her ankles. More digitized dead birds rain down, this time within the dark, wintry landscape of a famous painting, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow (1565), our first hint of the world and worldview of premodern Europe that deeply inform this film. Finally, two giant planets converge in empty space; one swallows the other.

These tableaux vivants, drenched in the spirit of German Romanticism, segue directly into the main story. Part I, “Justine,” covers the afternoon and evening of the wedding day of Justine (Dunst), an advertising-agency executive, and her gentle groom, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), who arrive late to their own extravagant wedding dinner and party, held at the country hotel estate of her sister Claire (von Trier regular Charlotte Gainsbourg) and wealthy brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). In the course of the evening, Justine’s facade of bubbly happiness dissolves as she variously retreats to the bathtub, tells off her boss, refuses her husband’s advances, and fornicates with her boss’s young lackey in a golf-course sand trap whose uncanny similarity to a meteor crater foreshadows the planetary impact to come. By the end of the party, her despairing bridegroom has left with his parents, never to return. Throughout the night, meanwhile, Justine’s attention has been drawn to a reddish pinpoint of light in the sky that her brother-in-law, an amateur astronomer, tells her is the star Antares.

Part II, “Claire,” opens an unknown length of time later. A mysterious black mass that has been “hiding behind the sun,” identified as the planet Melancholia, looms large in the sky, apparently on a collision course with Earth in five short days. Justine, now completely incapacitated by her depression, arrives back at the country estate in a cab. In the face of annihilation, Justine’s previously imperturbable sister has grown increasingly agitated. Her good-intentioned brother-in-law confidently reassures his family that Melancholia—which has turned from black to blue to a beautifully striated superglobe as it looms ever larger in the sky—is a “fly-by” that will miss Earth. When it becomes apparent that the planet is not going to do what John, adjuring everyone to “trust the scientists,” says it will, he kills himself.

The impending end of the world, as played out in the microcosm of this family in their isolated domain, exerts the opposite effect on the ex-bride, however. The closer the giant planet gets to Earth, the more the symptoms of Justine’s depression lift. Taking charge of their final moments, she helps her nephew construct a flimsy structure from whittled tree branches, where they crouch with Claire as Melancholia collides with Earth to the triumphant strains of Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde, obliterating them all in an apocalyptic explosion of light, sound, and music.

Von Trier’s widely chronicled bout with severe depression makes the bride manqué of Melancholia a seemingly handy foil for enacting his own psychological journey. This director has shown a predilection for constructing stories around a sacrificial female main character who also serves as his own alter ego.1 As in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, a doomed woman stands in counterpoint to another, saner female rooted in everyday reality. It’s possible, however, that here not only Justine but Melancholia’s other characters are meant to embody certain qualities of their creator and of humankind generally, forming a single collective personality in which all his characters participate as traits rather than as separate individuals. This is a slightly different effect than, say, the Gestalt echo chamber of a typical Woody Allen movie, in which male and female characters of all ages act as undifferentiated ventriloquists of their creator’s personality and opinions.

Operating in the manner of medieval morality plays like Everyman, von Trier invests each of his characters with a single, slightly exaggerated trait. Justine enacts the chronic depression of the “creative” operating in the mercilessly commercial venue of an ad agency (read: Hollywood). This depression is so severe that it cannot be dented by unconditional love, as represented in her husband; nor by career advancement and money, from her unapologetically corrupt boss (Stellan Skarsgård, father of Alexander); nor by reasonableness, personified in Claire; nor by generosity and clueless optimism, from her “filthy rich” brother-in-law; nor by the purity of soul embodied in her innocent young nephew Leo; nor even, at the depth of her despair, by the primal life energy of the horses in their stable. (What does seem to get through to Justine, however, is the corruscating emotional bitterness of her mother, unforgettably played by Charlotte Rampling, whose witchlike tirade against marriage infects her daughter on her wedding night.) Earth itself finally functions as the bedrock of this character conglomerate, by turns mercenary, creative, cruel, practical, and childishly innocent—a bedrock about to get blown to bits along with all the life it sustains.

An Allegory of Melancholy, 1528. Oil on panel. 113 × 72 cm. By Lucas Cranach the Elder. Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland.

But does Earth, the largest player in the film’s collective character, belong to Justine or to von Trier? The artist’s contemplative, creative melancholy seems to merge seamlessly with his heroine’s clinical depression, the depressive state itself serving as both catalytic agent for the plot and unveiler of uncomfortable truths. Once Justine has begun her downward spiral, there is more than a hint of in melancoliam veritas in her ringing denunciation of her boss and silent rejection of her groom. Melancholia’s plunge toward Earth in Part II triggers deeper revelations and transformations: Claire’s mask of self-possession drops to reveal hysteria, while John the rationalist self-destructs. First he denies what is coming (whether it is actual physical death or figurative catastrophic depression); then, when he can deny it no longer, he impulsively takes his own life.

In his futile attempts to stave off the disaster, John recalls the husband in Antichrist, a therapist (played by Willem Dafoe) who tries to “fix,” deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic style, the grief and guilt of his wife (Gainsbourg again) for their young son’s death by means of earnest cognitive-behavioral exercises. When the therapist emphatically tells his wife, “Obsessions never materialize. It’s a scientific fact,” von Trier gleefully introduces a trio of sinister, deliberately corny animatronic animals embodying Pain, Grief, and Despair to refute him. Like Justine, Antichrist’s nameless heroine is pulled down into the muck of Nature, but she gets her hands a lot dirtier (to wit, deforming her son’s feet, willfully letting him die, and attempting to murder her husband). Naively attempting to desensitize her anxiety using a Gestalt therapy technique, her husband announces that he’s Nature—not just pretty greenery but all of Nature, inside people as well as outside—and that this Nature wants to kill her. As their mock role-play dialogue unfolds, however, he remains blithely unaware that far from demonstrating the absurdity of his wife’s fantasies with this presumed exaggeration, he is speaking the absolute truth of the dreadful story about to unfold. In the end, after she has tried to kill him and he has murdered her, he is forced to confront the truth that has driven his wife mad: no human being, male or female, is innocent of evil.

This much darker fairy tale contains a rudimentary symbolic code that von Trier expands upon in Melancholia. As a would-be astronomer using a high-powered scientific instrument to inspect an impending catastrophe (on the internal level, the depression about to engulf them all), John reenacts the therapist’s role of the rational, detached observer of a crisis. He trusts reason and science to fend off this crisis that confronts external and internal worlds at once; when the crisis is not averted, he calls on the gods of technoscience again by purchasing an even-larger telescope to examine the planet’s approach, meanwhile prudently investing in a generator and supplies just in case the passage proves a little rough. He kills himself with Claire’s anti-­anxiety pills, which he and Antichrist’s husband have inveighed against as proper treatment for the Gainsbourg character’s panic attacks in both films. The horses, who have turned frantic as Melancholia approaches Earth, immediately quieten after John’s suicide in the stable: eliminating false hopefulness soothes the primal instincts of the collective personality.

Justine also grows calmer as the cognitively higher-functioning people around her (who make up the ego of this collective personality) collapse. Von Trier has said he wanted to make a movie about how depressed people tend to act better than others in the face of impending disaster.2 But the disaster here is, literally, melancholy. If the best way to meet depression is not to suppress it by medication or positive thinking but rather simply to submit, go all the way into it, in order to come out the other side, then Justine becomes, in effect, the still center of the deep perturbation that is Melancholia. The key turning point is the amazing night scene in which she bathes naked, smiling joyously, in the light of the planet. Only after this moment of complete surrender to Melancholia do her symptoms lift. From now on, that moment passed, she will express only its cold, impersonal essence.

Still, the state itself is too radical to be endured indefinitely. As Melancholia increasingly dominates the sky, mists cover the land and the approaching planet takes out part of Earth’s atmosphere, making it difficult for von Trier’s characters to breathe. Claire and John’s quiet son Leo, who functions in a way as the moral center of this story, has constructed a crude instrument made of a twisted loop of wire attached to a wooden rod; a person who positions the rod on his chest can look at the planet through the wire circle at five-minute intervals to determine if the planet has gotten closer. This primitive device, a gauge of the inner world of the psyche as much as the heavens, is a truer measure than a sophisticated machine like a telescope, for the simple ­reason that its base point is the human heart. Throughout the story, Leo keeps asking Justine when they are going to “build the caves,” and finally he and Justine make haste to construct a “Magic Cave” out of whittled wooden sticks just before the planet hits. As they take shelter within this ritual space, we make the intuitive connection that only the melancholic working in tandem with the pure soul is able to meet the “end of the world” in the right way, inside a healing chamber that provides no physical protection—this is not its function—but rather demonstrates the proper attitude of acceptance in the face of this most drastic solution to the problem.

But von Trier is doing more than simply externalizing a subjective inner landscape here; bigger forces than the merely psychological, he suggests, are at work. When Claire finds a diagram on the internet depicting the “dance of death” between the planets Melancholy and Earth, the danse macabre reference draws with it the whole pre-Enlightenment worldview, including older concepts of Western cosmology involving the macrocosm and the microcosm—celestial, astral, and planetary forces that exert a controlling influence on Earth and every living creature. It is a worldview von Trier has invoked before, both in Antichrist and in the bell-ringing incident at the close of Breaking the Waves, when the heroine, Bess, decides in her self-ventriloquized dialogues with God (a Gestalt echo chamber rather different from Woody Allen’s, and one that may not be as pathological as it first appears) that she must let herself be beaten to death in a sordid sexual encounter so that her paralyzed husband may live. Afterward, when the miraculously cured Jan and his crewmates consign her body to the sea, enormous bells peal joyously in the sky over their oil rig.

This egregiously supernatural event is most easily read as if it happened in a Shakespeare play, where comets herald the death of kings—that is, as an instance of human life operating within a moral order ruled by powers larger than the simply human, an order that has somehow been restored by Bess’s sacrifice. It evokes the world of the Bruegel painting that appears in the opening sequence of Melancholia, the premodern world of allegory we must now explore if we are to understand the deeper subtext of the film.


II. Under the Sign of Saturn

In their classic 1964 treatise Saturn and Melancholy, the art historian Erwin Panofsky and his colleagues Raymond Klibansky and Fritz Saxl painstakingly traced the links between the planet Saturn in early modern visual and literary art and the ancient tradition of the four humors, put forward by Galen in the second century CE and modified over the next fifteen hundred years in Western European culture. In Galen’s system, the melancholic temperament, dominated by the presence of black bile, was thought to be ruled by the planet Saturn (hence the “saturnine,” or gloomy, disposition). In a combination of elements that von Trier is surely invoking, the centerpiece of their study, Albrecht ­Dürer’s famous engraving Melencolia I(1514), distills the complex attributes of Melancholy into the single figure of a woman, dark-skinned, winged, and scowling, seated with a jumble of allegorically significant objects strewn around her.3 Recalling Emanuel Swedenborg’s observation that there is no sadness like the sadness of the well-to-do, Dürer’s Melancholy is neither poor nor homeless.4 The sky behind her, however, is full of spectacular goings-on—a rainbow and, more strikingly, a falling comet—for, as Panofsky and his colleagues explain, “it was the misfortune of melancholics” to be able to predict natural calamities such as comets headed for Earth.

A historical gulf yawns between Melancholy with a capital M and “clinical depression,” our present-day sanitized notion of a completely internal condition that is eminently analyzable, whether it is regarded as a subjective mood or a neurophysiological event influenced by genetic makeup, or both. Melancholy for Dürer and his contemporaries was also a subjective mood, but it was a mood determined not just by a preponderance of black bile but also by planetary forces exerting a top-down influence on the individual according to his or her astrological makeup. In this older view that the allegory of Melancholy serves, emotions are forces external to human consciousness, capable at any time of sweeping through us without warning. “Those evil spirits get in as it were, and take possession of us,” Robert Burton wrote in his sprawling, idiosyncratic Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621. “Black choler is a shoeing-horn, a bait to allure them.” As Keats put it, melancholy falls “sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud”; we experience it as something both bigger than ourselves and external to us, a natural event as calamitous as a planetary collision. Von Trier’s Melancholia is indeed much larger than Earth; the beautiful planet fills the screen as completely as the ringing bells do in Breaking the Waves, as she eagerly gobbles up Earth.

Viewed through the premodern lens, the opening of Melancholia now takes on the added dimension of allegory. These vivid slo-mo sequences, none of which are replicated in the main story, recall the images of Renaissance emblem books like those of Christopher Harvey or Francis Quarles and should, I think, be read as such, visual hieroglyphs the viewer is meant to absorb and possibly even take a lesson from. They serve to place us at once in a different reality: the dream, the eternal, the realm outside time. The dead birds suggest a world out of kilter and portend natural disaster. Justine’s Gothic cameos tell a story of death and stasis, dark pursuers sent by Nature herself in an enchanted forest. The image of the estate’s lawn and formal garden, whose rigidly symmetrical composition suggests the contours of a Renaissance engraving, holds echoes of time and mortality in the sharply etched shadows cast by its stone hourglass (Saturn, of course, being the lord of time). A later shot of the moon and Melancholia riding side by side in the night sky over Justine, Claire, and Leo in the garden is composed with the same elegant formal symmetry. From this world of pure form we are catapulted, after the credits, into mundane sublunary existence, a transition telegraphed visually in von Trier’s trademark Dogme 95 style of jerky handheld camera, as we find ourselves bouncing around with Justine and Michael inside a very emblematic bridal stretch limo unable to navigate the twisting country roads.

Justine’s ascendance to her role as Dame Melancholy by the story’s end has also been prefigured in the opening sequences, where lightning shoots from her fingertips, and her round face, in the very first shot, is perfectly congruent in size and shape to the planet Melancholia, the last image in this series. Midway through the film, the night shot of Justine naked in the planet’s reflected light emblemizes their union: Melancholia is now embodied on Earth as an erotic, irresistibly beautiful forest nymph. She has earned her nephew’s nickname of “Aunt Steelbreaker,” the woman with special knowledge who correctly guesses the exact number of beans in the jar from the wedding-party game and possesses the insight and supernatural powers of a wise woman in touch with Earth’s deeper energies.

Even closer to von Trier’s vision than Melencolia I is the German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder’s An Allegory of Melancholy (1528). One of a number of imitations of ­Dürer’s engraving that Cranach painted, it features an oddly serene maiden whittling a branch with a knife while benignly overseeing four putti playing with a dog. In the sky behind this Melancholy, however, an animal-headed Satan cavorts with naked witches mounted on boars, ­donkeys, and other beasts. The authors of Saturn and Melancholy believe she is whittling the wood into a magic wand (just as Justine and Leo whittle branches to make their Magic Cave), because of the witches’ Sabbath in the background and the folk belief that sticks used for this purpose must be peeled so that no spirits remain between the bark and the wood. The traditional association of children of Saturn with the devil and magical arts fits von Trier’s own showman persona, too: as suave Wellesian master of ceremonies in the opening cameo to his television series The Kingdom, not to mention the notorious monologue he delivered at the film’s debut in Cannes, in which he playfully but disastrously identified himself with Hitler, a naively bad-boy performance that got him expelled from the festival.5

Satan, not surprisingly, is a major presence in Antichrist, but only offstage. The wife declares, “Nature is Satan’s church,” and if Nature is evil, she reasons, so are humans, including women. Like Justine, she acquires magical powers; invoking the witches of Rotterdam, whom she formerly thought innocent victims of “gynocide,” she is able to call down a hailstorm. In the movie’s chilling last scene, her thesis research on women executed for witchcraft in the sixteenth century comes to life as these murdered, faceless un-innocents crawl out of a Bruegel-like forest hillside to greet her husband after he has killed her.6 In her own new role as seer, Justine echoes the Antichrist wife when she utters the gnostic line “Life on Earth is evil,” and then, “The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. No one will miss it. There is no life elsewhere than on Earth.” Finally she declares, “We’re alone. Life is only on Earth, and not for long.”

In the case of Melancholia, are these bleak pronouncements to be taken as direct statements on the futility and inherent evil of human life, or is this only the black bile speaking? Panofsky and his colleagues located the genius of Dürer in this artist’s deep understanding that the abiding “melancholy of intellectual man” was an occupational hazard in which “brooding sorrow no less than creative enthusiasm are but the extremes of one and the same disposition.” Von Trier’s own creative enthusiasm manifests in Melancholia in a kind of playful exuberance that against all reason seems to peak at the very moment of planetary destruction, a burst of joy that the magisterial Liebestod score of Wagner’s prelude fails to subdue.7 J. Hoberman reported in the Village Voice that he felt “light, rejuvenated, and unconscionably happy” leaving the theater—not exactly the emotion one might expect to take away from a movie with this unfortunate outcome.

For the true melancholic, in fact, the prospect of death can seem like a wonderful release. Writing and directing this film may have been a way of going all the way into Melancholy for von Trier, and effectively blowing himself up may have been a pleasurable resolution for him. Melancholia generates an irresistible emotional trajectory toward a cathartic resolution of destruction, a destruction so aestheticized we feel we’re watching not death but rather transfiguration. Dürer wouldn’t have stood for such an ending, but we don’t live in his world.

Yet it’s still a bit of a cheat, this finale. Earth is wiped out, but the bigger planet Melancholia presumably endures. The allegorical logic is shaky and the message, if there is one, is ambiguous. Do we have to die to live again? Is this death metaphoric or literal? Or, like a kid playing with his train set, has von Trier simply chosen to blow everything up because he can’t figure any other way to unravel this Gordian knot? In fact, a mild undercurrent of making-it-up-as-you-go-along runs through the whole film. Did the red star Antares in Part I, one wonders, give von Trier the idea for the black star turned blue planet Melancholia in Part II (which includes the clumsy addition that the clouds created by Melancholia now obscure Antares)? Were the opening sequences an afterthought made in hopes of pulling everything together within a symbolic framework? Overall, the story line has an improvisatory, un-thought-through flavor; it feels like another set of shorthand notes—brighter, humane, and better organized—delivered from the same encoded no-man’s-land of Antichrist.

Though it lacks the deep emotional coherence of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, as cinema spectacle Melancholia is unquestionably the work of a master: gorgeous, charged with mysterious life energy, and utterly engrossing. A comment Samuel Taylor Coleridge recorded in his notebooks carries the spirit of von Trier’s enterprise here: “He looked at his own Soul with a Telescope. What seemed all irregular, he saw and shewed to be beautiful Constellations.” Like von Trier, the English Romantic poet fashioned a very special viewing instrument for this purpose, one with a handle set firmly on his heart. Coleridge was looking at himself through Leo’s loop. 

1. Von Trier has said, in one interviewer’s paraphrase, that he “creates strong female roles… by writing real characters first as men—and then switching the genders at the last minute, so that the strong roles become feminine and the trite, clichéd roles he actually writes for the women become male.”
2. The idea for the film emerged, von Trier told the same interviewer, “while he was in treatment for the depression that has haunted him in recent years. A therapist told him a theory that depressives and melancholics act more calmly in violent situations, while ‘ordinary, happy’ people are more apt to panic. Melancholics are ready for it. They already know everything is going to hell.”
3. The art books on display in John’s study are open to the Bruegel painting and other images, but not to Dürer’s or Cranach’s Melancholy.
4. In response to his own dream on this subject, Swedenborg remarks that as a man of means himself, he can testify that “the misery and melancholy that arise from lack of life’s necessities are low in degree and bodily in pressure, but are by no means so bad” as the melancholy of a person “who has all means in excess.”
5. In a later interview von Trier commented, “History shows we are all Nazis somewhere maybe to a tiny degree and maybe these things we should investigate. And the way we do not investigate it is to make it taboo to talk about.”
6. In Antichrist, what is inside the psyche also has its equivalents on Earth and in the heavens: its allegorical animals—the fox, the deer, and the bird—are the living equivalents of the “Three Beggars,” three small figurines labeled Pain, Grief, and Despair, which the son knocks over in his fatal plunge out the bedroom window; all are mirrored micro-macro style as fictitious constellations on a sky map the wife has drawn.
7. Panofsky et al. note that allegory conventionalized in the eighteenth century turned into the melancholy “mood” of the Romantics, “so best expressed in music.”
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