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Heaven is in Your Eyes

Thinking about Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia – 

Behold the bride Justine, her name plucked from a novel by de Sade, her body bedecked in crinoline, lace, satin, and bone stiffeners. Her voluptuous skin pillows at the edges of her wedding garment, which squeezes her bosom tightly and blossoms open below the waist. She is a vision in white as she runs across the neatly cropped lawn, dragging ragged rope chains behind her. A cumbersome sort of froth envelopes her, marks her as special and sets her apart from the herd of onlookers, the wedding guests who watch, each regarding her with his/her own form of desire.

To shun their desire, one after the other, is the project of Lars Von Trier’s “melancholy” bride, played by Kirsten Dunst (Justine), whose face, described brilliantly by cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, is much better than beautiful as it expresses her mercurial moodswings. We find ourselves ensnared in a madness that would be Cassandra-like if Justine were willing or able to express it coherently.

As do all brides worthy of the gown, Justine has a secret. Her clandestine date with doom is something which she is not able to share, although it is, ironically, something all will share in. The astronomical anomaly which is the domain of scientists she has stolen and adopted into her feminine aspect: a planet which is no more than a sparkle of red in the sky has fallen into her mind’s orbit. Hers is the intelligence of the seer, the shaman, the witch or the saint. She has no power that is superhuman, but the sensitivity she possesses has no place in polite conventional society, a world in which she is still trapped. Having not found any alternative universe, she grows morose and pensive. She has only a partial, truncated faith in herself, which is more problematic for her than no faith at all and yet makes her easier for us to deal with (i.e., medicate) than a true yogi, or a believer like Johannes of Dreyer’s Ordet. Justine’s acts of kindness and cruelty may appear random and arbitrary, though she is unfailingly loving to the child in her life, her little nephew.

Dunst’s bride is exasperating to the audience (turned rather cleverly into extended wedding guests). We see the bondage of the bride as privilege. The conventions demanded of her on her special day are our gifts to her. To refuse them, to try to make “her” special day into her special day is an offense. She only displays “rudeness” to the most arrogant of guests, her boss, whose hideous egocentrism demands the harsh treatment with which she blesses him and leaves him to degenerate into speechless, impotent apoplexy.

The opulence of the wedding party is essential to Von Trier’s strategy, as is the Wagnerian grandiosity that underlays the sumptuous images. The magnitude of gifts granted the bride reflects the profundity of her renunciation. Faced with the ire of her family, she protests to her rigid sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg): “…But I smiled, I smiled a lot!” The bride can smile all she wants, but even these guests, obtuse as pigeons, know there is something awry.

Lars Von Trier has avoided the traps of genre conventionality that turn any filmmaker broaching the subject of the end-of-the-world into a bride getting married to a particularly boring groom. He dances with his subject with characteristic delicacy, care and fine poetic instinct, alluding to a host  of great masters whose work informs his:  the elegant planet choreography of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Shakepeare’s lovely suicidal Ophelia, Antonioni’s refractory beauty Giuliana of Red Desert, Resnais/Robbes-Grillet’s scenic mystery of Last Year at Marienbad. His artistic/cultural bloodlines are Ingmar Bergman and  Carl Theodor Dreyer. But his fusion of wedding movie, family drama and apocalypse is a reinvention and a subversion of genre that is uniquely Von Trier and defies labels, much  like Kubrick, Godard, or Fassbinder, who have pretty much invented their own way of “doing” film that can’t be easily categorized as “post modern”, “neo-realist” etc. His work has the quality of good fiction or philosophy leading us into a dark vast forest and leaving us there to contemplate rather than showing us the way back (which always ends up being wrong).

The openness of the result, conceptually, is what will frustrate ordinary audiences and create an attitude of dismissiveness, quibbling and even scorn. But it leaves the rest of us open to speculate. Justine is privy to an apocalyptic vision which is as subtle and elusive as it is inexorable. It drives her into behaviors that have the appearance of rudeness, craziness, or extreme narcissism. “I know things”, she confides to her sister Claire, who has limited patience, as an ordinary woman steeped in the mundane world.

The nature of Justine’s specialness, her alien planetary madness, suffuses the wild poetic vision of Melancholia, a  movie whose notion of the end-of-the-world eschews flying dirt and ruptured concrete. Von Trier sees the annihilation as the display of a single mind so powerful that it is able to magnetize other minds into actually experiencing the same vision. The idea of melancholia, “refined” by modern psychiatry into a concept of endogenous depression, not caused by “outside” factors and characterized by a sense of foreboding, is a clue to this more ambitious project of the film. The sharply abridged world of the grand estate of perfect isolation and prestige is bounded by hairpin turns that frustrate the bride and groom in their attempt to enter it in too large a vehicle. It is reminiscent of Dogville in its self-enclosure. The tiny domain is abandoned by all guests at the end of the misbegotten wedding party and human anxiety is left to fester and infect the imaginations of the beings left behind.

When the planetary disaster is imminent, Claire rounds up her son and tries to escape the estate in a golf cart. “Where are you going Claire?” Justine asks. “The village,” Claire tearfully replies. “This isn’t about the village,” responds Justine darkly.

The experience of the end is shared only by the sisters and the child, Leo. Claire’s husband John (Keifer Sutherland), the bourgeois scientist, has killed himself, more from shame at facing his calculation errors than end-of-world terror. They come together, under no more than a sketch of a shelter created by sticks, a purely architectural form of whimsical surrender, and join hands in love as they merge into Justine’s apocalyptic crescendo. There is no more than this, what we see–what we think we see–and doom.


  1. Richard Davis says:

    Nice. I like the idea that Justine isn’t simply reacting to an impending doom
    but is somehow knowingly shaping it (along with everyone else, unknowingly); in
    fact, the point of contact seems to be that tiny enclave of artificial paradise.

    During the second part, at first I missed the simultaneously hilarious and
    horrific first part, so much like a psychedelicized film by Fassbender, who,
    after all, is just as psychedelic. I saw this year for the first time two of
    his movies, World on a Wire (big screen) and Martha (DVD), two incredible
    flicks. I even bought a World on a Wire poster and dry mounted it. The whole
    movie (back to Melancholia) is suffused with a clashing ethereality and
    concreteness, as when a spacy acid trip suddenly shifts into a cold hard focus.
    I was the most disconcerted by the subtle reconfiguring of the Tristan und
    Isolde prelude. Several times I knowingly rose and fell with the music, and
    then a slight unexpected shift brought me up short. Did Von Trier do this on
    purpose, change the music to conform to his vision – e.g., jolting
    unconsciousness into consciousness, or did he simply rework the music to fit the
    immediate narrative? But then the second half acquires its own momentum, an
    increasing stillness and foreboding under the bright surface. Like the times we
    live in for the lucky some of us.

  2. constance mallinson says:

    Beautifully written, deep analysis worthy of this truly magical film. I might only add to Valencia’s characterization of Justine as “seer, shamen, witch, or saint” that we might also see Justine as a visionary artist alternately frustrated, angry, and distressed with the trivialities of bourgeois life as so many obstacles in realizing her grand creation. The film is an epic poem to imagination–those who possess it and those who don’t. The wedding guests, bored with their meaningless, cliched rituals resort to drinking and partying. The family is equally isolated and lost.As the bride’s mother Charlotte Rampling (in a daring cameo)cunningly plays both herself as an aging actress but also the disconnected cynic who has lost all sense of joy in life; the sister is desperate/clueless to find any importance to her life. Evidience of Von Trier’s ultra Romanticism, he has the scientist brother in law kill himself when scientific rationality fails him, shattering his belief system. As the cataclysmic event is imminent, Justine enlists the young boy and his mother to build a special magical structure which is not so much “a purely architectural form of whimsical surrender” but a small, but nevertheless very powerful collective artwork of resistance, that enables the trio to face the inevitable. It is also a metaphor for the initiated viewer who maintains the openness, imaginative capabilities and will to experience art’s transformative powers in spite of what awaits us. Rather than the predictable, unsatisfying activities that distract us from the fact that we are all going to die–exemplified by the circuitous trip to the wedding, the endless parting guests, the family fighting–Von Triers suggests that creation and imagination, even if vicarious, are the means by which we overcome the painful knowledge that death is inevitable. Art–whether film or objects- saves us from our private hells.

  3. Thanks Connie! I do wish to go a little further into my use of the word “surrender” in the context of the artwork (the teepee structure of sticks) of the final scene you so eloquently elaborated upon. The common understanding of the word surrender is a form of defeat, implying submission to a greater force. The sense in which I use it has to do with a defeat as well, but a special kind of defeat, which allows the destruction of the illusion of permanence and solidity that the ego puts up in its need to perpetuate the notion of a self. True surrender is to gaze into the face of annihilation with the peace and freedom that comes from understanding–somehow, mysteriously–that there is nothing to annihilate. This is the openness which you talk about as art’s special potentiality…

  4. constance mallinson says:

    Rita–your additional words serve as more testimony to the complexities and multi-layers within the film. I sense your Buddhist wisdom at work. I think the only place we might differ is the importance we attach to the building of the structure at the end, but even that act is open to many interpretations: is it a monument to the human spirit, an act of final defiance, an inspired gesture of beauty in the face of brutal reality and destruction, or what you so eloquently describe as a necessary destruction of the illusion of permanance and ego? Von Triers adeptly engages all of those ideas, and most likely sees the flm as a metaphor for filmmaking itself, suggesting among many things, that it doesn’t matter if art or the artist survives–what matters is as humans we have the unique ability to meditate on our condition, and art–perhaps symbolized here by the modest structure the three construct in facing their doom, can be a powerful avenue by which to do that.

  5. Sharon Yablon says:

    Great article, Rita. I love the mystery of her madness/melancholia, which I think is impossible to put into words and really shows the limitations of language. If only we could educate our friends, lovers, the world, etc. about our particular forms of madness/self, we would feel less alone perhaps. Lars Von Trier’s choice of making this character a bride (and a beautiful one at that) is perfect for the story, as beauty fades and one is a bride only for a few hours – it is all so ephemeral, and we are especially reminded of this as our doom is manifested into something tangible in the film – the oncoming planet. And whom of us can really look doom in the face? Perhaps it is the insane or melancholic who can do this best of all, as they’re sitting in their fragile structures from which to watch it.

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