Melancholia (2011, UK certificate 15) is Lars von Trier 12th film in a career that spans 30 years, and is a 130 minute lesson in Schopenhauer and the art of beautiful filmmaking. It has a high profile cast including Alexander Skarsgard, Brady Corbet, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Kirsten Dunst, and Stellan Skarsgard. Melancholia is one of his most high-profile, and has been nominated for eight European awards along with Kirsten Dunst winning the best actress award at the 64th Annual Cannes film festival. Filmed in Sweeden with the Tjolöholm Castle, as a backdrop accompanied with excerpts from Tristan und Isolde by Wagner – you could say that Melancholia is a sophisticated disaster movie.
The plot revolves around the difficult relationship between Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and Justine (Kirsten Dunst) on the day of Justine’s seemingly perfectly planned wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), Justine is struggling to be happy even though it should be the happiest day of her life, and it is not necessarily because the end of the world is immanent. The opening sequence focuses on the principle characters and is played out with the rogue planet Melancholia coming towards earth, signaling impending doom. It is a highly stylized introduction, we see the end of the world in slow-motion with Wagners’ Tristan und Isolde, as the soundtrack, it renders an odd calming feeling, in the sense that we realise that there is simply nothing that the characters can do to stop the end of the world. What follows are two chapters named “Justine” and “Claire” the two sisters in the film, who it is clear to see loathe each other.
During the course of her extravagant wedding day (paid in full by Claire’s husband) Justine behaves appallingly, it is not simply that she is not the picture of happiness that one would expect but she acts as though she has just taken a seminar on how to ruin family events, she leaves and returns the party when she feels like. She uses the green surrounding the golf course as a makeshift loo, she has sex with a young stranger and pretty much goes around insulting people, most noticeably the best man (Stellan Skarsgård). This may sound comical if have not yet seen the film, but there is something darkly tragic, Justine acts like a woman on the brink. But despite her erratic behavior, the wedding party carries on in the same military precision that it has been planned. In the similar way the characters in Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the wedding guests do not acknowledge the impending catastrophe, which is made even more apparent by the soaring romantic strains of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde prompt us to think that this wedding is so trivial in the face of the death of the world. We can see that Justine certainly thinks that the wedding is farcical – for when she is asked to take a guess at how many sugared almonds are in the jar she essentially asks what’s the point in it all, after giving the precise amount, it is a philosophical hint that Justine knows the universe because she has denied the Will (more on that later) and as result has a level of knowledge that outstrips her guests.
“Part 2: Claire” is more like a conventional disaster movie, in the sense that there is a recognition of the planet Melancholia, a sort of “we’re all going to die” type feeling. In part two Claire, John, and their young son, Leo are alone and isolated on their ridiculously huge country estate. They are looking after Justine who has now become depressed and exists in a near catatonic state. The characters are left to deal with approaching Melancholia which started out as a distant speck but which is now taking up most of the horizon. The question is do they confront it, or affect to confront, or merely witness it.
Claire the supposedly the calm sister is the who succumbs to hyperventilating panic reaching for the suicide pills; in contrast to the depressed Justine, who sees the apocalypse as ecstatic relief. John, Claire’s husband and amateur astronomer assures his wife danger will pass, she calms, but it does not last long. Leo seems to be amazed by the planet as a marvel of nature, and enjoys quizzing his father about the planet, even though it makes Claire anxious. During this time, Justine leaves her stupor behind, and in doing so has discovered a new composure. She is not afraid of the planet – as Claire seems to think she is – rather, Justine accepts and even seems to welcome the collision between the planets as a suitable end to an unnecessary world.
Whether or not you are Lars Von Trier fan, I would suggest that you do watch Melancholia, because it might just save you some money on books by Schopenhauer. Melancholia can be viewed as an examination of the Will, the fact that Tristan und Isolde features so heavily is clearly a clue. Wagner’s opera was influenced heavily by Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation. For Schopenhauer “Will” is a mindless, aimless, non-rational urge at the foundation of our instinctual drives, Schopenhauer writes that man is driven by our unachievable desires, it is the gap between what we desire and how unachievable they are – this leads us to constant misery. Even when we may achieve our desires, we always want something else, we can never be satisfied, and we are left always wanting. Further to this, the world is the unknown reality, what we see, our phenomenology is false, we need to see the essence of things, as Kant would say the Noumenon. This idea is apparent in Tristan und Isolde in relation to the second act when the two lover protagonist meet and Tristan wants to be free from his desires, which are unattainable and therefore torment him greatly. In the same way that if Tristan wants to be happy and set free he must renounce his desires, so must we. Thus, Schopenhauer’s world-view is that the only way for man to achieve inner peace is to renounce his desires. In the case of Melancholia the Will to live.
So we can see how this links directly to Melancholia, especially with the last scene where Leo, Justine and Claire build a twig tee-pee structure and sit and calmly wait for the world to end.
These three characters at this point can be said to have denied the will – they reject the human inclination to strive to survive as it were. The result is they are calm, rather than running around like headless chickens. Schopenhauer’s philosophy leads him to think that a person who understands the truth of human nature will be disgusted by the human condition, especially by the striving Will of which it is a manifestation, which will result in that person losing the desire to affirm to traditional human actions. So we can see this clearly in Justine, we can use how she acts in her wedding to be an allegory for denial of the will, Justine’s odd behavior can be viewed as one realizing how pointless the striving Will is. Perhaps her behavior in her wedding can be seen to foreshadow the eventual end of the world, she has renounced the Will. Schopenhauer says that composure and tranquility is the result of the denial of our will-to-live. The result is therefore similar to traditional Buddhism, and in fact, Leo at the end Melancholia is sitting like Buddha, the characters in the film, and people who deny the Will in general recognise that life is filled with unavoidable frustration, and acknowledges that the suffering caused by this frustration can itself be reduced by minimizing one’s desires.
A disaster movie in the sense the world is destroyed, but this destruction of Earth is not a disaster in the eyes of Justine, it is a release from the tragic circus of life, annihilation is freedom from the prison of the human desire to fulfill the Will. It prompted me to think how I would deal with the end of the world, could I deny the Will, could I face destruction in tranquility, I like to think so.