“To call any work of von Trier’s life affirming, especially one that ends in, of all things, the apocalypse, must seem seriously misguided. Life affirmation in von Trier? The most notoriously nihilistic director of his generation? But surprising as it sounds, a close reading of the film reveals that this reevaluation is just what he is after.”
Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is a great film. In fact, it would not be too much of a stretch to call it a sublime film — which is a description that can be taken in one of two ways. Sublime in the sense we usually understand it in this context — as an elevating, awe-inspiring work of art — and sublime in the more precise sense articulated by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment from 1790. The sublime, for Kant, refers to an aesthetic event that forces us, in its overwhelming power and scope, to confront the vulnerability of our situation as natural creatures. Examples include “threatening rocks, thunderclouds piling up in the sky and moving about accompanied by lightning and thunderclaps, volcanoes with all their destructive power, hurricanes with all the devastation they leave behind, the boundless ocean heaved up, the high waterfall of a mighty river, and so on. Compared to the might of any of these, our ability to resist becomes an insignificant trifle.”1 Sublime imagery rouses us from our solipsistic slumber (the conviction that we are somehow unique or exempted from the domain of the natural world) and reminds us how helpless we are — that we can be destroyed in the blink of an eye, that we are one, ephemeral speck in the vastness and omnipotence of nature. But, in this very same moment, in our ability to appreciate events like these aesthetically, to gain distance from them, and be elevated by them, we also discover a dimension in ourselves that is not reducible to bare life, that exists somehow over and above that irresistible pull of the natural. “Yet the sight of [sublime objects] becomes all the more attractive the more fearful it is, provided we are in a safe place. And we like to call these objects sublime because they raise the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range and allow us to discover in ourselves an ability to resist which is of a quite different kind, and which gives us the courage [to believe] that we could be a match for nature’s seeming omnipotence.”2 This is the paradox of the sublime: it confronts us with the finitude and fragility of our condition, but, in the very act of doing so, reveals to us that we do not consist of nature alone: there is, within us, the possibility of something more. Our nature, that is to say, does not only consist in the natural, but has a “vocation,” disclosed in the experience of the sublime, that lies in the “supersensible.”3
The argument of Melancholia is, or so I want to argue, fundamentally Kantian in spirit: the film dramatizes and elaborates the insight that a confrontation with the truth of our condition (the fact of its inevitable end) is precisely what can and should prompt us to recognize a dimension in ourselves that is not reducible to this basic truth. But this might seem confusing. To call any work of von Trier’s life affirming, especially one that ends in, of all things, the apocalypse, must seem seriously misguided. Life affirmation in von Trier? The most notoriously nihilistic director of his generation? But surprising as it sounds, a close reading of the film reveals that this reevaluation, and ultimately transvaluation, is just what he is after. It may also go some way toward explaining why critics had trouble formulating more ambitious interpretations of the film, largely leaving their reviews at the level of recounting their immediate reaction to the experience or discussing, for example, von Trier’s own personal bouts of depression or the controversy at Cannes. This curious critical reticence stands in sharp contrast to the reception von Trier’s films usually receive, which is an abundance of interpretation, rather than this widespread, hermeneutic silence. Without perhaps realizing it, we had all experienced a film that turned the usual von Trier tropes on their head, and we were therefore left without familiar ground to offer a more compelling interpretation. The wager, then, of what follows is that in the tradition of Kant’s formulation of the sublime and against the grain of much of von Trier’s other work, Melancholia lays out an eschatological injunction-to-life, rather than its repudiation. That life may finally be possible only in the face of its disappearance is the challenge that von Trier, like Kant, sets out to reckon with.
Let’s begin with the plot of the film. We open with a prologue, where Wagner’s overture to Tristan and Isolde plays over a series of obscure, slow-motion capture vignettes of characters and images we have not been introduced to; interspersed with this imagery is the path of a mysterious planet that in the climactic sequence engulfs and destroys the earth. The film is then divided into two chapters, the first entitled “Justine,” which is the name of our protagonist. We have seen her already in the prologue. It is Justine’s wedding day, and we follow her as she interacts with her family system — an endearing but ultimately impotent father; a domineering and cold mother; a loving but somewhat empty and naïve groom; a sister, Claire, who is overseeing the wedding proceedings and wants them to go off with as few hitches as possible; and a tight-fisted brother-in-law who marvels in irritation at the idiosyncrasies of Justine and Claire’s family. We watch as Justine is increasingly gripped by a painful and crushing depression that causes her to lose interest in the events of the evening altogether and act out in a series of strange, opaque gestures. She is constantly leaving the party — to take a bath, to nap with her nephew, to urinate on the grounds while gazing at the stars, to have sex with a young man she has just met. The surrounding characters, Claire in particular, are aware of the transformation Justine is undergoing — though perhaps not aware of everything she has done — and try to prompt her from slipping too far into this, from what we can judge, all-too-familiar abyss. But Justine’s behavior is in the end too much for her husband-to-be, and he and the other guests leave the wedding; Justine accepts her fate.
The film’s second chapter, “Claire,” follows the relationship between the two sisters, where Claire — who lives with her husband in the immaculately built and furnished castle that is the setting for the wedding — takes care of the increasingly immobilized Justine, who is now consumed by her illness. At the same time, Claire is herself frightened by the news of the approach of a planet that we learn has been hiding behind the sun. The planet is called Melancholia, which, her cosmologically informed husband, John, reassures her, will pass earth without incident (but will be the most beautiful site they have ever seen, he tells her). On the planet’s first pass, it illuminates and occupies the entire sky, then recedes from the earth as predicted. Claire is calmed. But the next morning, a clearly perturbed John is seen recalculating Melancholia’s trajectory. He disappears. Claire realizes the planet is now headed directly for earth. John, she finds, has committed suicide. Justine, at this point, has recovered in part and chastises Claire for refusing to accept the inevitable apocalyptic event that, she argues, is justified because “life on earth is evil.” We also learn that Justine has a certain preternatural gift of foresight, and, in a sequence never discussed by the two sisters, is observed by Claire on a previous night bathing in the glow of Melancholia. Terrified, Claire tries to escape from the grounds with her son (Justine refuses to join them), but is forced to return when she realizes that no mode of transportation works and the collision of the planets is unavoidable. At home, Justine again upbraids her for trying to create a meaningful setting for the approaching end. (Claire’s proposal is to sit out on the lawn with a glass of wine as Melancholia nears.) Justine then wanders onto the front lawn and discovers Claire’s son, Leo; she tells Leo that they will be able to build a magical cave (referenced in passing in the first chapter) to protect themselves. The two assemble the structure from branches, and Claire comes to join them. They sit together inside the structure holding hands as Melancholia rapidly approaches. The ocean, the ground underneath them, and eventually Justine, Claire, and Leo are all enveloped by Melancholia; the conflagration overwhelms the screen itself, which fades to black . . .
Perhaps the best way to begin a discussion of Melancholia is to contrast it with von Trier’s more recent work because it differs from these films in a number of significant and surprising ways. What is most striking even on a first viewing is that the secondary characters are not, reductive and strange as the observation may sound, inherently evil. In a typical von Trier film (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and Manderlay in particular), the secondary characters embody a clear split structure: on the surface, they are of a piece with the family in Melancholia: eccentric and amusing characters who correspond to a set of familiar, easily recognizable types. But this is only one side of the story. For von Trier, this all-too-tenuous surface masks a deeper monstrousness that waits only for the right circumstances and the precise interaction with the heroine to come bubbling — with a brutal and tragic violence — to the fore. In Dogville, for example, the townspeople, who at first (and very much intentionally) seem lifted right from the pages of a production like Our Town, viciously exploit the heroine, Grace — who is on a personal crusade, true to her name, to confer unconditional forgiveness even on the most egregious perpetrators and does not, therefore, fight back. Ben, the slovenly truck driver, Ma Ginger, the seemingly cold but deep-down kindhearted matriarch, Bill, the slow-witted aspiring student (to name just a few examples) — all these once charming characters participate in the subjugation and oppression of Grace. Evil has rarely looked so banal.
The surprise of Melancholia, then, is that von Trier does not choose to go down this same, familiar road. The characters’ flaws and weaknesses are not a glimpse into, and do not conceal, a more insidious malevolence, but remain their defining features throughout the film: there is nothing underneath or behind them, nothing lurking in the depths. As a result, the secondary characters in Melancholia are remarkably humanized. Rather than serving as mere stand-ins for von Trier’s primary concern (this subterranean, primordial Evil), where any semblance of “humanity” is there only to call into question the very fragility of this category, the characters are carefully painted as human, which is to say, they prove fallible; they are neither categorically evil nor good, but flawed: they are simply what they are — with no underlying metaphysical agenda. Justine’s husband, Michael, is a good example here. He is not perfect. His naiveté even seems to make him something of a dullard at times. But he tries repeatedly, and with several moving gestures, to connect to his impossibly distant wife. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking sequences, he offers Justine a picture of a plot of land he has purchased in the hope that it will provide her comfort whenever her disease rears its head. Justine says she will carry the picture with her always, but when she exits the room, it is sitting there, left behind. The scene is absolutely devastating. If we lack sympathy for anyone in this first chapter, it is for Justine, whose disease, if it excuses her actions, also renders her completely inaccessible to the audience. We cannot follow what she is thinking or feeling, but can appreciate only the ramifications of her actions and the hurt they inflict on other characters, who seem, for the most part, to be genuinely concerned for her well-being. This is a radical change for von Trier. In his other films, the heroine is almost always awarded an unconditional sympathy from the audience for the suffering she is forced to endure. It never occurs to us, for example, to judge Bess or Selma; they are immaculate in their comportment in every conceivable way. But von Trier seems insistent here that we pass judgment on Justine. That the wedding party itself is so appealing is part and parcel of this same move: we know that Justine’s illness informs and determines her mysterious behavior, but we are also seduced by the beauty and sumptuousness of the party and cannot understand why Justine will not simply enjoy when there is, as we see it, so much to be enjoyed. We have, in short, a feel for these secondary characters; Justine, however, remains an enigma.
Undeterred by his failed previous attempt to reach out, Michael later tries another display of sympathy by downing a special tonic that has been prepared for Justine. The couple’s penultimate scene together takes place in the bedroom, where Michael wants to become intimate, and Justine asks him to stop. In the old von Trier universe, her protestations would be ignored and Michael would force her to submit. (His apparent magnanimity vanishing at this final frustration of his desire. The scene recalls a similar one from Dogville where Tom pressures Grace into sleeping with her; when Grace tells him the act would be tainted since she is still imprisoned, Tom decides not to take advantage of her, but calls the gangsters to come and get rid of her.) Michael refrains and watches as she abandons him for the rest of their wedding night. Once again, he is the object of our sympathy here, not the impenetrable Justine. (It is also worth noting the interesting topographical shift here: the move away from a surface-depth opposition in characterization coincides with the externalization of the locus of truth — a body, Melancholia, over and above the characters.)
This change is part of Melancholia‘s larger thematic shift away from von Trier’s more recent films — from a question of ethics to one of truth. Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and Manderlay all center around a question of ethics. How are we to reconcile ourselves to a fallen world, to the fact of its Evil, asks von Trier again and again? His films call on various answers to meet this challenge, often, and almost obsessively, building on the conclusions and shortcomings of those that preceded them. Dogville, for example, plays out what would happen if the Christological protagonists of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark approached their abusers without the intervention and false pose of mercy and forgiveness, but treated them precisely as they deserve to be treated — without the suspension of justice, but through its radical and unflinching realization; as the Big Man (Grace’s father) puts it: “I call them [the townspeople] dogs, and if they’re lapping up their own vomit the only way to stop them is with the lash,” which is precisely what Grace will carry out in that ambiguous final act. Melancholia, however, is not concerned with this ethical impasse. The secondary characters do not mistreat Justine, or abuse her, or fail to understand her or provide for her. Their behavior, if it falls short in any way, does so only because they are human — and not, as is almost always the case for von Trier, because they are, in their boundless cruelty and iniquity, all too human. Melancholia frames its question on the register of truth. From the prologue, we know that the basic fact of this world is its inevitable demise. The question is therefore not how characters will treat one another, but how they will respond to this truth, this irreversible and absolute fact of Melancholia. Truth, not ethics, is the governing thought of this new von Trier universe.
A relatively straightforward reading suggests itself on a first viewing of the film, one summed up by the New York Times critic A. O. Scott: “In the second half of the movie Justine’s fatalism will prove a more viable (or at least a more graceful) response to the prospect of global annihilation than Claire’s anxious practicality . . . There is a grim vindication — and also an obvious, effective existential joke — in Justine’s discovery that her hyperbolic despair may turn out to be rooted in an accurate and objective assessment of the state of the universe.”4 Justine’s condition and her nihilistic Weltanschauung are, in other words, a natural and justified response to the existence of Melancholia, especially when considered in contrast to Claire’s seemingly delusional, frenzied attempts to escape this truth. We encounter a further departure here from the typical von Trier heroine, who is almost always exempted from a confrontation with the governing logic of her universe. Bess and Selma, for example, are constitutionally incapable of recognizing that they inhabit fallen worlds: as figures of redemption, they have a psychology that is altogether prelapsarian. On the other side of the spectrum, Grace intentionally disavows the truth of her world in order to embark on her project of ascetic, Christological prostration. What is unique in the character of Justine is therefore that she sees things precisely as they are, in all their brutal, inexorable clarity. She may not welcome this event (although there are suggestions that she does, e.g., the jouissance she seems to derive from bathing in Melancholia’s glow), but, at the very least, in her access to the truth, she is ready to accept her fate.
It is easy to understand why this interpretation might be an appealing one. Both in name and in implication, Justine’s condition and the planet seem to go hand and hand, and given the film’s relative lack of dialogue and action, there isn’t much else to latch onto as an interpretive jumping-off point. But this reading moves far too quickly. What it misses and what it fails to do justice to is the way the film repeatedly and consistently draws our attention to how Justine herself misreads the event of Melancholia. This view of things will take some persuading. On the face of it, nothing seems more farfetched. If Justine understands anything, it is the very condition that has defined her, and, in terms of the planet, that she herself, in that obscure pathological-cosmological connection, may well be responsible for bringing about. Justine (unlike Claire) understands that our time is up: there is nothing to be done, no meaningful site of resistance. The presence of Melancholia implies the end of all things, and the only appropriate response is the one that she takes up — the stance of Silenus’s life-denying wisdom. The assumption behind this reading, however, is that von Trier puts Justine in a position of infallibility, where her interpretation of events is never called into question by the film itself. And yet this is exactly what happens in the second chapter. Consider the two central scenes where Justine lays out her reading of Melancholia’s significance. Both times Justine unequivocally gets it wrong. In the first scene, she explains to Claire, with that condescending air of prophetic insight, that the approach of Melancholia and the destruction of the earth should not be lamented because, “The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it . . . Nobody will miss it . . . All I know is life on earth is evil.” Viewers of von Trier will recognize this style of refrain. It echoes the line that came to define his previous outing, Antichrist: “Chaos reigns!” Whatever one may think of that film, this declaration is entirely consistent with the world of Antichrist. Chaos does indeed reign for the universe of He and She, the protagonists of that film, where Nature is on full display in all of its writhing, unmitigated brutality and entropy. But life as depicted in Melancholia is emphatically not, as Justine has it here, evil. In fact, as we have seen, von Trier completely abandons (and draws attention to the very fact that he is abandoning) his usual dual structure of characterization: a thin, meretricious layer of humanity that conceals a more primordial Evil. Melancholia does not reduce its characters to surrogates for this larger metaphysical agency, but instead treats them as human beings — flawed and striving, doing the best they can within their own precise limitations. In his review, Scott misses this crucial point: “The world, Justine declares in her darkest moment of clarity, deserves its awful fate. The perverse achievement of “Melancholia” is how difficult it is to argue with her conclusion.”5 Nothing could be further from the truth. Justine’s claim that the world deserves its destruction, her, as it were, reverse theodicy, lacks any of the evidence and support it needs — which von Trier is very careful to provide in his other films and very careful to omit here. All we know as viewers of Melancholia, contra Justine, is that life on earth is not evil.
In the second scene, Claire returns to the castle after trying to escape the grounds, still terrified by Melancholia’s approach. She tells Justine that she wants to do something meaningful in these final moments, something “nice.” She asks Justine what she thinks of a plan to sit on the lawn together with a glass of wine as the planet approaches. Justine does not mince words: “You want me to have a glass of wine on your terrace? . . . How about some music? Beethoven’s Ninth? . . . Do you know what I think of your plan? I think it’s a piece of shit . . . Why don’t we meet on the fucking toilet?” Justine’s aggressive nihilism has a certain argumentative merit, of course. If the world is ending, then what’s the point? Why embrace or insist on illusions? It is just as meaningful to sit on the terrace and do something “nice” as it is to sit “on the fucking toilet” because the world is about to end: nothing can be said to have meaning or value anymore because everything is on the verge of being wiped from existence. But the question is not whether Justine’s argument might be defensible on its own terms; the question is how the film itself wants us to interpret this claim. And here’s the (first) rub. Playing throughout Melancholia is a selection from the overture to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde — which is a piece of trivia the viewer does not need to know specifically because it is the style of music, in light of Justine’s condemnation of something like Beethoven’s Ninth as a meaningful backdrop for this event, that matters. Von Trier therefore chooses to frame Melancholia’s approach with the very conditions Justine explicitly rejects. In fact, taking this observation a step further, we could say that the film as a whole represents nothing but this — an attempt to do something “nice,” to aestheticize, to provide a fiction, that can help us come to terms with the apocalyptic event of Melancholia. Justine’s self-proclaimed access to the truth of this event is therefore once again challenged, this time by the very form of the film itself.
The most telling clue comes in the final sequence. After Justine finishes admonishing Claire for refusing to face the truth of their situation, she finds Leo on the lawn. Leo confides that he is frightened, and Justine, in what appears to be a thoroughly genuine act that puts her at odds with the position she laid out so categorically in the previous scene, reassures him that they can find safety in the “caves” (a symbol never fully explained to the viewer). The two go to the woods to gather long branches to carve and assemble into a teepee-like structure that they sit in together, joined eventually by Claire. As Melancholia rapidly approaches, tears stream down Claire’s face as well as Justine’s, and the three of them face their end together. Something has changed here fundamentally for Justine: the very meaningless act she berates Claire for attempting in the preceding scene is precisely what she herself tries to create in these final moments. All of those supposed bad-faith illusions Claire proposed and she rejected now find themselves embraced: the kindness toward and sympathy for Leo (a compassion that, on her account, should be abandoned since it falls prey to the fallacy that we should “care” or attempt to assuage suffering even though our fates are irreversibly sealed); she fabricates a myth, a lie, for Leo about the safety provided by the “caves” in order to help calm him; and she organizes a beautiful setting for herself, Claire, and Leo to experience the end together. If Justine were still persuaded by her nihilistic philosophy, these gestures would all be rejected as absurd, desperate acts that stem from a failure to confront our status as beings-unto-death. Instead, she opts for a departure from this truth. And truth is the significance of Melancholia. We know from the prologue that there is no getting around it, no escaping Melancholia: death is destiny for this world and these characters. The Justine of the majority of the film and the one that Scott mistakenly takes as von Trier’s prophet recognizes this fact all too well, and it serves to reduce everything to “ashes,” to a meaningless, indistinguishable darkness that will soon be swallowed back into the nothingness that it already effectively is. But here, in her face-to-face confrontation with the event of Melancholia, Justine creates — in caring for Leo, in erecting this structure, in laying out this beautiful setting — a moment that is not driven by or reducible to this truth. She embraces and creates what can only be called, in this light, an illusion, a fiction, an act that refuses to accept this truth as the truth. She allows, that is, for what I want to call a certain form of romance.
Let’s recall the terms of Kant’s third Critique. The majority of the first half of that text is dedicated to analyzing the concept of the Beautiful — which, according to Kant, refers to aesthetic experiences that strike a perfect formal harmony between our structures of cognition (the way in which we understand and conceptualize the world) and the experience of the work or the aesthetic event itself and therefore allow us a feeling of being at home in the world, the sense that the world is authored for the precise purpose of our aesthetic pleasure. The sublime, by contrast, performs a profound violence to our imagination. It overwhelms our very ability to wrap our minds around the experience, and, through and from this very failure, reveals the fundamental kernel of our humanity that has a certain independence from nature itself:
[T]hough the irresistibility of nature’s might makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical impotence, it reveals in us at the same time an ability to judge ourselves independent of nature, and reveals in us a superiority over nature that is the basis of a self-preservation quite different in kind from the one that can be assailed and endangered by nature outside us. This keeps the humanity in our person from being degraded, even though a human being would have to succumb to that dominance [of nature]. Hence if in judging nature aesthetically we call it sublime, we do so not because nature arouses fear, but because it calls forth our strength (which does not belong to nature [within us]), to regard as small the [objects] of our [natural] concerns: property, health, and life, and because of this we regard nature’s might (to which we are indeed subjected in these [natural] concerns) as yet not having such dominance over us, as persons, that we should have to bow to it if our highest principles were at stake and we had to choose between upholding or abandoning them. Hence nature is here called sublime [erhaben] merely because it elevates [erhebt] our imagination, [making] it exhibit those cases where the mind can come to feel its own sublimity, which lies in its vocation and elevates it even above nature.6
How do we find a counterpart for this phenomenon in Melancholia? What could be further from von Trier’s nihilistic eschatology than this description of a heroic reclaiming of “our strength,” of “the humanity in our person” that does not have to “bow” to “nature’s might”? If nature needed a representation of its triumph over our romantic hubris, it could hardly do better than the final sequence of Melancholia. But, as we have seen, this reading fails to capture the film’s all-important climax and conclusion. In the face of her “physical impotence,” Justine chooses not to surrender to the truth of Melancholia — the fact that the end is inevitable — but is prompted instead to forge a moment, however fleeting, however quiet, that functions independently of this truth and that, in turn, seeks to protect her, Leo, and Claire’s “humanity” from the degradation of the fact of their bare life (the fact of Melancholia). As if she were reading from Kant herself, Justine discovers in herself a “vocation” that is elevated “even above nature.” This insight, this oscillation from truth to life, is what comprises Justine and von Trier’s romance.
A quick detour is helpful here. Kant’s account of aesthetics in the third Critique had a profound impact on Schopenhauer’s philosophy — which the later Nietzsche would famously characterize as the very essence of (what he saw as a deeply problematic) romanticism. Schopenhauer appropriated and expanded Kant’s argument that the experience of the Beautiful allows the subject a freedom from both reason-driven and corporeal imperatives (since, if aesthetic experience were reducible to these forces — to the “ideas” a work embodies or to the libidinal satisfaction it provides — Beauty as such would cease to exist) and argued for the larger emancipatory potential of art with respect to his own fundamental metaphysical unit, the will — which he saw as an indestructible, implacable originary force that confines our lives to a state of misery and suffering. Art, for Schopenhauer, elevates us above our embodied, material existence and provides a “Sabbath” from the suffering entailed by the world-as-will. Wagner, perhaps the romantic par excellence, would later become fascinated by Schopenhauer’s writings and often saw his work as the aesthetic counterpart to and incarnation of his philosophy. In Wagner’s own words: “In the peaceful quietness of my house at this time I first came across a book which was destined to be of great importance to me. This was Arthur Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung . . . What fascinated me so enormously about Schopenhauer’s work was not only its extraordinary fate, but the clearness and manly precision with which the most difficult metaphysical problems were treated from the beginning.”7 Which brings us already back full circle to Melancholia. Not only does Wagner’s overture to Tristan and Isolde serve as the score for the film, but in a gesture that seems rife with symbolic significance (and perhaps a veiled statement of von Trier’s own artistic program), Justine replaces a series of Kandinsky-esque, modern, abstract paintings with a series of pieces, including several from Bruegel, that if they are not part of the romantic period as such, share with this movement a robust, ambitious, and haunting vision of life. This image provides us with a more defined sense of von Trier’s own project. Against an aesthetic or a philosophy that takes the fact of our Nichts as the defining and delimiting thought, von Trier wants to recover this romantic sensibility.8
But this is not the romanticism we typically think of when this movement is mentioned. Justine is obviously not a Caspar David Friedrich “Wanderer above the Mists,” nor would many romantics choose to close their work with the destruction and end of life as we know it. But the romanticism I have in mind here is not about this excess fundamentally (not about representations of the strength and daring of Hyperborean Siegfried-like figures). It boils down to the insight we have returned to again and again — that the truth, even as truth, is not everything. That there is the potential, within us, for something outside/beyond it. If humanity, if life, is to mean anything, these brute facts of our condition (that we are beings-unto-death, that we are finite, embodied, natural creatures), which in turn imply our insignificance, our utter lack of meaning — these same facts cannot serve as the final horizon for how we engage with the world, or else engagement as such, at any level, becomes impossible (which is exactly what we see with Justine in the film’s first half). Both Kant and von Trier suggest that the answer here lies not in attempting to master the truth, or in dogmatically blinding ourselves to it, but that, paradoxically, the experience of a direct confrontation with this truth — with “nature’s might” and here in the film with Melancholia — with its obliterating power and scope, stirs within us a sense of something more, something irreducible, stirs within us a sense of our very “humanity.” The paradox is therefore that exposure to the end does not imply the disappearance of meaning, but, on the contrary, is the very impetus for the emergence of meaning as such. The romance of Melancholia is, following in the footsteps of Kant, the affirmation of this vocational surplus, this humanity, this “something more,” that Justine herself embraces in the film’s final moments. Which in and of itself would be a fascinating argument. But von Trier is not satisfied with this portrait of Justine alone. He plays out his theme on yet another level. We, the audience, in watching the concluding sequence unfold, have a parallel experience to Justine’s. Like von Trier’s heroine, we experience the overwhelming, “unbounded” image of Melancholia’s destruction of earth, which sends the screen hurtling into black (almost as if it threatened to tear apart the formal constraint of the screen itself).9 We sit there immobile, devastated — this rendering of our own fundamental and irresistible powerlessness and hopelessness somehow preventing us from getting out of our seats. And, at the same time, we begin to understand what it is that has changed for Justine here, what her path has finally consisted in; the sublime, that is, works its magic, leaving us to ponder its sui generis insight: Romance not in contradiction to the truth, but romance precisely and only because of the truth of Melancholia itself.
- Immanuel Kant. Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Hackett Publishing Company: Indianapolis, 1987), pg. 120, §28. [↩]
- Ibid. All brackets are included in the translation, except for “[sublime objects],” which is my addition. [↩]
- Ibid, 115, §27. [↩]
- A. O. Scott. “Bride’s Mind Is on Another Planet,” New York Times 10 November, 2011, New York Edition: C1. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid (1), 120-121, §28. [↩]
- Richard Wagner. My Life, trans. Andrew Gray (Da Capo Press: New York, 1992), 415. [↩]
- In his characteristically murky, paragraph-long Director’s Statement for the press kit for Melancholia, von Trier writes that, for the film, “With a state of mind as my starting point, I desired to dive headlong into the abyss of German romanticism. Wagner in spades.” Von Trier seems to have in mind here the formal elements of the film. But, as I have argued, his adventure into romanticism penetrates further still. There is, first of all, an inextricable link between form and content: Justine herself transforms (into a very precise version of) a romantic, in her affirmation of life, in the film’s final moments. And, moreover, von Trier’s romance, even if it borrows elements from Wagner and the tradition of late German romanticism, is more concerned with the meaning of the turn toward romance as such, of the subject’s orientation toward truth, rather than invoking a historically and aesthetically situated movement. [↩]
- Ibid (1), 116. [↩]