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The Two Faces of Death


In a provocatively problematic aside in the infamous Cannes press conference promoting Melancholia, Lars von Trier says, “The only thing I can tell is, I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew. Then later on came Susanne Bier and then suddenly I wasn’t so happy about being a Jew. No, that was a joke, sorry.” Fellow Dane Bier had recently won the best foreign film Oscar for In a Better World, and von Trier’s is nothing if not a film that seems to take for granted the worst of all possible worlds: a world where we know at the beginning of the film a planet will collide with earth. One could see von Trier’s remark as a churlish attack on a filmmaker’s success, but where Bier’s film is a work of unironic aesthetic conservatism; von Trier’s is a work of manifold irony, a film that tries to break numerous narrative rules and expectations whilst demanding at the same time it is entitled to the affectivity usually generated by those rules. As von Trier says in a Sight and Sound (Oct. 2011) interview about the film, talking of feelings we have even if we know these feelings to be absurd: “But what’s interesting about that as a spectator is that you still hope it doesn’t end. You see the Titanic and then you see an iceberg and you hope that it will somehow miss it. It’s ridiculous, but probably part of human nature.”

Melancholia thus works with what psychologists have called ‘anomalous suspense’: we know at the beginning what will happen at the end but it doesn’t stop us feeling tension within the inevitable. This isn’t the place to go into the various means, modes and options within ‘anomalous suspense’, interestingly explored by David Bordwell in Minding Movies, but one version of it that Bordwell doesn’t explore is the means by which filmmakers like von Trier fight against narrative devices whilst still arriving at affective assertiveness. Von Trier can name-check Titanic, but James Cameron’s work is a film a lot like Bier’s; it wants suspense as unthinking device; von Trier demands it as a thinking device. If von Trier is so dismissive of Bier maybe it resides in the relative seriousness of her project, where Titanic can be seen as no more than pragmatic spectacle entertainment. The anomalous suspense here isn’t only in that we know, as with Titanic, that catastrophe is inevitable; it also resides in working against characterisational and narrative convention and still hoping that we might be moved.

However, before saying a bit more about the similarities and differences with Titanic and In a Better World, and before exploring Melancholia, we should return briefly to von Trier’s claims about human nature. The notion of human nature is so often used by reactionary critics and script gurus to suggest that we are hard-wired for stories that it seems disappointing a filmmaker as radical as von Trier would use the term, yet perhaps also vital to the type of experimental filmmaker von Trier happens to be. What he often seems to want is to make us feel primary emotions but without relying on stock assumptions to elicit these reactions. In In a Better World and Titanic the films utilize stock devices to achieve what is then pretty close to stock emotions. In Bier’s film, the young boy who loses his mother at the beginning, sees the world as a hard place, and at one moment decides he will blow-up the work van of the town’s local bully. However, his best friend ends up getting badly injured when the operation goes wrong, and the friend lies in hospital with the boy thinking he is dead, and the boy intends then to throw himself off a tall building, only to be saved at the last minute by the friend’s father. The film concludes on undiluted melodrama, which von Trier’s work can countenance, but has not a trace of irony to the situations.

Von Trier would probably be happy with the feelings elicited (don’t Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and even The Idiots create melodrama?) but believe that a filmmaker cannot access them within the context of such representative obviousness. When the boy goes to throw himself off the silo in In a Better World, it echoes Rossellini’s great Germany Year Zero, but there is nothing in Bier’s direction that acknowledges the homage to the earlier film, and part of the film’s problem is that while it accesses primary emotion, it does so with the fustiness of hand-me-down imagery. The suspense the film generates isn’t anomalous (we don’t know whether the friend will survive; the boy will commit suicide), but it is predictable. If the boy kills himself it is tragically predictable; if he survives it is heart-warmingly so. Yet what seems so often to fascinate von Trier is anomalous suspense that is nevertheless unpredictable. The difference between Bier’s film and von Trier’s is that we cannot know the outcome but the approach to it is obvious. In von Trier we know the outcome but not the approach. In a Better World, like Titanic, does not possess loose ends – the film plays by the rules of the well-made drama as all the characters are categorically characterized and given their dramatic due. Characters don’t suddenly disappear from the films unless they have clearly served their dramatic function or have come to their demise. In a Better World allows the youthful bully to disappear as the adult bully comes into the film, and it is unlikely we’ll be wondering where the character has gone: he has no further dramatic function as the problem character becomes an adult.

In Melancholia, though, characters serve significant dramatic functions but have no dramatic through-line. Whether it happens to be Charlotte Rampling’s character insisting that the wedding of her daughter Justine (Kirtsen Dunst) is a sham because love is a sham, or Stellan Skaarskgard smashing his plate against a van, these are dramatic moments without dramatic through-lines. The characters disappear from the second half of the film, but because von Trier creates no inevitability of their return, nor inevitability concerning their absence, they could easily appear or disappear. The anomalous suspense of the planet hitting earth is countered by the unpredictable suspense of situation and character. We never really know what a character will do or when they will come and go. Quite late in the film the husband of Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) , goes off and kills himself, even though he has been presented as the stalwart figure insisting that the planet will miss earth, and constantly reassuring his wife that things will be okay.

Now one reason why von Trier can be so cavalier with the appearances and disappearances is because he offers Melancholia up as an unremitting disaster film. When he says in Sight and Sound, of general disaster movies, “it would be more interesting to get closer to some people in the disaster situation”, he is acknowledging the need for the examination of anxiety. Most disaster movies that arrived shortly before the end of the millennium sublimated millennial anxiety into spectacle, and personal crisis into personal survival. But what happens if you create a disaster so disastrous that nothing can be done; can you give more scope to the anxiety initself? But how does this follow from our idea that characters can disappear without returning? By making the disaster all encompassing, there is no need for von Trier to cut to other characters, no need for us to concern ourselves with what we might call, after Bordwell’s term dangling causes, dangling characters. For example when a character disappears in a typical disaster film as parts of the city or a building are being blown up, we might be wondering whether the characters are in that part of the city or the building, and wonder whether they are likely to be hurt there. The film cuts to show whether the people are safe or not. Part of von Trier’s cosmic irony here is that of course it doesn’t matter where anybody is; thus why cut away at all? Instead better to concentrate on the crisis within rather than the impact from without.

There is in von Trier’s film an interesting Jungian side: the idea of the cosmic and the personal colliding; as if one cannot be happy within one’s own mind without attending to the wider crisis within our being in the world. As Jung says in Psychological Reflections: “An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead.”

In Melancholia, the two sisters are not at all in this sense unconscious: their consciousness attends to the broadest possible parameters of existence; whether this happens to take the form of depression in Justine’s case or despair in Claire’s. While in the first section of the film going under the name of Justine we notice that she cannot quite escape a depression even on her own wedding day, Claire cannot quite believe her husband’s insistent claims that a planet moving in earth’s direction will narrowly miss. It is as though both sisters have access to the widest possible perceptual aspect on the cosmos, and Melancholia is thus a film that moves far beyond the egocentricity of much cinema, and far further still than the eco-centricity of a work that would try to pin the problem on ecological disaster. If von Trier eschews the dramatic element of the disaster film by knowing that cross-cutting to other lives would serve little purpose; equally he refuses the moral dimension that would show man oblivious to the catastrophe it has brought upon itself. By showing a planet colliding with earth, von Trier does not blame man for the disaster that befalls him, but instead expects one to be aware of one’s impending doom. The other characters lack this cosmic dimension. Whether it happens to be Justine’s husband looking forward to their future together, her adman boss desperate for a new tag line from her even on her wedding day, or Claire’s husband, John, fretting about the cost of everything and the scientific answer to why they will be okay, these are characters without the sort of insight into the universe that Jung talks of, but part of von Trier’s achievement is to suggest that they ought to be able to do so.

Yet surely this is part of von Trier’s perversity, if we look back on the idea of anomalous suspense, and also von Trier’s interest in avoiding certain tropes of the disaster genre; from the cross-cutting to another character to the idea of an eco-disaster that is man-made. Imagine if the film concerned a couple of sisters; one a scientist and the other an environmental activist both of whom in their different ways are aware of the dangers to the planet (called Melancholia), and we cross-cut between the two sisters and also the people they know and love as they try to do what they can to rescue earth. There has been no opening scene showing its complete destruction, and we are aware that the planet is for the saving as long as people act quickly and promise in the future to change their attitude towards the environment. We would have several things. Not only plausible as opposed to anomalous suspense, but also motivating causes and motivating actions. The problem is human-centred, and the solution is human-centred; the question is whether the human possesses the wherewithal to redeem the situation they have created.

Melancholia seems to ask instead: what is the deepest possible justification one can find for the melancholic state, a state examined by Julia Kristeva in Black Sun, a book subtitled ‘Melancholia and Depression’.  “Where does this black sun come from? Out of what eerie galaxy do its invisible, lethargic rays reach me, pinning me down to the ground, to my bed, compelling me to silence, to renunciation?” Moments earlier Kristeva says, “Within depression, if my existence is on the verge of collapsing, its lack of meaning is not tragic – it appears obvious to me, glaring and inescapable.” Melancholia is nothing if not a disaster film on a glaring and inescapable scale. Nick James in his editorial in Sight and Sound (Oct. 2011) talks of von Trier “suffering from the sort of depressive state we see portrayed by Kirsten Dunst in the film”, and perhaps that is so; however what is more interesting is not the biographical links between von Trier and his film, but the Cassandra syndrome that sits in the disaster movie but that often does not acknowledge its own despair. It instead simply utilizes it. Hence von Trier’s comment about disaster films not really being interested in character, while von Trier’s is all about character as he wants to remove the characterisational bad faith of the disaster movie where the crisis is external and any internal crisis can be resolved through therapeutic action: there is nothing like saving your city, the country or the world to give a sense of perspective to personal pain. Whether this is Tommy Lee Jones and his relationship with his daughter in Volcano, or the spats between Charlton Heston and his jealous wife in the seventies film Earthquake, the film puts them in their proper disaster movie context.

In Melancholia the character crisis isn’t put on hold for the purposes of spectacle, but remains central because any action is futile. John (Kiefer Sutherland) might act as if scientific know-how and his own preparations mean they have nothing to worry about, but it is the neurotic hand-wringers in this disaster movie that are right; not the doers. It is a point exemplified in a typically forthright comment from the director: “The male protagonists in my films are basically all idiots who don’t understand shit. Whereas the women are much more human, and much more real. It’s the women I identify with in all my films.” (Film Comment: Sept.Oct. 2009)

Von Trier is interested in the planet colliding with earth not as an action but as an experience and this is where von Trier’s comments on women coincide in some ways with Antonioni’s pronouncements where he insisted “women are a finer filter of reality. They can sniff things.” (Playboy ‘Apropos of Eroticism’, Nov. 1967) Women, in this context, explore life as experience over action, and so where in films like Earthquake and Volcano the women, whose emotional life is vital to them, become very much secondary characters because experience is much less important than action in the films; in Melancholia this is reversed, and so it is quite apt that the film goes by the name of an emotional state over an event: a personal crisis and not an impersonal one. As von Trier says, “when you’re depressed you have a feeling that it’s not only you that’s changed, but the whole world.” (Sight and Sound, Oct 2011)

Von Trier wants to create an experience of disaster rather than the action necessitated by disaster, but this is not at all the same thing as saying the disaster is an imaginary one. The event takes place, but it is the experience of that event which becomes the focus of our attention. The typical approach of the disaster film in relation to experiencing an event over its action can be evidenced in Independence Day, where optimists standing on top of a building get zapped as they welcome alien life. Cosmic hopefulness is irrelevant next to getting on with the job of exterminating forces from outside the earth’s atmosphere. But what happens if the waiting game is the only one the characters can play; does it create a completely different aesthetic purpose, and allow von Trier to access the sort of cosmic forces D. H. Lawrence wrote so well about in Apocalypse? “In ancient times the cosmos was a very real thing. A man lived with the cosmos, and knew it greater than himself…when I hear of people being lonely then I know what has happened. They have lost the cosmos. – It is nothing human and personal that we are short of. What we lack is cosmic life…” It is as though von Trier wants to give to the disaster film exactly this: as if to say that a cosmic awareness of the planet no matter the disastrous consequences is better than the savior of the planet without recognition of the cosmic dimension.

When John insists everything will be alright, perhaps we want it not to be so for no better reason (and yet it is a very good reason) than that his vision is so narrow. Is it better a planet collides in a moment of radical contingency than that we die a slow death due to depression, disease and ecological self-destruction? There has always been irony in von Trier’s work, but perhaps never more than here where death on a global scale is better than to continue in a world of narrow-minded predictability. Justine wonders whether John has “forgotten about the magic”, no matter if it is John who seems functional and Justine barely able to get out of bed. Justine attends to the cosmic dimension and feels the rays even if they are the depressive, lethargic ones Kristeva talks of; while John gets on with it, even if that consists of making money, saving social face and trusting the scientists as a paradoxical act of faith: he trusts in science not because he understands the science but that surely the scientists cannot be wrong. As for money and saving social face; throughout the wedding he points up how much he has spent on it, and how annoyed he is that people aren’t acting appropriately. Here we have John Hurt’s father of the bride jokingly stealing the cutlery, while his ex-wife, and Justine’s and Claire’s mother, stands up and tells everybody what a farce the wedding is. “Enjoy it while it lasts,”Rampling’s character says, “I myself hate marriages,” Von Trier presents a world that is barely worth the saving, but where numerous disaster films possess a Sodom and Gomorrah dimension where there is much destruction but also the salvation of a number of lives, the Dane refuses what we might call a moral optimism so often evident in the disaster film where suspect characters can die, corruption or evil be rooted out, and the valuable values live on.

The Towering Inferno, the recent The War of the Worlds and The Day After Tomorrow, are all films interested in the ethical possibilities that come out of disaster. Melancholia seems instead to be seeking not so much an ethical system (human, all too human), but a cosmic one in the Lawrentian sense. This is a film where its most sensitive character, the bridegroom, is irrelevant. As he tries to imagine a future for himself and Justine, he shows her a picture of his dream place only for Justine to get up and leave it half crumpled as she accidentally sits on it. Michael (Michael Skarsgaard) looks on pathetically, but while Michael may contain a sensitivity missing from many of the other characters, he proves insignificant in von Trier’s broader scheme of things. For all her tetchiness, self-absorption and sexual promiscuity (she lays a stranger the night of her wedding), Justine knows the cosmos is soaring through her soul, knows well the rays are reaching her.

Von Trier has often been a filmmaker wary of consensus and doxa, suspicious of psychological explanations and dramatic revelations, and we can see this as the director refusing to play the mainstream game, or attending to a reality that goes far beyond the limitations of convention. There is undeniably a provocative side to von Trier that can play against political correctness (mental disability in The Idiots, race issues in Manderlay), but it is also as though he is always looking for a context beyond the text, an angle upon which the film can be viewed beyond the film. If the disaster film creates intensified inserts, shots that accelerate the intensity of the action, like cut-aways to fireballs coming towards the screen, cars tumbling and exploding, von Trier often creates a problematic insert, the sort of shots that create a quizzical relationship with the image. Whether it is the postcard-like shots to seventies songs in Breaking the Waves, or the intermittent almost freeze-frames at the beginning here, von Trier literally holds the image. This is a version of the non-diegetic insert as Christian Metz might define it: shots that have nothing to do with the furthering of the story in narrative terms, but strangely haunt the film. As von Trier says of Breaking the Waves, “One normally chooses a style for a film in order to highlight a story. We’ve done exactly the opposite. We’ve chosen a style that works against the story, which gives it the least opportunity to highlight itself.” (Sight and Sound, Oct. 96) Cinema has always had this possibility of a film haunted by another, contained by the possibility that the film we are watching is merely a film haunted by all the other films it cannot be as it refuses to highlight the story.

Whether it is Godard’s Brechtian distancing, Antonioni dawdling on non-event, Bela Tarr opening Satantango with a lateral tracking shot that gives us the texture of a building, key auteurs create hauntings in their own work that cannot readily be incorporated back into the diegesis. Now this is not quite the same thing as self-reflexivity; sometimes it possesses a dimension of it – as in Godard and von Trier – sometimes not; as in Antonioni and Tarr. It is chiefly however a vague feeling of uncanniness in the face of the film, a sense that it is somehow being seen from a perspective which is beyond the limits of the film’s ready comprehension and instead invokes uncanny understanding. When for example here the mother says she doesn’t believe in weddings is she echoing back to her own life and commenting on her relationship with her now ex-husband or is she also commenting on a certain disbelief in the face of the world’s meaninglessness? Is Justine’s depression a reflection of her mother’s despair or part of a realization that we have in Lawrence’s words “for two thousand years…been living in a dead or dying cosmos”?  What happens in such instances is that the film opens itself up not to narrative foreshadowing, where the justification of the ambiguous will later be revealed, but where the ambiguous holds to its uncertainty principle and even opens it out still further.

Now if we think of an example where the ambiguities could be readily contained by the diegesis, where the ambiguous becomes the categorical, we can see the difference between this un-canniness and narrative prefiguring. If early in the film we had a depressive Justine and later discovered a bullying, tyrannical mother, the question as to why Justine is depressed would be answered by the mother’s appearance. It might not be quite as simple as cause and effect, but it would close off the uncanny. A filmmaker like von Trier wants to keep the uncanny, so that the ambiguous isn’t a temporary state of character and narrative supposition before epistemological gratification, but an ongoing mystery in the face of narrative event. The mother’s atrocious behaviour at the wedding can be read retrospectively not as flying in the face of her daughter’s happiness, but actually reflecting a deeper despair that nothing about the wedding and her married life is likely to dispel. Is it the same celestial misery that runs through mother and daughter; some kind of cosmic melancholia: cosmology’s equivalent of Zola’s physiology where instead of madness, violence or lust coursing through the blood it functions ‘immaterially: closer to Kristeva’s idea of a black hole? It is a “nothingness that is neither repression nor simply the mark of the affect but condenses into a black hole – like invisible, crushing, cosmic anti-matter.” How can narrative foreshadowing remotely capture such density of feeling, a feeling so dense that it goes far beyond personal psychology and engages beyond the stratosphere?

Von Trier’s is a disaster film where the outer space meets inner space, in a perfect ontological collision, as the personal black hole meets the cosmic black sun. The uncanniness resides centrally in this collision where it is as if the sisters, in a very different manner, comprehend the nature of the universe rather than find ways of countering its presence. The disaster film may be a Cassandra genre if ever there was one, but it is usually populated by vigorous optimists on the side of planet earth against external forces. There is nothing more uncanny about Melancholia than the characters’ capacity to absorb the cosmic chaos soon to be unleashed. The anomalous suspense von Trier works with is perhaps close to that of the suicide, to someone who will take their life but at the same time will not know exactly when that life will be taken, no matter if it is nevertheless a fait accompli. As von Trier says in Sight and Sound (Oct 2011), “the idea was that it should all be images that were inside her mind somehow, and that she had knowledge of what would happen. In the old times when you talked about melancholic persons, they were considered to know more than the rest of us.” Does Justine know the world will end and therein lies her despair, making any psychological justification beside the point? There is a fascinating comment from Maurice Blanchot through Gilles Deleuze that sums up the ambitiousness of von Trier’s project quite well. In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze says, “When Blanchot thinks of suicide as the wish to bring about the two faces of death – of prolonging impersonal death by means of the most personal act – he clearly shows the inevitability of this coupling or of this attempt at coupling.” It is towards this strange, baffling, and yes, uncanny, coupling that von Trier fascinatingly offers a personal melancholia meeting its further reaches.


©Tony McKibbin