Like a juror about to pass judgement on a famous celebrity, it seems impossible for anyone discussing Lars von Trier’s new film, Melancholia, not to drag into their analysis their own pre-existing prejudices. In this case, it’s the director himself who gives us pause. This is a shame – we are often in danger of getting into such an excited frenzy over the controversial artist that we overlook the work he has produced.
Von Trier! Von Trier! Who is this Von Trier? I would argue that who he is does not matter. Artists, however self obsessed, very rarely put themselves fully and consciously at the centre of their works. In truth, most are simply vocal or visual symptoms of a wider zeitgeist, unwittingly amplifying the white noise around them. Others simply present a part of themselves – often in graphic detail – for us all to wince at, never daring to fully immerse themselves in their project.
Occasionally, as with Melancholia, the artist reaches a half-way house – not quite immersing, they nevertheless produce a whole-work of art; a work wrought from a mind aware and suddenly conscious of the spirit of the age it inhabits.
So what then does Melancholia say of the spirit of the age now? The film explores the emotional states of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as Justine’s promising life devolves into depression as the Earth is expected to collide with a rogue planet, the titular Melancholia. Throughout, the film is beautiful but it is an uneasy, often unbearable beauty that pervades; the sight of a naked Justine lying by the river side and bathed in cool blue moonlight seems to consume the showy superficiality of the wedding dress, cake and flowers. The consuming beauty is stark and ravishing. It is threatening to onlookers; stunning in its delivery. It is not an easy beauty.
It’s from scenes like this – which reference Ophelia – that have driven our gleeful hacks to jump on the theme of Germanic or Gothic culture. The clues are everywhere. The Kandinskys are unceremoniously dumped in this film, replaced by Brueghel the Elder and Millias. The strains of Wagner’s prelude to Tristan and Isolde reoccur throughout, and the striking blonde and blue-eyed Dunst is seen riding horses through misty pine forests.
Yet this is simplistic at best, and fails to look beneath the sparkling surface of the Germanic aesthetic. What lurks beneath? Misty pine trees, sparkling blue eyes and castles on remote outcrops: we know what the Germanic ideal looks like, but what does it mean?
As with the “Northern’”Renaissance and the later outpouring of Teutonic creativity in the late-18th and early-19th century, Von Trier is reacting against an overly scientific, organised and analytical view of reality which pervades modern culture. The film is an intellectual invasion of a slumbering paradigm of progress, science and reason. Here, perhaps, is the significance of the film.
The key here is not the more obvious Wagner, but Dürer’s woodcut Melancholia. Like the film, Dürer shows a distraught and depressed figure, surrounded by the clutter of science and progress. The apparent triumph of reason is no triumph at all. In the distance hangs a hazy hopeful semi-reality of horizon merging with sea and beyond that a bright light in the sky. As with the film, the bean counting, scientific instruments and refrain of “trusting the scientists” counts for nought here. The world is a creation of the self; external reasoning and logic have little influence on it. It attacks the view – espoused by 18th-century French philosophers – that “a work of politics, of morality, of criticism, perhaps even of literature, will be fine, all things considered, if made by the hands of a geometer.”
It’s this obsession with mathematical models, numbering and categorising that the film stands against. This is the sort of philosophy that, for Isaiah Berlin, “operates on lines which are conditioned by the idea that there are certain axiomatic truths, adamantine, unbreakable, from which it is possible by severe logic to deduce certain absolutely infallible conclusion; that it is possible to attain to this kind of absolute wisdom by a special method which he recommends; that there is such a thing as absolute knowledge to be obtained in the world….”
What Dürer recognised, as with Wagner, Goethe and later Carlyle in Britain, is the fundamental failure of progress and mechanistic thought to address the problem of the spiritual vacuum inevitably created. Where to turn to for inspiration or wonder? For Carlyle, who reacted strongly against the emotional desert progress had created, the consequences were clear to see and in need of remedy. This was a rallying cry; a beginning and a call to action, rather than a final anguished gasp of a reactionary mind:
“We Boasted ourselves a Rational University; in the highest degree hostile to Mysticism; thus was the young vacant mind furnished with much talk about Progress of the Species, Dark Ages, Prejudice, and the like; so that all were quickly enough blown out into a state of windy argumentativeness; whereby the better sort had soon to end in sick, impotent Scepticism; the worser sort explode in finished Self-conceit, and to all spiritual intents become dead. But this too is portion of mankind’s lot. If our era is the Era of Unbelief, why murmur under it; is there not a better coming, nay come? As in long-drawn systole and long-drawn diastole, must the period of Faith alternate with the period of Denial; must the vernal growth, the summer luxuriance of all Opinions, Spiritual Representations and Creations, be followed by, and again follow, the autumnal decay, the winter dissolution.”