Painting on film: A minor observation on Melancholia

Bruegel - Hunters in the Snow

Last night, The Girlfriend and I rewatched Melancholia and cast an analytical eye on the opening sequence. (I would include a video here, but the only YouTube versions I can find have alternate music, which makes me kind of sick to my stomach.) Many of the scenes in this abstract prelude are in extreme slow-motion — for instance, in one Charlotte Gainsbourg is carrying her son across one of the golf greens, and you can only faintly tell that the flag is blowing in the wind and the boy’s arm is moving. The Girlfriend observed that the presence of motion actually makes it more like a painting than if it were a still shot, and after teaching art for a few weeks, I can’t help but agree. The kind of motion portrayed in the scene with the golf green is exactly what a traditional painting would try to imply. Traditional paintings aren’t really “snapshots” of an isolated moment in time, but attempt to create the impression of a flow of time or sequence of events — to portray a whole historia, as Alberti would say — just as they use perspective techniques to create the experience of a space contiguous with the viewer’s.

One might think that technically proficient paintings from the early modern era were anticipating the photograph, but I think Lars von Trier is showing us that they were actually anticipating an extremely slow film. He reinforces this connection by actually introducing a painting into the sequence of images, indeed one of the first that Kirsten Dunst’s character selects when she angrily trades in her sister’s calm modernist paintings for less refined representational paintings. Perhaps we can even hear the recurrent Tristan motif as a particularly “painting-like” piece of music. Already Wagner stretches things out far beyond the usual compressed and rapid pace of classical music, and piling repetition on top of that only emphasizes the effect. It’s as though the slow emergence of the infamous Tristan chord is transposed into the same kind of slow-motion painting we see in the opening sequence.

Now I wonder if we can read this painterliness into the end of the film as well — if the collision with the planet Melancholia is somehow the perfect subject for a painting even as it marks the impossibility of any future painting. We hear repeatedly how beautiful the (supposed) near-miss with Melancholia will be, and of course all of the scenes portrayed in the opening evoke that moment. It’s as though von Trier is trying to turn his whole film into the subtle implied motion of the painted cloth blowing in the wind or the painted tensed muscle, but instead of opening out onto an idealized (or at least stylized) painterly world, his film-painting definitively closes down all possibility of worldhood.

2 thoughts on “Painting on film: A minor observation on Melancholia

  1. On the first viewing it seemed to me that Justine’s action of changing the modernist paintings to pictorial ones had the air of a manifesto about it, as if Von Trier was directly telling us that he was sick of modernist art and was rehabilitating the romantic. But on the second viewing this scene seemed more like a desperate act as opposed to a rational one, it seemed as if Justine was so desperate for anything other than numbness that she had to change these pictures around in an almost adolescent fit of acting out. Still not sure which is the correct reading. But I think Von Trier wants us to feel this same confusion and lack of certainty that is felt by Justine, as exemplified by her contradiction in disdaining Beethoven’s Ninth but desperately admiring pictorial paintings.

    Von Trier starts out by showing the Breugel burning, then shows Justine turning to it for comfort or out of anger, a desperate searching (perhaps for meaning) in the roots of modernism. Then she disdains the Beethoven because of its being weighed down with mindless bourgeois connotations. She’s confused about what epoch she’s living in, just as we all are.

    Von Trier is a great artist, and I think his displays of ambiguity in regards to these and other questions about the film are exactly what make it an awesome one. With Melancholia, Von Trier’s method of using radical ambiguity in film has become reflexive; he’s not as didactic with it as he was in his other films and he’s now showing us his own confusion as well as our own.

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