Antigone and Abraham in Melancholia

One of the most striking scenes in Melancholia comes when Justine and Claire step outside the mansion to see the sky lit up by two large heavenly bodies: the moon and the planet Melancholia. Claire suddenly notices that Justine is missing, and when she finds her, Justine is splayed out nude, basking in the uncanny light. This is a striking contrast to Justine’s previous behavior — during the wedding sequence, she can muster up no desire for her new husband, and when she takes aside a young man and has sex with him, it is more an expression of dominance and spite than lust. In the second half of the movie, she has difficulty sustaining any kind of affect whatsoever, recoiling from a warm bath and declaring that a favorite meal tastes like ashes. Yet here she is, responding to the prospect of the world’s annihilation with unmistakable erotism.

This scene serves, for me at least, as a kind of “quilting point” tying Melancholia to the story of Antigone. Continue reading “Antigone and Abraham in Melancholia

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.


I once wrote that Melancholia provides the only possible answer for what to do when you know for sure you’re going to die and yet you still have agency up until that moment. In that situation, where every action would be meaningless, there are no good options — indulging in one last pleasure would be hollow, pretending everything is normal would be pathetic, etc. The only possible choice is to make a gesture that is consciously meaningless, like the building of the shelter at the end of Melancholia.

In many ways, adult birthdays share a similar structure with the apocalypse of Melancholia. They are inevitable and utterly meaningless, and yet we are forced to respond in some way. Why not, then, take a parallel strategy by consciously choosing to do something just as contrived and silly as the convention of birthday observance is after the age of 21? Why not — as The Girlfriend suggested and as became inevitable the second the idea left her lips — celebrate my birthday this evening by going to Olive Garden?


A Twitter trend this afternoon is #OneDayLeft, which asks us to imagine how we would behave if we had only one day left to live. Looking at the unimaginative responses that have been posted, I responded sarcastically: “if I had #OneDayLeft I’d do some stereotypical sentimental bullshit, because isn’t that was life’s all about?” One could point to these answers as a sign of the profound meaninglessness of contemporary American life, etc., etc. Yet the fundamental problem is not with the vacuous answers, but with the question, which is literally meaningless.

Continue reading “Being-toward-#OneDayLeft”