‘Melancholia’ as Wagnerian Music Drama

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) is a cinematic masterpiece that’s a must-see for anyone interested in art, opera, or cinematography. It also provides some unique insights into depression, but I’ll save that theme for another article.

Melancholia is fascinating as a modern film because it’s one of the few cinematic examples in the past few years of Gesamtkunstwerk—the word used by Richard Wagner to describe an all-encompassing work of art. (I’d place the films of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, especially 1972’s Solaris, which Melancholia has been compared to, in this category as well.)
Wagner’s operas are still the best examples we have of this “artwork of the future,” which is supposed to encompass music, painting, and drama into one profound expression of a folk legend. It’s comforting to see in Melancholia that Wagner’s vision for the art of the future hasn’t completely died.

In von Trier’s film, the folk legend in the “music drama” (a term that Wagner actually disapproved of for his ideas) is the end of the world. For Wagner, the end of the world was Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the last opera in his Ring Cycle. It tells the story of Ragnarök, when the Norse gods and the world are destroyed (though the earth will be reborn).

To give a brief summary of Melancholia (you’ll know the ending in the first few minutes of the film, so I’m not spoiling anything): It’s the story of two sisters: Justine (brilliantly played by Kirsten Dunst), who suffers from melancholy, and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is perfectly adjusted to the modern world. The first part of the film is Justine’s wedding reception. She seems fairly unhappy about the event—not surprising, since her family is crazy and she’s constantly reminded about how she had better be happy now that so much money has been spent on her. Justine’s new husband is rather bumbling—he can’t give a speech, while she’s just received a great promotion at work. She ends up having an affair with a stranger that night, and is completely turned off by her husband’s romantic gestures. It’s obvious that she thought “living the fairy tale” would make her happy, but when she finds herself in it, it’s empty. That night, she notices a strange red star in the sky.

In the second part of the film, Justine’s marriage has failed and she’s taken in by Claire and her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), while in an almost catatonic state. She’s severely depressed, but as the rogue planet Melancholia comes closer to crashing into earth, she becomes calm. In one scene she seems to commune with the planet while bathing naked in its glow, and she claims to have developed a kind of second sight. Now Claire is the one riding a roller coaster of emotions, as she tries to figure out whether she’s going to live or die. John seems completely level-headed in his belief that Melancholia will pass by the earth, but breaks down when he learns of the earth’s immanent destruction. The final scene of the film is Melancholia crashing into earth, enveloping Justine, Claire, and her young son in ash and flames.

Even the score of Melancholia is from Wagner, and consists primarily of the prelude to Tristan und Isolde. The use of the Tristan theme is significant, as the opera was considered a landmark in the development of music. The first chord of the opera is so important that it’s now known as the “Tristan chord,” and it was innovative because it doesn’t resolve until the finale of Act III—at the moment of Isolde’s death (in the love-death aria of Tristan and Isolde called the “Liebestod”)—a resolution in their deaths. (Readers wanting to know more should check out the book The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy by Bryan Magee.) There are many other places in Tristan that feature harmonic suspension—meaning that you’re musically on the edge of your seat for the entire opera. Melancholia features the same kind of suspense, resolved at the end in death.

Despite von Trier’s liberal use of Tristan, Melancholia has much more in common with Götterdämmerung. For one, the film also depicts the complete destruction of the world. The character Justine is like a modern-day Brünnhilde. Both love their horses (Justine’s is named Abraham, who failed in his attempts to save Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction—there’s quite a lot of Christian symbolism in Melancholia as well). Both experience an unhappy wedding feast (in Brünnhilde’s case, that of her lover), both build a funeral pyre, and both enter willingly into the literal flames of death. In Wagner’s opera, Brünnhilde’s funeral pyre is actually the cause of the flames that end up killing the gods and destroying the world. In Melancholia, a rogue planet 10 times the size of earth collides with our planet at the end of the film.

Besides the epic plot theme of Melancholia—it can’t get much more epic than the end of the world—the film itself is even structured like an opera by Wagner, who was the composer who pioneered the use of leitmotifs. The title sequence of the film is a series of slow-motion, visually striking images that look like paintings or sets. These are the themes that are explored throughout the film, just like a musical leitmotif is introduced and explored throughout a composition. Melancholia is divided into two parts, and while the typical opera has three acts, this still seems to be an homage to the theatre.

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Justine as Ophelia

The leitmotifs in Melancholia are not scenes from the movie, but images that establish the film’s themes. And von Trier develops these images as masterfully as Beethoven or Wagner develop the themes in their compositions. Some are infused with symbolism, like the owl statues that fall around Justine in the first scene, or the moths falling around her with her arms spread out like a cross.

Another aspect Melancholia shares with a genuine Gesamtkunstwerk is its emphasis on art. Not only are many of the shots in the film set up to look like stylized photographs (reminiscent of the work of American photographer Gregory Crewdson), paintings are used in the film as well. This emphasis on art is referenced in the opening leitmotifs, which include an image of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow.

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Pieter Brueghel the Elder, ‘The Hunters in the Snow,’ 1565

The painting theme is explored in a scene during Justine’s wedding reception, when she shuts herself in a room where art books open to display geometric abstract art, many by Kazimir Malevich. His work is representative of the modern world that Justine despises. In Malevich’s time, critics thought his paintings negated what was good in life, many of his pieces were confiscated, and he was banned from creating similar works (since in 1932, Joseph Stalin decreed that Socialist Realism was the official policy of the Soviet Union).

Justine rips down the books and replaces them with ones that display pre-modern Western art (the first is The Hunters). According to Film Quarterly editor Rob White: “Justine’s painting switchover is as much as to say: we’d do well to go back to pre-Enlightenment world views.”

The second book shows John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, which echoes the leitmotif image in the beginning of the film, of Justine in water surrounded by lily pads.

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John Everett Millais, ‘Ophelia,’ c. 1851

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia is a young noblewoman who goes mad and kills herself—either from grief, being unable to control her own destiny, or betrayal. The use of this image suggests Justine as mad and depressed while she’s a bride—she’s depicted in her wedding dress while floating in the brook, holding a bouquet of lilies of the valley. This poisonous plant has negative connotations in the Christian tradition—it’s also known as Mary’s Tears (since it sprung from where the Virgin Mary’s tears fell) or Eve’s Tears (coming from her tears after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden). But in Germanic religion, the lily of the valley was a symbol of purity associated with spring celebration Ostara, the precursor to Easter. The lily pads that surround Justine are reminiscent of another painting of Ophelia by a pre-Raphaelite painter, John William Waterhouse.

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John William Waterhouse, ‘Ophelia,’ 1894

On the facing page is another Millais painting, The Woodman’s Daughter. It shows the first meeting between Maud, the woodman’s daughter, and a young squire, the subjects of a poem by the same name by Coventry Patmore. They have an affair years later, but cannot be married due to their differences in social rank. She has a child, but goes mad and drowns it in pool of water.

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John Everett Millais, ‘The Woodsman’s Daughter,’ 1850-1851

Justine opens the next book to display Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath. In the orthodox Christian iconography of the seventeenth century, it represented the triumph of good over evil. It’s an apropos painting of the subject, since rather than triumphant, David looks pensive and sad.

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Caravaggio, ‘David with the Head of Goliath,’ c. 1610

Next we see another Brueghel painting—this time The Land of Cockaigne. In medieval myth, Cockaigne was a land of excessive plenty where indulgence in evil is given full reign—gluttony, lust, and indolence abound. Cockaigne could be representative of the wedding feast (which was very expensive, as everyone constantly reminds Justine) or of earth. At the end of the film Justine tells her sister: “The earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.”

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ‘The Land of Cockaigne,’ 1567

The final book shows a painting of a stylized deer—a positive symbol in almost every mythological tradition.

In examining the art in Melencholia, it’s also worth looking at the Director’s Statement. According to von Trier:

I desired to dive headlong into the abyss of German romanticism. Wagner in spades.

The German Romantics tried to do exactly what Justine does when ripping down the modern art books. The movement flourished as industrialism, modernism, and globalism were taking off. The German Romantics, in contrast, looked to history (especially the Middle Ages) for paintings of peasant life, religious scenes, and nature that all look like they could be set designs for the operas of their contemporary Wagner. There are so many images in Melancholia that are similarly emotive of German Romantic paintings. Here’s just one example, a landscape by Caspar David Friedrich:

Caspar David Friedrich, 'Moonrise over the Sea,' 1822

Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Moonrise over the Sea,’ 1822

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A still from ‘Melancholia’

Melancholia was released on DVD several years ago, and is currently available on Netflix streaming as well. Let your mind take its time when watching it, to experience the film as a Gesamtkunstwerk. We can hope that more directors will take on this style, which is still worthy to be the “artwork of the future.”