Lars Von Trier and his associates have made perhaps the only real comedy of our time. One cannot help but laugh at the spectacle of the bourgeoisie fretting over earth’s impending collision with a planet named Melancholia, which would be called depression by contemporary psychologists. Kiefer Sutherland’s character, Michael, puts up a front of irrational exuberance, denying that the collision will happen. His wife Claire, (Charlotte Gainsbourg) reacts with anxiety and occasionally tries to believe her husband. Her depressed sister Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a character worthy of her Sadean name, learns to relish the thought. The dancing, ludic, Lubitschian touch of this economic family melodrama should keep audiences in stiches and ought to sound familiar by now. The audience at the screening I attended watched in respectful art appreciation silence, as if they were the same tools who loved The Tree Of Life (Oh, wait…) I suspect most moviegoers greet the Melancholia that way, a reception explained by a closeted love for the so-called 1%.
From the film’s beginning, various cues set the expectation for comedy: the prelude from Tristan und Isolde playing over the animated summary of the film (and repeated at overly obvious moments throughout ¬— the most interesting use of that opera as a film score since Un chien Andalou; ) hole number 19 on the family golf course; Udo Kier’s party planner; the sister’s mother played by Charlotte Rampling interrupting her ex-husband’s wedding toast; the men who all come from castration nation; Michael’s obsession with his remote controlled telescope (“You are not to touch the instrument;”) the display of Kazimir Malevich book plates in a well appointed art book library in Michael and Clair’s mansion; the awkward goffer used to blackmail a tagline for an advertisement campaign from Justine on her wedding night; lines such as “life is only on earth and not for long … “
Even Melancholia’s narrative arc follows comedic form. It can’t be a tragedy since the house has fallen long before the movie begins, as the movie’s first section makes clear. In fine Shakespearean tradition, the film ends with a new family coming together as the two sisters and Claire’s little son Leo (Cameron Spurr) sit in a “magic cave” made of sticks to await our last moments.
Besides than secret sympathy for those supposedly universally reviled at the moment, a capitalist-masculinist fear of depression also inhibits Melancholia’s audiences. Contemporary power seeks to treat supposedly psychological depression through drugs and retail therapy, refusing to acknowledge it as the fundamental affect of life under the contemporary world system. Power imposes an emotional self-censorship similar to the one preventing business reporters from using the word “depression” in articles about the economy. To acknowledge depression by living it would amount to a critique of capital and a strategy of withdrawal.
Months ago, Ofer Eliaz identified Melancholia’s parodic “grand staging of the self.” That parody can happen because the film’s narrative refuses to treat depression as a disease to be gotten rid of. The truly dysfunctional characters in the film urge Justine to get over her unhappiness and always appear unsympathetic when they do so. I will leave it for others to discuss Melancholia’s hilarious anti-misogyny and only note that the film loves Justine because she is openly depressed, in part, as a form of resistance to her position in the current sexual economy. Melancholia deserves an audience who can laugh aloud and would make a good double feature with To Be Or Not To Be.