The Magic Cave of Allegory: Lars von Trier’s Melancholia
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The Magic Cave of Allegory:
Lars von Trier’s Melancholia

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) opens with a close-up shot of a young woman’s pallid face, her long, unkempt blonde hair accentuating a visage utterly absent any affect or movement. As her eyelids slowly open to expose a vacant gaze, dead birds begin to fall against a bleak sky. We are thus initially invited to interpret the film’s title as referring to a psychological or emotional state, what contemporary psychology calls “depression” but went by the name “melancholia” from ancient Hippocratic medicine through modern Freudian psychoanalysis. Yet the subsequent images that comprise the film’s introductory eight-minute sequence form a quasi tableau vivant that troubles any simple equation of melancholia with a psychological condition. These images record the final moments in the lives of the film’s central characters as they prepare for a catastrophic collision with a rogue planet named Melancholia. Resembling Earth in appearance save for its much larger size, Melancholia appears three times in the opening sequence: first as it eclipses the red star Antares, second as it passes perilously close to Earth in what astronomers call a flyby, and third when it returns to impact directly with Earth, a collision in which Melancholia devours its smaller twin.

Given the name of the rogue planet, together with the film’s wrenching depiction of the incapacitating effects of psychological [End Page 400] depression, viewers would be well warranted to interpret Earth’s annihilation as the most hyperbolic of allegories. Indeed, reviews have characterized the film as such, describing it as “an epic metaphor for the devastating effects of depression,” a “profound apocalyptic metaphor for depression,” a “metaphor for the onset of severe depression that is about as subtle as being hit over the head with a two-by-four,” and so on.1 In a press conference at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, von Trier himself primed viewers for such assessments, observing that “to me it’s not so much a film about the end of the world; it’s a film about a state of mind.”2 Given the ubiquitous use of the verb “catastrophize” by contemporary psychotherapists to describe a cognitive distortion common to those suffering from anxiety and depression, the popular imagination is already well disposed to pursue this line of interpretation. For cognitive behavioral therapists, to catastrophize is to magnify the perceived negativity of a situation or condition in a manner that is disproportional to reality.3 Von Trier explained that the initial impetus for the film emerged from his own therapeutic situation. “My analyst told me that melancholiacs will usually be more level-headed than ordinary people in a disastrous situation, partly because they can say: ‘What did I tell you?’”4 This notion that paranoid anticipation of the worst ironically makes melancholics more prepared to confront actual disaster is voiced in the film by Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg). Responding to the unaltered emotional state of her sister Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) in the wake of Earth having survived its first close encounter with Melancholia, Claire asserts, “Oh, you have it easy, don’t you? Just imagine the worst thing possible.” Since her worldview is enduringly negative, Justine finds no peace or consolation in Earth’s apparent escape from destruction.

An allegorical analysis of Melancholia would read the film as a departure from the conventional Hollywood disaster genre insofar as the latter typically stresses the literality of what is represented. This literality is especially crucial to depictions of historical catastrophes. Consider James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), in which the sinking of the eponymous ocean liner takes primacy over whatever figurative meanings it may also imply with regard to the fate of star-crossed lovers. As with most disaster films, moreover, in Titanic the scope of the devastation stops short of total destruction. Indeed, a fundamental, repetitive characteristic of the genre is its preoccupation with survival, the continued existence of at least one person beyond the scene of devastation (although multiple people of both genders is preferable, or else the human race could not propagate itself). Writing specifically about science fiction disaster films, [End...