Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened.
— Moshe Barasch
The opening shot of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) is a close-up of Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) her eyes shut, her wet, white-blonde hair wild, a feral halo around her face. And then she slowly opens her eyes.
The opening of the film consists of a series of sixteen shots, each an extreme slow-motion version of the film’s seminal moments. Here, we watch Claire, Justine’s sister, as she fords through mud with her child in her arms; we see Earth aligned with a red, planet that turns out to be Melancholia. This radical slow-motion evokes the paralysis of chronic depression, the inability to rise out of bed. The image of Justine slipping into the soft mud, caught like a bug in the sludge, is akin, too, to what severe depression feels like.
The film has been criticized as being overly melodramatic. This reaction is analogous to how people often experience someone’s suffering from severe depression. Unless one has actually experienced melancholia, the pain it inflicts is invisible, a blind spot to outsiders.
At the onset of the film Justine distracts or “blinds” herself. First, she pretends she wants to marry the man she has just married, but rather than spend time with her new husband, she walks through rooms, a ghost, in a beautiful white wedding gown. She looks gorgeous, a sentiment echoed throughout the first half of the film. Her husband’s toast rests almost entirely on her looks, “ I never even dreamed I would have such a gorgeous wife.” Her father’s first words to her when she arrives two hours late to her own wedding are that he has never seen her look so beautiful, so happy.
And the agreement is that Justine would be happy. Her sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) repeats to her over and over, “You promised me, we don’t want any scenes,” following Justine through the long corridors of the mansion where the wedding takes place.
The film is broken into two distinct sections: “Part One: Justine” and “Part Two: Claire,” implying a kind of twinning or binary. Claire is a shadow, Justine’s double. Here, Justine is blind and Claire is the sighted one, guiding her blinded sister. The unspoken supposition is that if Justine would just be happy, everything would be perfect. All she has to do is see how wonderful everything is. Her brother-in-law threatens her, “You better be God-damned happy,” he says. “Do you have any idea how much this wedding cost me?” As long as Justine appears happy, the world can move on. But if Justine remains melancholic, the world might just stop. At the end of Part One, Justine begs her parents, to listen to her. “I’m scared, I’m frightened,” she tells her mother, who mother responds, “We all are sweetie. Just get the hell out of here.” Her father escapes her clutch, leaving her a note misaddressed (to “Betty,” the name of both his new wife and daughter). He can’t see her; she doesn’t exist, so why would he stay around (rather than leave with the “Bettys”) to spend time with someone he can’t see, who doesn’t exist?
Though Justine has been playing at being happy, in reality she’s swallowed the darkness. It is inside her. She cannot make it go away. Like her mother, Gabby, (played by Charlotte Rampling) she knows the truth, and the truth is that the world is a terrible place. Gabby, in what appears to be a weathered yoga outfit, sits glum at her daughter’s wedding reception waiting for the moment when she can speak. When she does, she wastes no words. Before the entire wedding, she announces her hatred of weddings and of marriages, then she sits back down at the table, looking relieved. She’s told the truth, she’s told the world what she sees. Meanwhile, Justine keeps escaping her wedding, hiding out in her nephew’s bedroom, napping, sliding into blindness, a tiny death. Until her sister finds her. Unable to keep her eyes open, Justine says, “I’m trudging through this gray, wooly yarn. It’s clinging to my legs. Its really heavy to drag along,” to which Claire replies, “No you’re not.”
Seeing and not seeing are at the core of the film. In Part One, only Justine sees. In fact, when she arrives at the mansion, she stops, as if by intuition or animal instinct, looks up into the sky and asks, “ What star is that?” Her brother-in-law (played by Kiefer Sutherland), a scientist and know-it-all, replies, “I’m amazed that you can see that.” She sees a star that no one else sees. Sutherland assails nearly everyone with comments and corrections, and yet his “knowing” or seeing is based solely on books, on what has been taught to him.
Aside from Justine, no one else is present. Justine’s new husband is pretty but vacant; her mother is bitter and distant; her father is busy fondling his new young wife and her young daughter; her sister is brittle and so consumed in worry, always in the future or the past, that she can’t join Justine in the moment.
The word hallucination means, for most, seeing or hearing something that does not exist. The word is connected with madness, whether in the form of a drug-induced hallucination or the mental illness called psychosis. In either way, to hallucinate is to be put in grave danger: the police or an ambulance will probably be called. Seeing what others do not see means being wrong. And yet, as Schopenhauer wrote, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.” Similarly, the idea exists that when one is filled with God, one can see what others cannot. In this case, Justine is a saint. She sees the superficiality of the wedding — the rote manners, the mindless schedule of wedding events, the insistence on her being happy— and this acute form of seeing nearly kills her. In fact, in this case, sight and death nearly collapse into one another. She is consumed in a blackness and yet she has the gift of sight.
In Blindness (2001), Moshe Barasch writes, “Yet throughout antiquity the numinous blind one is imagined as seer, as a man perceiving secret revelations by means of inner visual experience. “ It is this death (by blindness) of the regular human that allows for the other, double, more godly human to take over. Blindness and sight are the two opposites on this pole. Melancholia follows Shakespeare’s King Lear: Justine is both Cordelia and Lear, a conflation of the mad lovebirds at the end of the play. Shakespeare’s King Lear cannot see the deceit in his daughters Regan and Goneril. Like the characters in von Trier’s Melancholia, he is blind to reality and doesn’t grasp it for what it is until he, like Justine, goes mad, becoming a child-like version of himself, replacing one Lear with another:
Does any here know me? This is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, or his discernings
Are lethargied—Ha! Waking?’Tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?
Justine, in the first half of Melancholia, is, though upbeat, also inside a sleeve of death. She knows the truth, that marriage, rituals of domesticity and conformism are mere steps toward her own spiritual death. Plus, she can’t do it. And she doesn’t. Instead, she gets drunk and, isolated in the study, she rummages through art books for images of sorrow, leaving the books open for anyone to see. Her displaying of the artworks is her language, the only means she has left to express what she has been forced to hide. This is her last attempt at speaking; her last attempt to communicate with others what it is she is seeing. Before the darkness fully consumes her, she abandons the festivities in the mansion, urinates in her wedding dress beneath the moon, and has sex with a younger coworker. And then finally she resigns herself to sleep.
The next morning Claire finds Justine asleep on the couch in the study and somehow summons her up. The two take their horses riding. This scene is shot from above and we can see the two on horseback as they race through the fog, riding through the blindness. As Otto Friedrich Bollnow writes in Human Space (1963):
This disappearing of individual objects into a common whole […] comes across particularly impressively in fog; for fog shows us a totally altered world compared with the observable world of daytime. In fog, things lose their tangibility, they glide into the incomprehensible and acquire by this very process a newly menacing character, stronger than that which we have already perceived in the forest.
When Justine reaches the bridge, which is the link from Claire’s and her husband’s land to the outside world, her horse, as if also blind, refuses to cross over it. He will stay only inside the fixed space of the enclosed land and not venture past the gate into what he does not know. Again, Bollnow writes, “The gate as a place of transition at the same time also acquires at this point a deeper symbolic meaning: it is the place of transition to a new life, as for example is meant by the demand in the Gospel: ‘Enter through the narrow gate.’” (Much could be made, too, about the symbolism of the horse’s name, Abraham, but that would be another essay.) Justine stands beside Abraham and looks into the (daylight) sky. “The red star is missing from Scorpio,” she says, “and Taurus is no [?] longer there.” A mystic, a goddess, Justine can see what others do not.
Justine finally dies at the beginning of Part Two. Or, her spirit does. She is consumed by melancholia. She cannot lift her head, cannot move or talk. The most harrowing scene is when Claire tries to get Justine to take a bath, to enter the tub. When Claire tries to lift her sister’s body, though Justine is remarkably thin, we can feel the tremendous weight of the blackness trapped inside her, anchoring her body down.
Justine is in a melancholic blackout. A blindness, an extreme state of stupor, one inked in bile — a blackout of such intensity that she can never pull those moments back into the rooms of her memory. To black out is to lose consciousness, to lose one’s mind (temporarily). Melancholia is a cousin to the blackout of benzos, of opiates, of booze. Where does the mind go when it singes out? (And might there be a world somewhere where all of these moments are archived? Where might that be?) It is the same place the mind goes when it experiences extreme physical pain. In her book, The Body in Pain (1985), Elaine Scarry writes:
It is commonplace that at the moment when a dentist’s drill hits and holds an exposed nerve, a person sees stars. What is meant by “seeing stars” is that the contents of consciousness are, during those moments, obliterated, that the name of one’s child, the memories of a friend’s face, are all absent.
Blindheit, Verblindung, Erblindung — these are all words for “blind” or “blinded” in German. And in fact, the words themselves sound like the act of blinding, of being made blind. The words drop into one another, like Russian nesting dolls, those tiny colored wooden caskets. But there is another German word for “blind” that both does and does not fit into this link of blindings: Blütenlos, which also meansblossomless, flowerless. Blüten is the word for blossoms or blooms. But blood also lives inside this word, Blüt, the German word for blood. To black out, to lose memory, is to lose everything one loves and knows; it is to be blossomless, flowerless. It is to be bled of one’s memory; to lose or bleed out of one’s self. What remains is a shadow, an eclipse of who or what one was.
The melancholia, the very thing that wants her dead, is the drug that feeds Justine and allows her, in the end, to see. From the outset, she has already consumed melancholia (or it has consumed her). The entirety of Part One is Justine’s demise, her blindness, her awakening and her beginning to see. It is meaningless, all of it: her job at the ad agency; her raise in salaray; her handsome husband who can’t see beyond her looks. The golf course, the limousine, her father’s infantilism, and her mother’s kooky new-age-hippy repudiation of everyone.
Trouble is the salve. This blackness, this ink, this disturbance of bile. It kills but it also helps its sufferers to finally see. Melancholy and madness are of course akin to death. Melancholia is the specter of death, looming. You can see this in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (born in the town of Greifswald, sorrow woods): the dregs of death, moldering in his paintings, in the black-blackness. It is the blackness of death, hunched in the corner. Justine dies in Part Two of Melancholia, by blindness, by darkness. She is consumed. But she is reborn when she learns that the world is coming to an end. Her sister, once pragmatic, becomes hysterical, and Justine, once mad, is clearheaded. Through the black salve of death, she is reborn. She can oppose the superficial nature of the world. The world is coming to an end. Inside this reality is the light of truth, a kind of twilight. As Bollnow writes, “Twilight, that is, semi-clarity, is part of the nature of the forest.” She is the only one able to manage this. Her brother-in-law commits suicide and her sister “loses her mind,” becoming hysterical, unable to swallow reality.
To be blinded is to have one’s sight removed as well as to “shine, flash, or burn” with a strong light, as in “the blinding white light of the sun.” The one word hinges two opposites together. Look directly into the strong sun, and it appears black. Lightness and darkness, blindness and sight.
That the world is coming to an end is evident even without its collision with another planet: money cherished above all else; poverty and inequality everywhere; the lack of spirit or Geist, in man (and woman). Instead, a society of automatons consumed by self and ruled by the dictates of society (what to buy, what to watch, what to eat). What does it take to see this (when so many do not)? How does one become a “seer”? First one must die. Like Lear, like von Trier’s Justine.
As Moshe Barasch explains so brilliantly, Paul become a “seer” through his having been struck blind temporarily, “And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he could not see: but they him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.” Like Justine, Saul is struck blind only so that he can, through his own experience of blindness, be made to see and through this seeing, help others restore their sight. Justine does this in Part Two of Melancholia when she tells her sister the truth, “The earth is evil,” she says, “ We don’t need to grieve for it.” As Barasch explains:
In the original Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament in Christian terminology, the restoring of sight to the blind is perceived as the ultimate miracle, an event that goes beyond what is thinkable in the terrestrial world and in our present life. So utterly utopian appeared the healing of the blind that it was understood as a distinctive mark of the messianic age. ‘And in that day,’ says Isaiah, ‘shall the deaf hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness’ (Isaiah 29:18). Later, when the prophet describes that utopian state of bliss, he says, ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened.’
In the end, blindness removes the blinders from the blinded, allowing the afflicted to see. In Justine’s case, she sees reality. In the first part of the film she names reality and yet, according to everyone else, she going insane. But, in fact, her insanity is a form of lucidity. The word lucid comes from the Latin, lucidus, meaning “light, bright, clear.” The term “Lucid interval” means “a period of calm or temporary sanity”: at the pinnacle of mania, for example, though one is mad, one’s mind appears preternaturally clear. This is often the moment when great genius occurs.
Once Justine learns that the world is coming to an end, her melancholia vanishes. She is healed. We see her voracious at the dinner table, her fingers in a glass jar of marmalade, licking the sticky sweetness from her fingertips and later eating chocolates, one after the other. It is the end of the world and a relief for Justine. Unlike Claire and her brother-in-law, she did not love the world and its things. She saw it for what it was. Her melancholia was, in fact, a kind of allergy to the world. In John (2:15), it is stated, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” Surrounded only by blinded people, people able to see and love only the things of the world (except for perhaps her mother), Justine is now at peace because she knows now that she was right all along. The world is a fallen world, a world of evil and darkness. And why would she want to remain in such a place? In the end, Justine, Claire and Claire’s son sit cross-legged, holding hands. Justine tells the boy to close his eyes . As does Claire, who begins to weep uncontrollably. She can’t stand the idea of losing the world. But Justine never closes her eyes. The film ends with three together, Claire and the boy, with their eyes shut, but Justine, unafraid, her eyes open
Like Saul (Paul), who could not see God until he was struck blind, she is struck blind (by melancholia) only so that she can see. Justine’s hallucination of the end of the world is the end of the world. When she realizes that the world will be soon be ending, she, unlike everyone else, is relieved. Like Saul (Paul), Justine is a prophet: blinded, she is filled with light.
Last night I was home alone during an odd storm which beat on my windows all night. It started as a thunderstorm of rain and developed into a thunderstorm of sleet/hail and then eventually into a thunderstorm of snow; fully equipped with lightening all the way through. It was the perfect setting within which to watch the dazzling Lars Von Trier film “Melancholia”, which portrays the strained relationship between two sisters, Justine and Claire, as an unforeseen rogue planet barrels into the solar system and heads straight for Planet Earth. The purpose of this short essay is not to give a review or a summary of the film (I am assuming readers will have already watched the film), but rather to explore a philosophical aspect of the film that I have not heard others comment on (although perhaps some have). It is my contention that this film, which examines the depths of depression, isolation, nihilism, and annihilation, is heavily influenced by Nietzschean philosophy.
During the first half of the film, Justine is suffering from a particularly intense episode of near catatonic depression, while her sister Claire, sober and stoic, helps her through it. Half way through the film though, Justine begins to slowly emerge out of her depression, just as Claire slowly descends into a chaotic panic as it becomes increasingly clear that the rogue planet “Melancholia” is on a collision course with the Earth. The sisters effectively switch emotional positions. What marks this stark role reversal is a scene in which the two sisters are out riding horses together and Justine, still depressed at this point, tries to urge her horse to cross a bridge which it refuses to cross. In a frenzy of anger, Justine beats the horse with her whip and kicks it with her feet until the horse collapses; she continues to beat him as her sister Claire, riding around in small circles on her horse, yells desperately at Justine to stop. This scene sets into motion the emotional role reverasal between the sisters. Claire, from this point forward, slowly gets more and more anxious and eventually descends into full blown panic attacks as well as completely irrational (and utterly futile) attempts to flee with her son in the face of oncoming armageddon.
The scene with the horse is eerily reminiscent of the famous story of the 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. The story goes that one day while walking in streets of Turin, Nietzsche came upon a horse being beaten by its owner. Nietzsche, in an emotional frenzy, ran over to the horse screaming, draped his arms around it desperately, and then collapsed onto the cobblestone streets. He was arrested by two nearby policemen for causing a public disturbance. But this event signaled his complete mental breakdown from which he never recovered. He lived the rest of his life under the watch of his sister, and never contributed to philosophy or literature again.
The connection seems obvious to me: just as Nietzsche went crazy after seeing the beating of the horse, so did Claire. Her usual calm and commanding demeanor slowly evaporated away (not unlike the atmosphere of Earth as Melancholia approached) until she was left in emotional ruin. Furthermore, Nietzsche’s philosophy centered around the problems of a post-god world, and the subsequent creep of nihilism into the human psyche, which Nietzsche saw as a terrible thing that humanity had to overcome; not by reverting back to the old religions, but by pushing through nihilism and transcending it (for those that were strong enough to do so). The relentless approach of the rogue planet Melancholia can be seen as a loose symbol for the approaching nihilism that Nietzsche was so concerned about: both representing the total destruction of all human values and meaning.
The connection between the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the themes of the movie is made even more explicit by Von Trier’s use of Richard Wagner’s music to underscore the film; namely Wagner’s famous opera, “Tristan Und Isolde” (which was inspired by Arthur Schopenhauer, another German philosopher, who was famous for his philosophical pessimism and was a huge influence on Nietzsche). Richard Wagner was a famous German composer and contemporary of Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, Nietzsche and Wagner were, at one time, very close friends, and Nietzsche wrote one of his most famous works, “The Birth of Tragedy”, which trumpeted Wagner’s music as the “rebirth” of European high culture. Soon, though, their friendship became strained, and then ended bitterly, as Wagner moved his music in a new direction that Nietzsche hated. It is not accident, then, that Wagner’s music would be used in a film that is heavily influenced by Nietzsche. The assertion, were it to be made, that this is all mere coincidence strains credulity.
To take my theory about the connection between Nietzschean philosophy and this film a step further, I think it is worth noting that another fundamental element of Nietzsche’s philosophy (which was thematized in “Melancholia”) was a skepticism of scientific truth and human reason. He appreciated science and he clearly used reason, but he was intimately aware of their innate limitations and criticized those who had too much faith in them. This is reflected in the film in the form of Claire’s husband, John, a rationalist, who is hyper-confident throughout the entire film that “the scientists” are certain that the rouge planet will not collide with Earth, but rather perform a safe fly-by; it will appear beautifully in the sky, but humanity is not in danger. He carries a telescope, a scientific instrument and a symbol of the scientific method and worldview, around with him most of the film, through which he gazes at Melancholia amusedly and excitedly. For him, it is just a spectacle of science. Later, when he realizes that the scientists were wrong, and that Planet Melancholia is in fact going to collide with Earth, he commits suicide by swallowing poison in the horse’s stable. The certainty that science and reason had provided for him evaporates, and the existentially destabilizing pain caused by the catastrophic failure of his faith in science proves too much to cope with. His very identity was tied up in his belief in science, reason, and order, and when those broke down, so did his entire sense of self. When his wife, Claire, finds his dead body, she covers him with a thin layer of straw from the floor of the horse stable. He dies an animals death.
To conclude, the beating of the horse which leads to Claire’s emotional breakdown, the exploration of nihilism and the (literal) destruction of all values, the use of Richard Wagner’s music throughout the film, and the depiction of a dogmatic faith-in-science, and its tragically complete failure, all stand as strong evidence that there is, in fact, a clear and distinct strain of Nietzschean philosophy that Von Trier consciously put into his film.
I love this gorgeous and melancholy film. It is, like all of Von Trier’s work, as beautiful and emotional as it is intellectual. It is a true masterpiece of cinema and of art generally.
Bookmark the permalink.