The Paintings of Melancholia

Melancholia-Lars Von Trier-2011
Melancholia-Lars Von Trier-2011

Lars von Trier’s end of the world science fiction/domestic melodrama Melancholia from 2011 is full of allusions to other art forms; the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan Und Isolde plays throughout the film; one of the two sisters is named Justine (Kirsten Dunst) in a clear homage to the unfortunate character created by the Marquis De Sade; but these nods are outnumbered by the numerous references to paintings.

In the stunning prologue Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting Hunters in the Snow features prominently. It will make a reappearance in the middle of Justine’s disastrous wedding reception. Retreating to the study of her brother-in-law mansion, she is confronted by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsborough) who tells her to at least try to be happy on her wedding day. However Justine is suffering from severe depression and no amount of fake smiling is going to cure her. Claire returns to the debacle of the party leaving Justine alone in the orderly, tastefully decorated room. She notices on the shelves art books open on images of bright and jazzy geometric abstraction paintings, particularly the work of Kazimir Malevich. In her frame of mind this is absolutely intolerable and searching through the enviable rows of art books she curates a collection of images that better suits her melancholic mood. Below are the works I have been able to identity, followed by a brief description.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder-Hunters in the Snow-1565
Pieter Bruegel the Elder-Hunters in the Snow-1565

Although this painting undoubtedly possesses a postcard picturesque quality, it also speaks of dejection and dearth. The hunters wearily trudge through the thick snow with only an emaciated fox to show for their labours. To the right of the dogs and the foremost hunter can be seen the footprints of a small animal, maybe a hare, quarry that escaped. The muted colours are suitably bleak and wintry.

John Everett Millais-Ophelia-1851-1852
John Everett Millais-Ophelia-1851-1852

Millias’s hallucinatory, almost hyper-realist painting of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Driven insane with grief, Ophelia fashions a garland of wildflowers before falling into a river. She calmly keeps singing as she floats before the waterlogged dress weighs her down to drown a muddy death. Earlier in the prologue Justine is seen floating in a stream wearing her wedding dress and clutching a bouquet.

David with the Head of Goliath-Caravaggio ca 1605-1610
David with the Head of Goliath-Caravaggio ca 1605-1610

Justine next selects a painting I cannot identify, followed by Caravaggio’s brooding and psychologically complex David with the Head of Goliath. The young David hoists aloof the head of the slain Goliath, a particularly grim self portrait of Caravaggio himself. David appears more troubled and reflective than triumphant however. Caravaggio said that the model for David was ‘his own little Caravaggio’, which presumably refers to his studio assistant and widely rumoured lover Cecco del Caravaggio, or alternatively to his younger self whose wild excesses had contributed to his future destruction. Which would make it a macabre double self-portrait. The painting was sent as a gift to the influential Cardinal Scipione Borghese while Caravaggio was on the run for murder and had a literal price on his actual head.

There is a clear descent show here, through need and dejection to grief and insanity and finally to the most intimate act of violence, the murder of the self, suicide.The trajectory of depression. After the disastrous wedding, Part One, Justine’s half of the film, ends with the horse she is riding refusing to cross a bridge.

Part Two is from the viewpoint of the pragmatic Claire as a practically catatonic Justine returns from an institution. Justine spends a lot of time in the study, even sleeping there. Towards the finale of the film, when the end draws nigh as the rogue planet Melancholia approaches on its collision course with the earth, a new image can be send in Justine’s gallery of despair.

Hieronymus-Bosch-The Garden of Earthly Delights,-Central panel-Humankind Before the Flood-ca 1490-1510
Hieronymus-Bosch-The Garden of Earthly Delights,-Central panel-Humankind Before the Flood-ca 1490-1510

Undoubtedly the strangest and most enigmatic painting in the entire history of art, Bosch‘s triptych is a vast gallery of bizarre imagery and terrifying drolleries with its unforgettably vivid Hell. The detail highlighted is from the left-hand edge of the central panel, (close to Paradise but with most of the figures facing towards Hell) and is believed to represent Humankind before the Flood.

The very title of the film is a reference to Albrecht Dürer‘s famous engraving Melencolia I. It is also, I believe, a play on Susan Sontag’s famous dictum that ‘Depression is melancholy minus its charm’. The great art born out of depression universalises personal tragedy, imbuing it with charm to become a melancholia that has the potential to take on an operatic grandeur.

Yet, von Trier paradoxically seems to suggest that this romanticizing of depression is morally dubious and in questionable taste, at the very least. Suffering as a entertaining spectacle. Watching the Gotterdammerung from a terrace while sipping wine. For the terminal depressive, existence itself is an unmitigated evil, without the possibility of any redeeming charm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

23 thoughts on “The Paintings of Melancholia

  1. Fantastic post! Very insightful. Melancholia is one of my favourite movies, and, now, of course, I realise that art allusions there were largely borrowed from Tarkovsky’s Solaris. One just sense the influence in virtually every shot (sometimes accompanied by music) and they even feature the same painting. I love both films.

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    1. Thank you Diana I am glad you found it insightful. It is an excellent film, I watched the scene where Justine changes the images several times over in an attempt to identify the image after Ophelia and before David but no joy. Solaris is an excellent movie and Hunters and I believe Ophelia are referenced. Other film references would be to Last Year in Marienbad and Bergmann’s Persona. It really is that sort of art movie. I love those movies as well. Thanks for the comment.

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  2. Beautiful but bewildering paintings that mirror the visceral nature of the melodrama. Wagner’sTristan und Isold seems perfectly suited to the nature of the film. A wonderful review and display of art for this unusual film Mr. Cake. I hope to watch it.

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    1. Thank you Miss Heart, I hope I haven’t spoilt it for you with this review. I went into full trainspotter mode watching this to pick up on the references. It is definitely one of von Triers more accessible movies. Maybe his best actually.

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      1. Not at all. So often your posts, reviews,art, music, etc serve to enlighten and inform in such a brilliant manner that initiates an intrigue and interest in subjects that would otherwise go unexplored. For that and the opportunity to enjoy your amazing blog I thank you.

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      2. No thanks necessary Miss Heart it is my pleasure. I hope you enjoy the film, the first part has moments of humour as well. It is truly a train wreck of wedding party but it’s funny and awful at the same time.

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      3. I think Melancholia is his best movie (though I have not seen all of his movies). I also think Dunst should have at least been nominated for her performance. I know some of his other films have many fans, but the one other I have seen is experimental Dogville, which I found ok. I enjoyed Antichrist more – though, “enjoyed” is probably not the word, really. Rather, I simply got the “shocking” vision of the director.

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      4. His movies are frequently a hard watch. I agree about Dogville, it’s bold but not his best. Breaking the waves is grueling, Dancer in the Dark I never finished. Antichrist is great though you are right, it isn’t a movie you enjoy, you live though it. The best Dogma movies aren’t actually by von Trier, Festen by Vinterberg is brilliant and resembles the first half of Melancholia in a way, it about a truly awful party, though it predates Melancholia by a decade or so. Also the delightfully comedy Italian for Beginners.

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      5. Exactly. I think I am afraid to approach Dancer in the Dark or Breaking the Waves because I feel they will be so depressing, even if I find them beautiful eventually. Thank you for recommending Festen. I do enjoy black comedy.

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