How should we read the film Melancholia,[1] whose visual power and meticulous aesthetics captivate our eyes so? And whose music – the overture from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Iseult – makes our ears tremble with such intense emotion? And whose rather biggish opening scandal at the Cannes festival (19 May, 2011), when filmmaker Lars Von Trier bluntly stated “I am a Nazi, I understand Hitler, I identify with him a little”, even if the statement was made “in a moment of madness” as some believe, or “out of stupidity” as others claim, a mere provocation, and even if the director later retracted his statement and apologized for it, does not make the task any easier, but we feel that, in some sense at least, it must also be taken into consideration in our reading?

The heroine of this film is melancholia – be it Justine’s earthly melancholia, or the cosmic melancholia of Planet Melancholia. Nor can we entirely ignore Lars von Trier’s own melancholic breakdown, which occurred, according to publications, just prior to the filmmaking process. He himself said: “I think Justine is in many ways me. She’s based on my experience, depression and end-of-the-world prophecies included”.  Another complex and interesting relation hides in this film between melancholia and the decline and yearning for desistence, and the ideals of German Romanticism, whose chief and most unmistakable representative in music and opera was Wagner (also known, we might note, as Hitler’s favorite artist).

Everything in this film – not just planet Melancholia – seems to go off-course, including all modes of human satisfaction and relation to the other. Moreover, it would seem that the unavoidable all-destroying collision between planet Earth and planet Melancholia constitutes a sort of comforting, all-encompassing ‘solution’; the end of the world as a general redemption, a redemption in reverse. Do we dare say ‘final solution’? We would not be too far from Lars von Trier himself who, in his cynical and stubborn sense of humor, said about his next big project: “Yes… Maybe this time I can do the Final Solution”. But here, too, in the film Melancholia, the Other who answers the terrible, unknown and truly nameless distress is undoubtedly the supreme master, death. The entire film takes place and unfolds between the ego’s death angst, the death drive that runs in our id and is at times so cruelly expressed through the illness of melancholia, and death in the sense of the real ending of life itself, portrayed by the bluish planets Melancholia. The film is presented to us between two deaths – a symbolic death and a real death, beyond any principle of pleasure or contentment. But of course this cannot take place without bursts of glamour and beauty, which represent the last shield before the dread of das Ding, as said Lacan. Either way, it is the creator’s prerogative to thus use his art and enchanted magic, and it is also his symptomatic and/or sublimatory way out of any real ‘final solution’ (For example, Tristan and Iseult, so grand and beautiful in their love and even more so in their foretold death, and the majestic music that surrounds them, are the artist’s device, the secret of his magic; and years ago, during my first visit to Berlin, I was invited by a German colleague to watch Tristan and Iseult at the luxurious Berlin Opera. I was naturally in awe before all that beauty, but it seemed to me that among all the things I saw in Berlin – the monuments, the museums and so on – it was that Opera which brought me closest, in its own way, to the Holocaust; to the meaning of a sacrifice made to the dark God,[2] whose emissaries or angels we sometimes also call, when we fall, by the name of ‘love’).

The film is divided in two. The first part is “Justine”: Justine’s wedding, a rich and luxurious event, from which she is, from the start, entirely absent in her mind. Family conflicts show everywhere and with them appear losses. There’s the hardened, infinitely embittered mother; there’s the clown-like detached father who sneaks like a thief to escape his daughter’s desperate plea that he should talk to her; and then, while overcoming  the black melancholic pain that kicks and gallops like a horse, there’s Justine’s self-inflicted loss – the cruel detachment from her loving groom, her attack on her employer and the destruction of her livelihood – calamity and havoc, which are cast upon all the phallic characteristics, all the pretenses and semblances whose ostensibly comforting and protecting splendor she no longer wants and can no longer endure. Borrowing Freud’s apt expression describing melancholia – ‘the shadow of the object’ – we could say that the shadow of the lost object ‘falls’ upon her and covers her completely, until speech disappears, until movement is no more, until there’s nothing left but dust and ashes, in all possible senses and meanings. She is now one with the abandoned object. Paradoxically, she now lacks nothing. It is a sort of foreclosure of the unconscious – whose center and raison d’être are, precisely, the lack – and a free fall towards Thanatos and the muteness, the violence, even, that paint this jouissance in funereal black.

In the second part of the film, the shadow of planet Melancholia – raised here to the level of das Ding in all its splendor – is gradually cast upon the Earth, threatening to literally swallow it – an all-devouring, all-consuming primary cannibalism. The impossible becomes reality: the ultimate loss, the loss of all losses. All the comforting scientific calculations fail. All the men slowly abandon everything or take their own lives. All the symbols and signifiers fail, all the truths crash and collapse, and with them all the lies. The whole world seems to be stricken by stupor, just before it dissipates completely. An omnipotent breakthrough of the real into and onto the world. In the film, only two women, two sisters, Justine and Claire, and one child who is with them, Claire’s son, who has an innocent and primitive instrument that allows to observe, unembellished, the impending doom, stand up to face fate. Claire, who has a husband, a child and an estate, refuses to accept the imminent total evil. We call this ‘normalcy’. Justine, who, through the sharp but at the same time opaque lenses of her suffering – her worldly, earthly melancholia, which in those moments is clad with almost celestial garments (here we must take care not to completely fall for the fantasy about Von Trier’s woman) – “knows” and “sees” things, accepts the verdict. The child’s eyes can possibly still be blindfolded with legends, as a last act of merciful ceremony. But we pause at the sight of melancholic Justine’s knowledge and uncompromising realism in those moments. Freud, too, made a somewhat similar pause (although it related to a different characteristic of the melancholic state) when he noted, in Mourning and Melancholia, that “He (the melancholic) also seems to us justified in certain other self-accusations; it is merely that he has a keener eye for the truth than other people who are not melancholic… we only wonder why a man has to be ill before he can be accessible to a truth of this kind”.[3]

Moreover, in a mysterious and sublime passage, Justine presents herself naked to the blue planet. The planet does not only mirror her soul; it does not only incarnate her omnipotent and narcissistic figure in its desolation, or her crazed expectation of punishment, or her executioner – it is also her Other partner, in a real erotic relation that is close to mystical enchantment. This could remind us, in some way, of Bernini’s sculpture “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”, erected in Rome, whose mode of jouissance is described by Lacan in seminar 20, in a lesson entitled “God and the jouissance of the woman”. Justine is waiting, she’s in no hurry for she knows, it will come. Its amazing blue radiance penetrates all bodies, its gaze beats any vision. It is a single pupil of an eye, a single giant circle, finite in its infinity – it does not strike you blind like President Schreber’s father-sun. It plants it’s opaque magic in you. It breathes, you love it in your tender laxity, its indifferent jouissance is your jouissance. It creeps in you, coming closer, first in silence, then with a furtive hissing, and finally with a terrible, terrifying roar. You are at-one with everything.

What can we say, the stars are not always deceiving. A generalized, total universal foreclosure of the unconscious; without saying, with no piece of lying truth, without any equivoque.

Indeed, a woman should not be cured of her melancholia. In his article “Analysis Terminable and Interminable”, Freud relates this feminine melancholia to the incurable penis envy. But the woman’s jouissance nevertheless remains a mystery to him: “What does a woman want?” Lacan might have related this melancholia to the woman’s proximity to the truth and to the real of jouissance, of which – as a rule – “she may know nothing but the fact that she experiences it”[4], but which controls her just the same. It is an excess of jouissance, by essence limitless, which is added to masculine phallic jouissance. No, there isn’t any man-man or Oedipus available to cure her. The silent Sphinx remains a riddle. But this does not mean that in order to solve the riddle we must call upon the gods of death and the entire ‘end of the world’! which is what Von Trier hastens to do in his film. Here’s something which we could certainly learn from psychoanalysis, which, naturally, acknowledges death – but is not “too crazy” about it, and for that purpose precisely mapped the inner routes of our inner Thanatos, alongside the life instincts and the desire to live, Eros. In a final analysis, aren’t the various “end-of-the-world prophecies” –  and possibly also, I dare say, some aspects of the phenomenon of Nazism – a perverted and essentially masculine version in the face of the woman’s enigmatic, mysterious and infinite jouissance? An expression of what Freud refers to in the above mentioned “Analysis Terminable and Interminable”, as ‘the refusal of femininity’? Might Lacan have seen it as an answer – dark and lethal, no doubt –  to ‘the impossibility of writing the sexual relation’? Now, that is a question.

And a final word: a catastrophic hallucination, both terrifying and beautiful, about the devastation of life! But could this be all there is to it? Could a real creator, whose creation never dies, feel any satisfaction with such an ending? Such world stillness? Such full and complete meaning? Indeed, Von Trier himself mainly had bad things to say about this work. Was that the reason for the director’s almost compulsive necessity to speak up and voice out his irksome statements? But instead of seeing them as “nonsensical jabbering” or  “mental suicide”, instead of turning the speaker into a persona non grata, would it not be more interesting to consider these statements as symptomatic failures that in fact say something about the film itself, shed light on some points, and leave others in blessed darkness awaiting the future?


Translated by Dan Shalit Kenig



[1] We are all currently facing the Corona pandemic that spreads throughout our planet. Certain aspects of the fight against the epidemic,  the harsh atmosphere that surrounds it,  and some of the impacts on us, reminded me of Lars von-Trier’s film Melancholia (2011). I therefore watched the film again and revisited my unpublished text, written at the time after watching the film. A first and partial draft of this text has been presented in 2011 in a seminar held as part of GIEP’s activities, which also included a screening of the film.

[2] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book XI, The Four Fundamental Concept of Psychoanalysis, trans. A. Sheridan, Hogarth Press, London, 1977, p. 275.

[3] Freud, S. (1917). ״Mourning and Melancholia, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916), p. 245.

[4] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Livre XX, Encore, Editions du Seuil, 1975, p. 69.