If there’s one thing that’s become even more strikingly clear to me than it was before spending this summer with Lars, it’s the intertextual density of his films; each one is like an echo chamber reverberating with allusions to other films, performances, images, genres. Melancholia (2011) recalls not only Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986) and fellow Dogme auteur Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998), but also the first chapter (“Bess Gets Married”) of von Trier’s own Breaking the Waves. It occurred to me while watching Melancholia last night for the first time since seeing it theatrically last fall (I’m happy to report that it’s still my favorite film of last year) that Melancholia’s Justine (Kirsten Dunst) could be read as Bess’s dark doppelganger.
Melancholia’s wedding scenes re-write those of Breaking the Waves as an absurdist farce. Where Bess and Jan’s wedding marks her initiation into a knowledge of sexual and romantic love so powerful that it will ultimately consume her, Justine’s wedding leaves her numb, and ultimately goes unconsummated. Bess’s marriage to the big-hearted Jan (Stellan Skarsgard) in the earlier film undergoes a dark reversal in Melancholia, where a menacing Skarsgard, playing Justine’s manipulative employer, appears at her wedding reception and proceeds to psychologically torment her. (In a further twist, Skarsgard’s real-life son Alexander plays the groom.)
The films themselves could be seen as dark and light sisters, both of which engage with the notion of a power beyond human control or understanding. In Breaking the Waves, we might call that power love, or God; in Melancholia, it is simply nature, in all its cruelty and senselessness. Where Bess stands for religious faith, Justine espouses an atheist philosophy of negativity (“The earth is evil…we’re alone. There is nothing after death”). And where Breaking the Waves ends with a literal peal from heaven, the final shot of Melancholia presents us with an image of the world shattered by a hostile planet. Both are sublime encounters with something beyond the clouds—one radically affirmative, the other radically negative.
Melancholia, which emerges (like Antichrist) out of von Trier’s own ongoing struggle with depression, could be his own attempt to negate his earlier work, which he apparently sees as uplifting: shortly before the release of Melancholia, von Trier famously declared in an interview that his films would no longer have “happy endings.” But as Melancholia itself suggests, to the depressed person the unhappiest ending is often the most satisfying of all.