Beautiful but cruel: Lars von Trier's Melancholia



It is a known fact that using Wagner’s pieces as soundtracks, especially Tristan und Isolde, in cinema is not a new thing. Lars von Trier is also one of those auteurs that walked the path of Wagner. In Melancholia, he uses both at the beginning and in the end the dissolving moment of this opera, also we see some parts of it throughout the movie. Although many critics find his usage of Tristan und Isolde as “unoriginal, clumsy and perverse”,1 I believe that the parts, where Trier chose to use parts of this opera, connect intrinsically and create the core of the film’s storyline under a series of shallow events. Depending on this interpretation, I will examine the usage of music in Melancholia with dividing it into two connected parts just as Trier does, Justine and Claire, and also I will seek the links between music and cinematographic elements in the light of the hidden meanings in its story.  

Melancholia begins with the series of images, that every one of them looks like a piece from the hands of a Renaissance painter, and with the final part of the Tristan und Isolde. At the first glance, all of them seems highly aesthetic and interpreting the usage of the music as the builder of this vastly romantic atmosphere is a natural reaction. In fact, Trier’s himself in one of his interviews says that Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is not something you consider as melancholic music, rather it is romantic and as a result it turns the whole movie into a romantic film.2 But, to be satisfied with this comment on a work from one of the cinema’s most provocative auteurs would not be enough. I think the way he uses Tristan und Isolde, has moreover a different explanation. First of all, when thinking about using this masterpiece in a movie one immediately thinks Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. He criticizes the art serving the bourgeoisies by using Tristan und Isolde’s final part with a death scene, and the artistic pleasure imposed to the audiences will be get shaded. Although I don’t believe that Trier’s direct aim is to criticize how bourgeoisies consume art, I think he connects the pleasure we took from Tristan und Isolde’s climax with the end of the world. In a sense, the end of the world means the end of the humanity and all of the artwork has ever been made in the history. Before the scene where Melancholia and Earth collapse, we remember some of the greatest pieces of art. Bruegel’s paint reminds us Tarkovsky’s Solaris, one of the masterpieces of cinema, and the scene where Justine lays down in a river with his wedding dress calls to the mind Ophelia from John Everett Millais. While these images give hints about what will going to happen in the movie, they also connect with the idea of the end of all. But with the way of how this opera is used with those images, we take kind of an artistic pleasure from this scene, ironically from the destruction of all art history. We don’t feel sorry about end of everything, rather we get a feeling of relief. Also, in a very Brechtian and Dogme95 manner he shows us movie’s end at the beginning, this is the Trier’s way of saying that there is no hope, it is literally the end of the world. So, maybe the idea of using Wagner in a movie is not an original idea as some critics say, but clearly it is a new and different approach.  

Besides the prologue, Trier uses excerpts from Tristan und Isolde many times throughout the film, and I think when one unites those excerpts, the scenario deepens. Whenever excerpts from Tristan und Isolde play in the first part of the movie, they are non-diegetic and other songs used are always diegetic music during the wedding. Also, this part’s color palette includes tones of yellow and it gives a warm feeling despite its meaning to Justine, furthermore everything in the wedding is extreme. Wansbrough in his article, says about his usage of Tristan und Isolde: “ (…) Wagner’s prelude to Tristan and Isolde, it uses the score to both involve and distance the audience, rendering the strange affective state of being fully awake, while also permitting us to witness dream imagery and to be well aware of that imagery’s derivative qualities”3 I agree with him in this point, but about what is dream and what is not in Melancholia, I believe that the scenes where Trier uses Wagner’s opera reflects what is the ugly truth and the others in the first part is just a shallow illusion, which is full of the expectations of others from Justine and her unsuccessful attempts to conserve those expectations. And, diegetic music in the movie criticizes the way bourgeoisies consume music, because whenever they heard it, music is a background element for their amusement. People are having fun, but actually everything is phony. Further, in a scene where Justine and Claire talks about the end of the world, Justine gets angry to her sister’s idea about listening Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and drinking wine while Melancholia crashes the Earth. Also, in the first scene where Tristan und Isolde is heard again after prologue, we see a woman is ready to play her guitar for the wedding, but after that we don’t hear her song rather Tristan und Isolde, and we see Justine running away from her own wedding. When Tristan und Isolde plays, it is just like Trier saying to those wealthy people in the wedding: “You never give the right value to the music and you use it only for your amusement. But the truth is hidden behind Justine’s happy mask, and it reveals with only Tristan und Isolde.” Maybe, Trier also criticizes his own bourgeois personality at this point. During this scene while she is peeing John’s golf field, she sees the star for the second time. This is the first scene Justine is alone and looking at that star, yet she has no idea about what it is and she just thinks it is a part of the Scorpio. But, actual story starts right here after she pisses on wealthy John’s field and escapes from that extravagant and necessary wedding. From this point, to understand the movie right we have to dive into Justine’s and Claire’s story deeper.  

The relationships in Melancholia is very problematic, and one of the key points of the story lies here. In the first part, the usage of Tristan und Isolde is somewhat connected with Melancholia and Justine’s mother. After she makes a speech about how she doesn’t believe in marriages, Justine’s depression reveals itself for the first time. And, in a scene where John and Gaby talks, she says that she wasn’t there for her when Justine had her first sexual intercourse. Also, she hates those rituals. Why she has to be there for her in this unnecessary wedding? Freud in his article Mourning and Melancholia, connects melancholia with a loss of a loved object or person.4 In this case, I believe the lost one is the mother, not for just Justine but also for Claire. The father figure is also a problematic one, but Trier devalues this figure. Nicolini, in this article says about the father: “He’s the embodiment of jovial chaos, the jester, the clown.”5 The absence of the father is not a big issue as mother’s because when he is there, he is just a joker. Another time, we hear Tristan und Isolde in the scene where Justine tells to Claire how she is struggled with what’s happening. And, she is describing one of the images from the prologue. So, she is actually aware of she cannot be happy with other’s expectation and what this patriarchal system imposed on her, to be a good bride. She wants to break out all of this, and doing this means to lose everything. During the wedding she starts to break all the rules, but at the beginning of this process she becomes weaker. She’s feeling guilty and fragile all the time. Freud’s explanation on Melancholia is very similar to her situation:

The distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.6

Justine feels guilty herself all the time and she apologizes from every one. In a way, her sexual intercourse with Tim is a punishment for her. And after the breaking point, everything starts to shutter, Justine becomes worse than ever at the beginning of the second part.  

There are two important scenes in the part one where we heard Tristan und Isolde. One of them is the part where Justine takes the artwork from the shelves and put them together. As a reference to the prologue, we see Bruegel’s painting again with Ophelia and also Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath. In The Gendering of Melancholia, Schiesari talks about Melancholia in the times of Renaissance, and she says that when melancholia was associated with man, it was always the source of the genius, what makes them greater men. But when situation is reversed, and it is associated with women, melancholia becomes a weakness and a situation of excessive black bile. After this interpretation, she asks this question:  

If the melancholic was fashioned from a Renaissance ideal of Renaissance man who nostalgically looks toward the past in order to reinvent and reassess a place of origin, a nostalgia whose desire for origin was also linked to a metaphysical quest for a transcendent union with the lost object of desire, (…) how could women create a narrative of loss for themselves that was not a rewriting of (male) master myths?7

And in this scene, the control is on Justine, again she is having a time that the repressed depression caught her, but she is the one who puts those works on the shelf. Also, it connects with the idea of “end of the world means end of the art.”  

The last Tristan und Isolde part of this episode, is where Justine and Claire takes a ride with horses. When they are on the road, Abraham stops before the bridge, Trier uses this bridge metaphor in the movie several times. I think it symbolizes the boundaries of those two women. Justine notices the missing star Anteres, later we will understand that it is actually Melancholia. This star shows up for the first time when Michael and Justine were at the entrance of the wedding, John explains what it is. I believe showing it is missing from the Scorpio is an enlighten moment because she realizes that everything inflected on her by others, especially by other men, is what eats her on the inside. This scene also takes the privilege of being genius from those melancholic greater men and gives it to Justine while she realizes the absence of that star. After this point, Justine experiences a total mental breakdown as her redeem and at the same time her purification before accepting her true self.  

In the second part of the movie we start to see more of Claire. Many critics say that while Melancholia getting closer to Earth, Justine gains some mystique power and starts to recover and opposing to her Claire begins to turn into a hysteric woman. But, I think there is more than that. Justine decides there is no place on this earth for her, because she is not qualified to become a mother, an employee and a bride. In the end of her wedding, she breaks all the rules and become depressed, she literally becomes a baby again and Claire takes care of her. Contrast with how portrayed of Justine, we see Claire as a mother, a wife and a planner. She is exactly who Justine is not. But, this is just how she appears, when one examine Claire and her face expressions, she is always worried and has a kind of melancholic look. This second part, begins with her worries about Melancholia and John (the wealthy, reasonable, scientist) always comforts her. However, Claire is actually aware of Melancholia’s danger to Earth. While she runs away to admit that, Justine has no fears to accept the end of the world is near.  

We said that in the beginning of the first part Justine literally becomes a baby. While saying that I meant that she is gaining and building herself a new identity, away from the others’ expectations. She stops to ride Abraham, or when she rides she punishes Abraham because of his inactions. Also, the meatballs which Justine’s favorite meal, starts to taste like ashes. And, the first scene where Tristan und Isolde is played in the second part of the movie, Leo tries to show to Justine a picture of Melancholia. After that point, her situation starts to get better.  

The scene, where Justine lies naked under the light of the Melancholia and Claire sees her, is a turning point for both of these characters. Because while Justine fully accepts her melancholy, Claire faces with it for the first time. So, it is not something like Justine gets out of melancholy and Claire gets ill, but it is actually about accepting it. After doing that, Justine becomes stronger but facing with it makes similar affect to Claire just as for Justine after her wedding. Now, it’s Claire’s turn. But, it is harder to her than Justine because she has Leo. Where Justine and Claire talks about Melancholia, Justine shows her prophet-like, genius side to Claire. And she says that: “The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it.” Again, Schiesari points out that:  

[…] also melancholia as something that points beyond its clinical form to a cultural apotheosis of its victims, those governed by the “heightened self-criticism” and “keener eye for the truth”. And along with the father of psychoanalysis, “we” are invented only to wonder why a man has to be ill before he can be accessible to a truth of this kind.8

Justine is the “keener eye” for the truth in this scene, and Claire asks about where would Leo grow. So, Claire is more sink into those norms than Justine. After Justine gains some “supernatural” qualities like predicting the future, John’s calculations turn out to be wrong. And our reasonable scientist kills himself because he cannot take the burden of to be wrong.  

After John’s suicide, one of the most important scenes of the movie starts. Claire takes Leo, and tries to go to the village. While she freaks out, Justine calmly waits for her to settle down. First, Claire tries to escape with her car but most of the electronic devices stop to run with the effect of Melancholia’s energy, immediately it connects with the image from the prologue of Justine with the electricity linked to Melancholia on her fingers. The era of the science end reason has ended just before the collapsing, and now the one who is in charge is Justine. Afterwards, this time Claire takes the golf car to escape, and at the beginning of the bridge it stops just like Abraham did before. Again, this is a reflection of the boundaries of the men’s world. Then, we see Claire with Leo, walking around the 19th hole. And the story reveals itself for the last time with Tristan und Isolde. The 19th hole does not exist according to John, but there it is and Claire tries to pass it. One of his interviews Trier explains that this 19th hole is actually representing the limbo. For Justine refusing the norms of the men’s world and accepting the world’s end easier than Claire. She is the one stuck in the limbo with her child, being melancholic is something she should never be. And gaining her feminine power again is harder for her. In a scene she accepts that by saying to Justine it is easier for her to see the end of everything. Later, we heard Tristan und Isolde for the last time while Melancholia crashes into Earth, just like end of the prologue. But, Trier does not make it a big scene, movie ends immediately after the climax of the song.  

In the light of all of these analysis, Tristan und Isolde in this move represents the main female characters’ struggle with this system built by men and with their inherent melancholy as a leitmotiv. But, one thinks that why always Wagner? To answer that question, we have to understand that the story of this movie connects with Trier’s own melancholia. He himself says that: “When I write, I can only write about myself. (…) This is the description of my own depression. But, somehow I see myself in both of the sisters.” Then he adds that one can choose to see them as two sides of the same person. And, of course that is Trier’s himself. So, this Melancholia not only belongs to Justine but also Claire. Further, Justine saying that earth is evil is very similar to Trier’s thought about this world. In his reportage with Linda Badley about Antichrist he says that: “(…) it’s based on me looking at plants and whatever, living things and how much they suffer. It is also have thought from the same conclusion that it’s really a nasty idea, life. And especially human life.”9 Moreover, he also has an intimate relation with Wagner. Their stories are very much alike. Larkin, explains similarities in their story like that: “Both had reason to be unsure about their parentage, and at one point believed or suspected they were of Jewish stock.”10 So, they both have an issue with their family, especially with their mothers. With all the meaning Tristan und Isolde added to the movie, we can read Melancholia as Trier’s own struggling story. In the end, this movie is not only about women’s melancholy but also the struggle which every person has a problem with the unrealistic standards of the patriarchal system and boundaries.    

İmran Gökçe Şahin

1-David Larkin, “Indulging in Romance with Wagner: Tristan in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011),” Music and the Moving Image  9/I (2016): 38 - 58.


3- Aleksandr Andreas Wansbrough, “Beautiful and Sublime Kitsch: Framing the Prologue of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia as Avant-Garde Video Art,” Philament Journal 22: Precarity 87 – 100.

4- Juliana Schiesari, The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1992).

5- Kim Nicolini, Freedom in Oblivion: Post-Feminist Possibilities in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia

6- Leticia Glocer Fiorini and others, On Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” (London: The International Psychoanalytical Association, 2009).

7- Juliana Schiesari, The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1992).

8- ibid.

9-Linda Badley, Contemporary Film Directors: Lars von Trier, (Oxfordshire: Marston Book Services Ltd, 2010).


I. Larkin, David. “Indulging in Romance with Wagner: Tristan in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011),” Music and the Moving Image 9/I (2016): 38 - 58.  

II. Wansbrough, Aleksandr Andreas.“Beautiful and Sublime Kitsch: Framing the Prologue of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia as Avant-Garde Video Art,” Philament Journal 22: Precarity 87 – 100.  

III. Schiesari, Juliana. The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1992).  

IV. Nicolini, Kim. Freedom in Oblivion: Post-Feminist Possibilities in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia  

V. Leticia Glocer Fiorini and others, On Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” (London: The International Psychoanalytical Association, 2009).  

VI. Badley, Linda. Contemporary Film Directors: Lars von Trier, (Oxfordshire: Marston Book Services Ltd, 2010).               



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