by Kleitia Vaso

What I find most intriguing about Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, a film that I will always re-watch despite its heaviness and hopelessness, is the love story between Justine (K. Dunst) and the planet, Melancholia, which will destroy her. Not a platonic, abstract love but a physical yearning to see and be seen by the planet and, of course, feel close to it. The strongest connection between two bodies in the film is that between the girl and the planet.

For Justine, the longing for the heavenly body is not triggered by a shortage of relationships with men. Indeed, her fiancé, the man she is marrying at the beginning of the film, seems like the perfect groom. He is handsome, caring, and seems to adore and desire Justine. Together, blond and creamy looking, they rightfully belong on top of the wedding cake they are cutting into. Even better, they could be the cake, delicious and frosty as they look, more ice cream and cupcake than living beings. Their interactions, as their beautiful wedding begins, are considerate and sweet; he loves and supports her and she gratefully responds. In short, their union is civilized love in its ideal form: seemingly tolerant of the other, polite, collaborative, slightly lopsided in favor of the female (but not too much). Yet, for all the sweetness in Justine’s face as she notices Michael’s (whose name I could not remember) either concerned or loving looks, the one moment she runs outside and pees while intensely looking at the sky, sensing the presence of the planet, her expression conveys such longing and pleasure that a lifetime of “earthly” lovemaking between two people cannot match its magnitude.

After this moment of fusion with the planet, going through the formal wedding acts becomes increasingly impossible. Gravity seems to pull Justine downwards, her willpower visibly drains drop by drop from her body and she cannot firmly grasp and hold onto the meaning, the point of going through these arbitrary steps. She, as many melancholiacs, according to Von Trier, cannot sustain her belief in rituals, that of the wedding in this case. Once the illusory fabric tears, they, she, can see through it and cannot pretend that it is otherwise. Not for lack of trying but, differently from the majority of people, her inherent need to really live is stronger than her survival instincts.

The same longing for something greater, something more, is the focus of Von Trier’s other film, Nymphomaniac, in which the protagonist, Joe, explains her relentless and unceasing desire as her natural “demanding more from the sunset.” Joe’s need to experience more and more powerfully releases itself in sexual acts of all kinds. Yet, despite the sexual excess – or what is considered as such – of Nymphomaniac, the same desire for more, as manifested in Justine, is even more extreme.

No human male can offer what Justine craves. Again, not for lack of trying. In a desperate attempt to feel “normal” and escape the planet’s magnetic power, she has frantic sex with a wedding guest. But, needless to say, that does not suffice. Her desire for the planet, now overtly expressed in a scene in which she takes off her clothes, lies down outside and looks at it – or rather lets it look at her – shows that her inability to normally function in the world is even more severe than Joe’s.

This ineptitude to lead the life that is expected of her, a gnawing and unappeasable dissatisfaction leads her to yearn for the distant planet. This yearning strikes me as the belief in God, the need for a higher love, a relationship with a more powerful entity, one-sided but with the hope of reciprocity, distant, untestable, and incorruptible by human weakness. A selfish love, in fact, which belongs to the lover alone, unshared and un-shareable with somebody else. A love, also, that if kept pure and untouched by religion, does not require us to dress up like dolls – yet another version of us – and go through self-determined motions which may play a major role in our social lives but are profoundly meaningless.

The aspect of this juxtaposition that might be uncomfortable is the coupling of physical and religious love. Yet, the division of a person into separate segments seems simple-minded and convenient. Indeed, the beautiful image of Melancholia’s Justine has always echoed, for me, that of Bernini’s radiant St. Teresa being pierced by an angel. One of the most beautiful sculptures, certainly, and one in which grace, lust, beauty, physical and spiritual love are one and the same.

And, it is perhaps the physical response of both figures, Teresa and Justine, that makes me question the common supposition that this longing for God, a higher form of love, indicates modesty, a virtue usually associated with religious fervor. Both women’s love suggests extreme sensitivity but also greed and arrogance as it implies that human love does not suffice. Only a God, they suggest, may deserve, understand, and satisfy them. And indeed, one cannot blame them for wanting the feeling that emanates such light. Unforgettable and piercingly beautiful, both Teresa’s ecstatic face illuminated by rays of gold and Justine’s expression, intensely lit from within while looking at the powerful and destructive planet, can only result from being with a planet or a God, not a mortal being.

by Kleitia Vaso