Lars von Trier – apocalyptic auteur

The story of how the famously provocative Danish director lost control on his 2011 film, Melancholia.


John Wadsworth

Lars von Trier thrives at the centre of controversy, a reputation he embraces both on and off-screen. The actions of his characters are frequently abhorrent, from feigning mental disability in The Idiots to committing graphic self-mutilation in Antichrist. His own onset actions have been branded ‘sadistic’, and his public dismissal of George W Bush as ‘an asshole’ at Cannes in 2003 was met with scorn.

But beyond the provocations, von Trier’s interviews give the impression of a conflicted, self-critical individual, unable to resist spilling his guts or dissecting his own flaws. Never has this vulnerable side been as evident as it was following the release of Melancholia in 2011. Dissatisfied with the finished product, the director claimed he was “ready to reject the film like a wrongly transplanted organ.” Each of the failures that von Trier identified can be traced back to his heavy use of Wagner’s ‘Tristan Prelude’.

Melancholia begins with an overture, comprising a series of slow-motion images. The remainder of the film is split in two. The first half centres on Justine’s (Kirsten Dunst) wedding reception, and her ongoing battle with depression. The second focuses on her sister Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) panic that a rogue planet, named Melancholia, will collide with Earth. Another narrative lurks beneath the surface, though: one that chronicles the relationship between von Trier and Wagner’s ‘Tristan Prelude’, over the course of Melancholia’s production as a whole.

Initially, von Trier deftly used the prelude as an ideological tool. By aligning his film with the core philosophical ideas of ‘Tristan und Isolde’, the opera from which Wagner’s prelude is taken, he placed his and Justine’s idiosyncratic worldview alongside a respected historical precedent. However, as the ‘Tristan Prelude’ pulled the film in unexpected directions, von Trier’s vision became complicated by hypocrisies, missteps and oversights. As a result, his initial formulation of Melancholia became tangled beyond recognition.

Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ is constructed upon the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer, which also permeate Justine’s pessimistic worldview in Melancholia. The foundation of Schopenhauer’s beliefs is the opposition between the tangible (‘phenomenal’) and the metaphysical (‘noumenal’) worlds. He believed that humans were overwhelmingly shackled to the former, subjected to constant suffering due to false, materialistic desires. Schopenhauer considered humanity cruel, and believed life to be a greater tragedy than death, convictions that both von Trier and Justine share.

In Tristan, Schopenhauer’s worlds are mapped symbolically onto a day/night binary, one that Melancholia also adopts, through both cinematography and musical contrast. In the film, the ‘Tristan Prelude’ accompanies each of Justine’s night-time explorations, creating a strong sense of attachment between the music and her fixation upon the planet Melancholia.

For Schopenhauer, musical suspensions frustrate like the longings of the phenomenal world, and Wagner’s treatment of dissonance in ‘Tristan und Isolde’ should be heard in this context. The prelude’s opening chord refuses to resolve satisfactorily, setting in motion a four-hour yearning for finality that is sustained until the opera’s end point. A comparable structure of dramatic dissonance is present within Melancholia. Due to the prophetic overture, the audience knows that the planet Melancholia will strike Earth, and von Trier allows this suspense to intensify for the entirety of the film’s duration. Like Wagner’s opera, Melancholia drives towards ultimate release. When the screen finally cuts to black and the sound level drops to silence, the phenomenal day realm is both visibly and aurally obliterated, and all becomes night.

The true value of art

This movement towards oblivion is underpinned by the ‘Tristan Prelude’. Not only is the composition present in almost all of Melancholia’s nocturnal scenes; it is almost always placed at the centre of auditory attention. On the few occasions when it does serve as an underscore, it complements the onscreen speech or action rather than being subsumed by it. This preferential treatment of the piece, which encourages the audience to experience the world from Justine’s perspective, is clear when compared to the wedding band music of her reception. The band’s music, emblematic of the bourgeois excess that Justine despises, is typically drowned out by dialogue, and its contingency upon visual cuts means that the music is frequently interrupted.

References to art and literature saturate Melancholia, and are central to von Trier and Justine’s outlook. The 16 images of the overture include Brueghel the Elder’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’ cryptically ablaze, and an image of Justine as Hamlet’s Ophelia, recalling John Everett Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite painting of the character. In one scene, Justine rearranges art in Claire’s library, replacing Malevich plates with images of works by Blake, Caravaggio, and other artists. There are also a number of cinematic allusions present, including references to Resnais, Antonioni and Bergman. Hunters in the Snow is of particular importance, due to its use in Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

Tarkovsky’s use of the Brueghel work was intended to alert the audience to cinema’s painterly precedents, positing cinema’s maturity and value as an art form. In Melancholia, von Trier seems to be following in the footsteps of his idol, with the cinematic references placing cinema firmly within the category of art. For von Trier, ritualisation or commodification of art would abuse its true value, replacing its redemptive potential with banality.

The many components of Melancholia’s philosophy are drawn together by von Trier’s belief that melancholiacs think in fundamentally different ways to most, giving them access to higher knowledge. For von Trier, the presence of the ‘Tristan Prelude’ as Justine rearranges Claire’s library demonstrates Justine’s search for ‘true value’ in art. This can once more be traced back to Schopenhauer, and his argument that the composer ‘reveals the innermost nature of the world’. It is unsurprising, then, that the ‘Tristan Prelude’ accompanies Justine’s nocturnal fixations upon Melancholia; the piece acts a metaphysical voice guiding her towards truth. By stressing Justine’s higher knowledge, von Trier tied Melancholia’s ideological strings into a neat, self-validating package that could be deployed in the guise of the ‘Tristan Prelude’.

Prophetic pictures

Upon reading von Trier’s scathing remarks about Melancholia’s visual aesthetic, though, it quickly becomes apparent that the ‘Tristan Prelude’ wrested control from his grasp. During filming, von Trier referred to Melancholia’s more grandiose shots as “Wagner moments”, and despite the evident pleasure that he took from the influence of German Romanticism, the director later asked himself whether it was “just another way of expressing defeat to the lowest of cinematic common denominators?” Von Trier saw the ‘Tristan Prelude’ as directly responsible for the adoption of a visual style, in his words, “perilously close to the aesthetic of American mainstream films.”

Melancholia’s visually striking overture came to be one of the film’s most celebrated features. Von Trier had included isolated slow-moving shots in previous films – notably Breaking the Waves and Antichrist – but, inspired once more by the ‘Tristan Prelude’, he decided to collate Melancholia’s images and place them at the film’s opening. Von Trier states on the DVD Commentary that he “found out” all the pictures were images inside Justine’s mind, implying that their role was discovered. He seems to place control in the prelude’s hands here, suggesting that it, rather than he, drove this radical reworking of structure. Given the overture’s vital role in both defining Justine’s prophetic knowledge and heightening the dramatic unease upon which Melancholia hinges, the prelude’s leading role can hardly be overemphasised.

Cutting on the beat

But the impact of the ‘Tristan Prelude’ on Melancholia’s structure extended beyond its overture. With von Trier’s decision to make visual cuts in accordance with the prelude, a remarkably dialogical relationship was formed between the music and the action onscreen. The prelude’s repetition came to articulate not only Melancholia’s philosophy, but also its dramatic organisation. The emergence of the prelude’s first phrase almost always corresponds with a shift to a nocturnal setting. The technique of ‘cutting on the beat’ creates small-scale musical goals, the dramatic relevance of which is unmissable to the audience. One example is Claire finding Justine moonbathing nude; another is the start of a climactic hailstorm.

Beat 83 of the ‘Tristan Prelude’ is of particular importance, as it occurs only twice over the course of Melancholia: once during the overture, and once at the film’s close. In both cases, this beat coincides with the collision of planet Melancholia and Earth. In the final scene, then, the audience knows not only that the world will end, but also, thanks to the film’s overture, exactly which beat of Wagner’s prelude it will end on.

Yet, with the exception of beat 83, these small-scale musical hit points are often most noticeable through its absence. Many iterations of the prelude stop short of their goal, or cut it out entirely and jump ahead. These musical edits damaged the artistic cohesiveness of the ‘Tristan Prelude’ for conventional narrative purposes. In doing so, they formed part of a wider set of creative decisions that pulled Melancholia towards von Trier’s detested territory of audience gratification.

A recurring theme in von Trier’s promotional interviews was his loaded remark that saturating Melancholia with the ‘Tristan Prelude’ was “pleasurable” to do. Underlying such comments is von Trier’s admission that the prelude’s hedonistic potential rubbed off, unforeseen, on his film. This was due in great part to the intermediary role of Melancholia’s sound editor, Kristian Eidnes Andersen, who presided over the recording and editing of the prelude.

Hollywood hedonism

Notoriously reluctant to share the meaning of his films with others, von Trier left Andersen oblivious to the complex of ideas within which he planned to freight the prelude. The prioritisation of emotion over ideology in Andersen’s recording therefore diverged noticeably from von Trier’s. Anderson’s extensive chopping and changing of the ‘Tristan Prelude’ warrants attention due to the blatant undermining of von Trier’s celebration of art that this marked. Notably, it is not heard in its entirety.

To highlight the musical mutilation and the emotional exploitation of the ‘Tristan Prelude’ in Melancholia is not necessarily to criticise von Trier, Andersen, or the film itself, though. Doing so serves to emphasise Melancholia’s contradictions, and the consequences that such tension had for the film’s reception. The stakes here were higher than Melancholia’s reputation alone, as the film was also von Trier’s campaign for cinema’s acceptance as a valuable art form. Not only did Melancholia invade the orbit of mass pleasure, but it also damaged von Trier’s idealistic belief that cinema could escape that orbit in the name of art.

It was only at the promotional stage that von Trier became aware of the deviations that Melancholia made from his original conception. The film’s trailer and initial tagline – ‘A beautiful movie about the end of the world’ – proved especially revealing in this regard. Both amplified the aspects of the film that von Trier disliked most – the lush visuals and promise of apocalyptic action – as well as those that underlined its ideological failure, namely the poor splicing of the ‘Tristan Prelude’, which was also punctuated by ominous added percussion. Not only did von Trier’s PR team misunderstand his motivations, but in doing so, they also disseminated a skewed and commercialised reading of the film that coloured audiences’ reactions.

Controversy at Cannes

Melancholia’s Cannes press conference brought with it a classic von Trier moment, in which the director tied himself in knots after conceding his weakness for the Nazis’ artistic aesthetic. When The Times’ film critic Kate Muir asked von Trier to elaborate on this comment, made in a previous interview with the Danish Film Institute, he rewarded her with a rambling response that finished with the hot-for-press sound bite, “Okay, I’m a Nazi”. He may have been making an ill-conceived joke, but the media retaliation threatened to overshadow Melancholia’s release. Having drawn attention to another bundle of contradictions, von Trier was left yet more disillusioned with his film.

If Wagner’s works are stained by the blood of Nazism, humanity’s greatest sin – Hitler himself was an avid fan, and reportedly wished to hear ‘Tristan und Isolde’ when he died – then how can the ‘Tristan Prelude’ epitomise art, humanity’s only window into true value? And if Melancholia also aimed for such lofty artistic heights, how could this ambition be reconciled with the instance of its own director comparing the film uncritically to the Nazi aesthetic? As von Trier’s remarks were circulated feverishly in the press, the union between the ‘greatest work of art of all time’ and the most evil of all evils was implicitly consolidated, and Melancholia was caught in crossfire.

Apocalyptic auteurism

As an uncompromising and imaginative provocateur, von Trier fits snugly into the archetype of the auteur – a fairly broad term given to visionary directors who, like literary authors, are considered to have total control over the creation of their work. This status did not emerge spontaneously, though; it was the result of a lifelong construction of a persona. Born Lars Trier, the director added the aristocratic ‘von’ while at school. Even the affair that resulted in his birth was catalysed by his mother’s desire for her future child to have artistic genes.

Von Trier’s films are similarly designed to form the output of an auteur. His dissatisfaction with Melancholia stemmed from the doubt that the film belonged to such a body of works: it may have been a Trier film, but in his eyes it neither looked nor sounded like a von Trier film. In Melancholia, the suppression of his directorial style can in all cases be traced back to the ‘Tristan Prelude’. The true guiding force here is not the director, or even the composer, but the musical work itself.

In the case of Melancholia, the belief that the musical work is helpless prey to the director’s whims is revealed to be a fallacy. The restrictive human focus of standard auteur theory is undermined: not just anyone, but anything involved in a film’s production has the potential to influence the path that particular film takes. By challenging the image of the heroic director genius, a notion that it is in the interest of von Trier and other professed auteurs to uphold, something more dialogical, dynamic, and inclusive is achieved. That dialogical perspective offers something more fallible than standard auteur theory, but neither detracts from or diminishes the skill required to perform a directorial role.

In Melancholia, these circumstances arose from a combination of the Tristan Prelude’s multifarious associations and von Trier’s reserved approach to direction. The film proves that a pre-existing musical work has the ability not only to interfere with the construct of the auteur, but also to take the driving seat. Similar narratives are sure to be present in other films, waiting to be teased out. In his Director’s Statement for Melancholia, von Trier took full responsibility for his film. But Lars, with or without the ‘von’, was never alone. Tristan stood by his side with every step he took, always with one hand on his shoulder and a whisper in his ear.

John Wadsworth is the Deputy Editor of the Oxford Culture Review and the Editor-in-Chief of the forthcoming arts website Beyond the Pale Frame.

This article is based on an academic paper presented at the Music and Screen Media Conference, University of Liverpool. A related article on authority and authorship in the films of Lars von Trier can be found at PopMatters. An early, fully cited version of this articles are available on the writer’s blog, The Draft Man’s Contract.

Published 30 Apr 2016

Tags: Auteur Danish Cinema Lars von Trier Nazism Wagner

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