Melancholia and Sustainabilty

In Lars von Trier‘s film Melancholia (2011) two planets literally collide. The two-act foreplay that preludes this event demands the viewer to meditate on the ultimate question of our human condition. They are forced to examine the question of what happens before the end of the world as we know it? And leave the theater pondering what is left after the earth is destroyed.

While Melancholia does not explicitly focus on sustainable fashion, it uses dress to categorize emotions of the characters and evoke issues of environmental sustainability within their relationship to nature. One of the questions Melancholia explores is how depression can inspire a sense of calmness. This quandary is set against an exquisite backdrop (Louise Drake) with painstaking attention to detail ( Simone Grau) and costume direction that interacts with the natural in almost every shot (Manon Rasmussen.) Melancholia offers fresh look at the role of humans in nature that all of us in the field of sustainability wrestle with at some point.

TheNational Society of Film Critics awarded Kirsten Dunst best actress for her portrayal of Justine and honored the film with Best Picture of the Year 2011 at their ceremony on Saturday. However, it is the global sustainability experts who should take note of the not-so-understated man vs. nature struggle that von Trier and cinematographer, Manuel Alberto Claro, paint in this picture. Melancholia tells the tale of a ruptured family clawing at what becomes the final months of their lives at war with each other as well as the celestial forces that ultimately cause the demise of humanity. While the story is anchored by the relationship between two sisters, each one represents the two planets Earth and Melancholia the planet that will ultimately destroy it.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays Justine’s somewhat level-headed sister, Claire, acts as the film’s ambassador of Earth. Her fear of viewing the fast-approaching planet, Melancholia, through the telescope her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) and son Leo (Cameron Spurr) are fixated with is indicative of her inability to envision the end of her own planet. She represents stability, order and structure in the first part of the film, where Earth is the reigning planet. In the second part her character unravels and she becomes as lost as her sister was in the world of Melancholia’s rule.

To the contrary, Justine, who is clinically depressed, and cannot seem to find balance in the first part of the film basks in the blue light cast off by Melancholia during one of the most visually appealing moments of the second part of the film. Her confidence and strength increases the closer that the planet gets, just as her sister’s lessens. Ultimately, it is Justine’s vision of a primitive structure made from sticks where the remaining characters spend their final seconds on film, and we imagine Earth.

In his statement on the film’s official website, von Trier claims that he drew the vision that inspired Melancholia from a beautifully tormented place. Musing that, “With a state of mind as my starting point, I desired to dive headlong into the abyss of German romanticism. Wagner in spades.” In this von Trier succeeds, with his use of pieces from the composer’s opera, Tristan und Isolde, to pin the viewer to their seats and suspend them in a perpetual state of uncertainty as Melancholia approaches. But it is not simply the troubled romance between the two sisters, their parents, or even their lovers that creates this climate of discomfort that prevails while watching the film. It is the consistent unbalanced relationship between man and nature that makes the viewer feel slightly on edge for the almost all of the 136 minutes of Melancholia.

Even Justine’s well-meaning husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) who presents her with the gift of an apple orchard to sit in during the times “when she gets sad,” is unable to penetrate the layers of her depression, not to mention her sexual appetite. She lives in an otherworldly state of detachment from the rest of her family, except her nephew, whose child-like honesty and simplicity offers her the only real human companionship throughout the film. Justine identifies with Leo’s peace and finds solace and power in knowing that there is a universe beyond our own. However, she is the only one who von Trier endows with this secret knowledge.

Her subsequent state of loneliness may strike a chord for those working in the field of sustainability. The feeling that Justine attempts to explain to Claire, of intuitively “knowing things” is minimized and dismissed as a separation from the cultural norm throughout the film. While sustainability is arguably a trend, there are still many in our world that discredit and discount the importance of listening to nature. They discredit constructing materials and technology inspired by biomimicry like many sustainable textile artists and designers do, and minimize the impact that we as humans can have in reversing the environmental degradation we have caused thus far.

Melancholia calls to mind the 2001 Thomas Riedelsheimer documentary, Rivers and Tides which profiles the work of artist Andy Goldsworthy. With both of these films shared emotive state of the ephemeral, many of Goldsworthy’s sculptures are constructed of natural objects which captured on film and then destroyed by nature, together they create a commentary on the temporal state of nature itself. While von Trier sets up a romance between people, and arguably planets, Riedelsheimer delves into the relationship that Goldsworthy has with the pieces he creates and then destroys. Goldsworthy would be right at home in Melancholia, sharing Justine’s awe and inspiration of the power of nature to create and destroy. Both characters know that there is nothing that they can do but sit back, relax and enjoy the ride!


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