The Melancholy of Extinction: Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" as an Environmental Film




Lars von Trier, extinction, ecological trauma, mental illness

How to Cite

Matts, T., & Tynan, A. (2012). The Melancholy of Extinction: Lars von Trier’s "Melancholia" as an Environmental Film. M/C Journal, 15(3).
Vol. 15 No. 3 (2012): ecology
Published 2012-05-03

Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia depicts the last days of the earth through the eyes of a young woman, Justine, who is suffering from a severe depressive illness. In the hours leading up to the Earth’s destruction through the impact of a massive blue planet named Melancholia, Justine tells her sister that “the Earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.” We can read this apparently anti-environmental statement in one sense as a symptom of Justine’s melancholic depression. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines melancholia as a form of depression that is “qualitatively different from the sadness experienced during bereavement” (419). It is as if Justine’s illness relates to some ungrievable loss, a loss so pathologically far reaching that it short circuits the normal psychology of mourning. But, in another sense, does her statement not strike us with the ring of an absolute and inescapable truth? In the wake of our destruction, there would be no one left to mourn it since human memory itself would have been destroyed along with the global ecosystems which support and sustain it. The film’s central dramatic metaphor is that the experience of a severe depressive episode is like the destruction of the world. But the metaphor can be turned around to suggest that ecological crisis, real irreparable damage to the environment to the point where it may no longer be able to support human life, affects us with a collective melancholia because the destruction of the human species is a strictly ungrievable event.

The discoveries of Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century constituted a major thought event which placed the emergence of humanity within a temporal context extending far beyond the limits of human memory. Claire Colebrook suggests that the equivalent event for present times is the thought of our own extinction, the awareness that environmental changes could bring about the end of the species: “[the] extinction awareness that is coming to the fore in the twenty-first century adds the sense of an ending to the broader awareness of the historical emergence of the human species.” While the scientific data is stark, our mediated cultural experience provides us with plenty of opportunities to, in Colebrook’s words, “[domesticate] the sense of the human end” by affirming “various modes of ‘post-humanism’” in ways which ultimately deny the shattering truth of extinction.

This domestication obviously takes place in one sense on the level of a conscious denial of the scale of the ecological crisis. On another level, however, environmentally conscious representations of “the planet” or “nature” as a sheer autonomous objectivity, a self-contained but endangered natural order, may ultimately be the greatest obstacle to genuine ecological thinking. By invoking the concept of a non-human nature in perfect balance with itself we factor ourselves out of the ecological equation while simultaneously drawing on the power of an objectifying gaze. Slavoj Žižek gives the example of Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us which imagines a contemporary world in which all humans have disappeared and nature reasserts itself in the ruins of our abandoned cities. Žižek describes this as the ultimate expression of ideology because:

we, the humans, are here reduced to a pure disembodied gaze observing our own absence [...] this is the fundamental subjective position of fantasy: to be reduced to a gaze observing the world in the condition of the subject’s non-existence—like the fantasy of witnessing the act of one’s own conception, parental copulation, or the act of witnessing one’s own burial (80).

In many ways, the very spectacle or fantasy of our own destruction has provided us with a powerful means of naturalising it—environmental catastrophe occurs to and in a “nature” whose essence excludes us—and this renders it compatible with a psychology by which the human end is itself internalised, processed, and normalised. Ironically, this normalisation may have been affected to a great extent through the popularisation, over the last ten years or so, of environmental discourses relating to the grave threats of climate change. A film such as Wall-E, for example, shows us an entirely depopulated, desertified world in which the eponymous robot character sorts through the trash of human history, living an almost-human life among the ruins. The robot functions as a kind of proxy humanity, placing us, the viewers, in a position posterior to our own species extinction and thus sending us the ultimately reassuring message that, even in our absence, our absence will be noted. In a similar way, the drama-documentary The Age of Stupid presents a future world devastated by environmental collapse in which a lone archivist presides over the whole digitised memory of humanity and carefully constructs out of actual news and documentary footage the story of our demise. These narratives and others like them ultimately serve, whatever their intentions, to domesticate the end of humanity through the logic of a post-human mastery of the story of our own obliteration.

The starker truth with which Melancholia confronts us is that the end of humanity cannot and will not be internalised by any process of human memorialisation. Von Trier’s film does not portray any post-catastrophe world from which we might be able to extract a degree of psychological comfort or residual sense of mastery. Rather, the narrative frame is entirely bounded by the impact event, which we witness first in the film’s opening shots and then again at its close. There is no narrative time posterior to the impact and yet for us, the viewers, everything happens in its shattering aftermath, according to the strange non-successional logic of the future-anterior. Everything begins and ends with the moment of impact.

If the narrative itself is concerned with the lives of the characters, particularly the effects of the main character’s depression on her family relationships, then the film’s central event remains radically disjunctive, incapable of being processed on this interpersonal level through the standard cinematic tropes of the disaster or survival genres. The value of regarding Melancholia as an environmental film, then, is that it profoundly de-psychologises the prospect of our extinction while forcing the burden of this event’s unfathomable content onto us. Von Trier’s film suggests that melancholy, not mourning, is a more apt emotional register for ecological crisis and for the extinction awareness it brings, and in this sense Melancholia represents a valuable alternative to more standard environmental narratives which remain susceptible to ideological reinscriptions of human (or post-human) mastery. As ecocritic Timothy Morton suggests, “melancholy is more apt, even more ethically appropriate, to an ecological situation in which the worst has already happened, and in which we find ourselves [...] already fully implicated” (75–6).

The most influential account of mourning and melancholia comes from Sigmund Freud, who described these attitudes as two different ways of dealing with loss. In the process of mourning, Freud states that there comes the realisation “that the loved object no longer exists” which “[demands] that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that object” (245). The healthy outcome of this very painful process is that our libidinal attachments are free once again to take on another object of love; the lost object can be replaced according to a logic of temporal succession. Melancholia also results from a loss, says Freud, but this time it relates not simply or primarily to a replaceable external object but, more complexly, to something in the ego itself, not a discrete thing in the world but a certain way of being in the world which the lost object facilitated. Freud writes that the trauma of melancholia is thus manifested by the ego itself taking on or embodying the loss.

The ego, stripped of its sense of being, comes to mimic the non-existence of that which once supported it. The “delusion” of the melancholic’s depressive state, says Freud, stems from the fact that something has ruptured her affective and libidinal attachment to the world, but this cannot be psychologically processed in terms of a replaceable loss since what is lost was never simply an external object. Her world is struck by an absence that cannot be mourned because it is kept alive as a non-being which she is. She has taken on the burden of this structural impossibility and does not pursue an imaginary resolution of it which, to invoke Žižek’s Lacanian terms once more, would involve her submitting to the subjective position of fantasy (i.e. becoming a witness to her own non-existence). The melancholic’s attitude is, Freud observes, “psychologically very remarkable” because it involves “an overcoming of the instinct which compels every living thing to cling to life” (246). The melancholic carves out an existence apparently contrary to nature.  

This is the context in which Justine remarks that the earth, as an ungrievable object, is “evil.” Her melancholia is never explained in the course of the film, and, indeed, we see little of her personality apart from the events which manifest her psychological crisis. The film opens with the moment of interplanetary impact itself. The great blue planet of Melancholia approaches and begins to swallow the earth into its atmosphere. We cut immediately to Justine and her sister in the moments just before the impact: the air is electrified by the approaching collision and birds cascade from the trees. Our way into the narrative is this moment of chaos and dispersion, but von Trier’s depiction of it, his use of highly choreographed slow-motion shots resembling tableaux vivants, distance us from any sense of urgency or immediacy. It is as if the closer we come to the collision, the less real and the more stylised the world becomes; as if the impact holds a content which cannot be rendered in realist terms.

By contrast, the subsequent scenes focusing on Justine’s interpersonal drama use a shaky, handheld camera which embeds us in the action. The narrative follows Justine on her wedding day. As events unfold we see cracks appear in the wedding party’s luxurious facade: Justine’s divorced parents argue viciously; her wealthy brother-in-law, who funded the wedding, fears that the occasion may be ruined by petty squabbling, to his great expense. Beneath these cracks, however, we realise that there is a deeper, more inexplicable crack opening up within Justine herself. At one point she retreats with her newlywed husband from the tumult of the wedding party. We expect from this scene an articulation or partial resolution, perhaps, of Justine’s mental conflict, or at least an insight into her character. In a more conventional story, this moment of conjugal intimacy would allow Justine to express an “authentic” desire, distinct from the superficial squabbling of her family, a means to “be herself.” But this doesn’t happen. Justine inexplicably rejects her husband’s overtures. 

In clinical terms, we might say that Justine’s behaviour corresponds to “anhedonia,” a loss of interest in the normal sources of pleasure or enjoyment. Invoking Freud, we could add to this that the very objective viability of her libidinal attachments has been called into question and that this is what precipitates her crisis. If such attachments are what ground us in reality, Justine’s desire seems to have become ungrounded through the emergence of something “nonobjectifiable,” to borrow a term from philosophers Deleuze and Guattari (What is Philosophy?, 209). This “something” is revealed only in the second half of the film with the appearance of Melancholia and the prospect of its obliterating impact. Justine is drawn to this new planet, in one scene luxuriating naked beneath its blue glow. We could argue, in one sense, that she has discovered in Melancholia a correlate to her own self-destructive desire: the only thing that can possibly gratify her is the annihilation of the earth itself.

However in another, more constructive sense, we can say that her melancholic desire amounts to a kind of geophilosophical critique, a political and ultimately ecological protest against the territorialisation of her desire according to a supposed acceptability of objects. Deleuze and Guattari suggest that, if desire’s libidinal attachments form a kind of ground or “territory” then all territories interact with one another at some level because they are all equally founded on “lines of deterritorialization” sweeping them towards a mutually shared, extra-territorial outside (A Thousand Plateaus, 9). Or, putting it in plainer terms: beneath every ground is a non-ground such that the earth cannot ultimately ground itself in itself. Every mental, material, or social territory is founded upon this global movement of ungrounding.     

The trauma of Justine’s melancholia refers us to something which cannot be resolved within the given territories of her social or interpersonal milieus. While her illness can be registered in terms of the events of the film’s narrative time, the film’s central event—the collision with Melancholia—remains irreducible to the memorial properties of storytelling. We may thus argue that the impact event is not strictly speaking an element of the film’s narrative, but rather a pure cinematic sign evoking a radical form of ecological openness. The film moves through different territories—conjugal, familial, economic, scientific—but what propels us from one territory to another is the impact event whose content is reducible to none of these territories.

Of all the film’s characters, only Justine is “open” to this absolute irreducibility, this resistance to closure. Her openness to Melancholia is not determined by whether or not it can be objectified, that is, rendered assimilable to the terms of a given territory. Both her brother-in-law (an amateur astronomer) and her sister attempt to calculate the chances of impact, but Justine remains open to it in a manner which does not close off that which precludes survival. In the end, as Melancholia bears down on the Earth, Justine’s attitude—which in Freud’s terms is antithetical to the instinct for life—turns out to be the most appropriate one.     

The point of this article is certainly not to argue that we should acquiesce to the traumatic realities of environmental crisis. Its aim, rather, is to suggest that well-being and harmony may no longer describe the appropriate emotional register for ecological thinking, given the current urgency of the crisis. Human and ecological health may, after all, be radically different and incommensurable things. The great anthropologist and structuralist thinker Claude Lévi-Strauss once remarked:

I am concerned with the well-being of plants and animals that are threatened by humanity. I think ecologists make the mistake of thinking that they can defend humans and nature at the same time. I think it is necessary to decide if one prefers humans or nature. I am on the side of nature (qtd in Conley, 66).

Lévi-Strauss may well be right when he says that a common human and ecological health may be an illusion of wishful thinking. However, what if there is a common trauma, whose ineradicability would not be a tragedy but, rather, evidence of radical openness in which we no longer have to pick sides (humans or plants and animals)? What if the proper “base” from which to begin thinking ecologically were not a conception of a harmonious human-ecological whole but a foundational non-harmony, an encounter with which contains something ineliminably traumatising? In a recent paper, the philosopher Reza Negarestani proposes just such a traumatic account of ecological openness. All existence, understood geophilosophically, is, says Negarestani, “conditioned by a concatenation of traumas or cuts [...] there is no single or isolated psychic trauma [...] there is no psychic trauma without an organic trauma and no organic trauma without a terrestrial trauma that in turn is deepened into open cosmic vistas.” Ecological openness, in this sense, would be necessarily melancholic, in the terms described above, in that it would necessitate the perpetual precariousness of those links by which we seek to ground ourselves.

Ecology is all too often given to a “mournful” attitude, which is, as we’ve argued, the very attitude of psychological incorporation, healing, and normalisation. Similarly, “nature,” we are told, holds the key to harmonious self-regulation. But what if today such notions are obstacles to a genuine awareness of the ecological realities facing us all (humans and non-humans)? What if this ideal of nature were just a product of our own desire for stability, order, and regularity—for some imaginary extra-social and non-human point of reference by which to attain to a position of mastery in the telling of the story of ourselves?


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Author Biographies

Tim Matts, Cardiff University

Tim Matts holds a Ph.D in Critical Theory from Cardiff University, Wales. His thesis, Violent Signs: Ecocriticism and the Symptom, was supervised by Professor Ian Buchanan and funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. He has recently worked with Italy’s National Agency for the Development of Scholastic Autonomy (ANSAS), a body within the Italian Ministry for Education, Universities, and Research (MIUR). He contributed a didactic module entitled ‘Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the refrain’ to the InNova Musica project, a colloquium on musical scholarship and ethology devised by Italian composer Girolamo de Simone.

Aidan Tynan, Cardiff University

Aidan Tynan also holds a Ph.D in Critical Theory from Cardiff University, Wales. His thesis was also supervised by Professor Ian Buchanan, and is forthcoming as a volume from Edinburgh University Press under the title Deleuze’s Literary Clinic: Criticism and the Politics of Symptoms. He has published a number of articles on Deleuze and edited a special issue of the journal Deleuze Studies titled Deleuze and the Symptom.

Matts and Tynan’s co-authored article ‘With the Raising of the Ground: Catastrophism, Geotrauma, and Cinema’s Ecological Niche’ is shortly appearing in the journal Design Ecologies. Together, they maintain the blog Violent Signs.