This week’s Watercooler Musical Interlude is Richard Wagner’s Prelude to his opera Tristan und Isolde as used to such spectacular effect by Lars von Trier in the apocalyptic opening of Melancholia (2011). The opening is so striking and hauntingly surreal that the first time I saw the film I was a little disappointed the film didn’t have more of it. After revisiting the film recently though, I’ve decided it isn’t necessary. The opening sets the tone and whenever something ominous happens later in the film, von Trier revisits the Wagner theme and recalls the unsettling opening state of mind.

At the time Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde, he was increasingly influenced by the fundamentally pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer who believed that human behavior was driven by basic human desires and that, because those desires are irrational and ultimately futile, so is the resulting behavior.  We are likely doomed therefore to a life of misery. All of this ties in nicely with the myth’s story of two lovers doomed by their own desire for each other which in turn echoes the fractured matrimonial opening half of Melancholia.

Something I don’t remember feeling as I originally watched Melancholia and something I don’t remember a lot of critics talking about is how funny it is. The opening half focusing on Kirsten Dunst is the most overtly humorous, but even the darker second half is rooted in irony. More than sci-fi and more than drama. Melancholia is a black comedy about depression. It’s funny that the end of existence is ultimately greeted with the most acceptance and calm by Dunst who has otherwise descended throughout the film into the blackest, most debilitating of depressions. The other side of that coin is Charlotte Gainsbourg who has everything to live for but can’t compute the end of life as she know it. Then there is Kiefer Sutherland whose adherence to logic, reason and science ultimately fails him completely.

In Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick memorably looked at the end of existence (man-made) and had no choice but to laugh. In Melancholia, Lars von Trier envisions a different but no less permanent end and it’s easy to picture a grim smile as he imagines it’ll be a relief for those who are so depressed there is nothing left to live for.

That’s all from me this week. Now it’s your turn to share what you’ve been up to at the movies since last week.

12 Responses to “Watermelanchoolia”

  1. I have been supremely busy the last few weeks and have not had much to share here, but “Watermelanchoolia” is now my new favorite word. Thank you for the Monday morning chuckle.

    Seriously though, I really enjoyed reading your follow-up on the film. It made me want to revisit the whole thing, which I found both sublime and frustrating when I saw it originally. I especially appreciated the history lesson on the Wagner piece, which places the whole film in a broader context I was unaware of. So thank you.

  2. I wish I was smarter about Wagner in general and Tristan and Isolde in general, I probably could’ve had more to offer, but it’s food for thought anyway.

    I liked Melancholia the first time but knew even then I wanted to see it again to sort of reconcile it with what my expectations were since it turned out to be something different.

    Taking it on its own terms, it definitely gets better the 2nd time around.

  3. Watching Kiefer Sutherland’s character commiting suicide was funny as long as you view him as Jack Bauer. I mean, Jack Bauer would have nuked the planet before it collided with the Earth.

    I had Melancholia as one the films that should have gotten nominated at the Oscars. I knew it had a tiny chance of getting in (thanks, Lars), but seeing it snubbed was still bad.

    By the way, I finally saw Shame. Very good film, but something tells me it could have been a lot more raw than it was shown on film. I think Brandon could have fared a lot worse.

  4. I must be missing something with Von Trier’s last couple movies, because for me both “Antichrist” and “Melancholia” felt like parodies of arthouse cinema. I can’t really tell if the humor is intentional or not, but I find both films to be funny in a distracting way, and not at all devastating the way I believe they are designed to be. Both movies feel like a guy making fun of Bergman’s work. I don’t know….not my style, I guess.

    Still consider “Breaking the Waves” to be a masterwork..

  5. I’m inclined to agree with Ari, even though I do admit to enjoying “Antichrist” and “Melancholia” somewhat. They’re fun, as all LVT efforts are on some level, but they strike me as incredibly superficial in their prerogatives. They’re a kind of arthouse provacation that borders on glib shockfest, as much of a popcorn movie as any standard mega-blockbuster or horror fest, just for a different demographic.

    The fact that it all plays into a sadly knowing hipster irony is kinda disappointing knowing how truly sincere his stuff could be in the past, even with his mischief-making antics. Perhaps when the “Wasington” part of his “USA” trilogy fell apart, he abandoned that part of his temperment as much as a wounded animal might chew off a limb to escape from a trap.

    Me, I frankly miss the style of his earliest days the most, but “Dogville” was a wonderful combination of everything he’d done up till then. Now, he’s fun to watch, but a bit more predictable. His music cues are especially trying– if I had to listen to that bit of Wagner one more time during “Melancholia”, I would’ve screamed.

  6. Well, you can certainly count me among the ever-fanatical Wagner fans Craig, and over the years I’ve had the fortune of attending various productions of his work at the Met, including a staging of this very opera a few years back. Needless to say the prelude is divine, and contains some of the most sublime music known to man. Probably the most astounding paradox of all this is that Wagner was an ardent anti-semite and wife abuser, and reportedly a misanthrope. That some of the most beautiful music ever written can come from such a person (one whose arrogance was even part of his artistry when you consider he fully expected audiences to sit through six hour operas) is one of the great Freudian mysteries.

    Which brings me now to my Watercooler submission:


    Susan Froemke and Bob Eisenhardt helm this glorified ‘making of’ documentary on the difficulty the Metropolitan Opera had in staging the new Wagner Ring Cycle and the seeming conspiracy that nearly derailed it’s expensive initiation. When Met stalwart James Levine was sidelined with a back issue, and a Texas tenor was brought in to played Siegfried after the lead was forced to pull out, Met General Director Peter Gelb forged ahead with ‘the greatest project of his career’ stating earlier in a meeting with associates that opera ‘must renew itself to survive in this day and age.’ The focus was a new abstract staging by Robert Lepage, which was highlighted in the film by focusing in on the mechanized planks and platforms that initially malfunctioned. There is an air of superiority in some of the discussions (I was a Met partial season ticket holder myself for 12 years, so I know this fraternity well) and the perception that these people’s problems are more important than anyone else’s but this is also part of the charm. The generous musical excerpts from Wagner’s glorious Gotterdammerung and Siegfried are highlights, as are the sequences with the lovely Deborah Voight and the eccentric Texas tenor who saves the day. Gelb offered a near-apology for his role in retiring Franco Zeffirelli’s Tosca for the new production that earned audience scorn, but stands by his revisionist mission. In scope and fascination this is an exceptional documentary, and rare in covering it’s subject.

    The film placed #4 on my ‘Ten Best Tribeca Film Festival’ movies.

    1. War Witch
    2. Wavumba
    3. Any Day Now
    4. Wagner’s Dream
    5. Chicken With Plums
    6. Sleepless Night
    7. Una Noche
    8. The Flat
    9. Trishna
    10. Take This Waltz

    Back to Wagner, I’d say Tristan’s sublimity is matched by the Act I prelude to “Die Mesitersinger Von Nurnberg, the celebrated prelude to “Parsifal” and the immolation scene in “Gotterdammerung” among others.

    Otto Klemperer’s rendition of the magnificent ‘Parsifal’ prelude is incomparable:

  7. I will second that Sam. That’s about as beautiful a piece of music as I’ve ever heard, though I’ve listened to it before. It gives you goosebumps.

  8. Rodrigo, I found Sutherland’s suicide darkly funny partly because of his Jack Bauer connection, but also because the characters was such a realist asshole. I don’t necessarily mean he was an asshole in a bad way, he was actually saying out loud the things most people were probably thinking but… I don’t know. Funny.

    Ari, I take the humor in Melancholia to be completely intentionality. I think it’s a mistake to ever take von Trier too seriously whether it’s in his films or in his interviews.

    It was difficult to watch Antichrist after the Cannes overreaction by infantile film people who couldn’t wait to turn “Chaos Reigns” into a meme and a t-shirt, but it worked beautifully for me anyway. In the context of the actual film, none of the controversial parts of it were as weird or over the top as we were led to believe.

    As a Wagner fan, Sam, you should write something about Tristan und Isolde in Melancholia. I did some half-thinking about it above, but as I said in my comment to Joel, I don’t know Wagner well enough to be able to say very much. I’d like to hear more.

  9. “We are likely doomed therefore to a life of misery.”

    It reminds me of the hero’s futile quest, in Kilgore Trout’s novel Venus on a Half-shell, to discover why we’re born only to suffer and die.

  10. In the words of Frank Sinatra, “That’s Life”

  11. Ari, I think it’s possible to take almost everything Von Trier has ever done as potentially a gag on his audience and/or as a sincere effort. I can certainly see your point on both Antichrist and Melancholia and I actually think there’s some noodling of the art house audience in both films, but I also think Von Trier is sincere about the phobias and neurosis he’s tackling.

  12. That’s the thing Joel, in both Antichrist and Melancholia, I feel like von Trier is tackling very personal subjects and to dismiss either one as “knowing hipster irony” is to fail to see the forest for the trees.

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