Opera Meets Film: How Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ & Lars Von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’ Are Married Through Suffering & Destruction

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia (2011).”

Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” has but one major musical number throughout its 2-hour running time, but that very piece gets repeated several times throughout the movie.

The number in question? The glorious prelude to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” one of the most revolutionary pieces of music in all of human history and one noted for its ability to express the deep and painful yearning in all of humanity.

The prelude is actually the perfect fit for Von Trier’s film, a treatise on the eternal suffering of women and the incoming destruction of the world. The title, of course, means “mourning,” and relates directly to the planet set to collide with earth and destroy it forever. In a way, human insistence on suffering is bringing about its own destruction. Both opera and film could not be more in line with the thinking of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher that inspired Wagner’s famed opera.

“Melancholia” centers on two different women, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as they navigate two seemingly tragic moments in their lives. Justine is increasingly miserable and apathetic throughout her wedding party while Claire can’t come to grips with “Melancholia’s” imminent crash.

Suffering From The Start

Wagner’s glorious prelude actually kicks off the film, Von Trier letting it play out in full to slow-motion images related to imminent destruction or human impotence. The first image is of Justine’s disheveled face, opening her eyes, as dead birds fall behind her. Destruction is imminent.We see a horse falling backwards at one moment, his surroundings dark and dreary. Later on, we see Claire carrying her son across a golf course, her movements limited and the feeling of vulnerability at its utmost. Her gaping mouth reminds us of Edvard Munch’s famous “The Scream” painting. At another instance, Claire runs from screen-right to screen-left but her long wedding dress seems entangled with fallen branches, making her almost immobile. In much the same way that Wagner’s prelude never quite finds harmonic resolution, these images pierce our minds for their intense sense of suffering. In the same way, Wagner tells us his opera is about never-ending suffering, so too does Von Trier regarding his film.

Sexual Tension & Death

The prelude recurs throughout the film, with two instances particularly striking in their emotional impact.

The first of these takes place after the narrative has switched perspectives with Claire not at the forefront. She follows Justine out into the night, the first notes of the prelude creating a sense of yearning. As we get our first explosion of sound from the full orchestra, Von Trier cuts to a wide shot of Justine bathing in the light of Melancholia, the yearning melody associated with Tristan and Isolde’s love played between a close-up of Justine looking up longingly at the planet and a matching shot of the planet, as if looking back at Justine. As she touches her naked body, we sense a sexual tension, inherent in the opera’s music, but also in Justine’s fixation on the deadly planet. Claire looks on and another enunciation of the Tristan chord takes us into another day, as if the impact of the night before remains buried in her.

The other impactful use of the prelude comes at the end of the film with Justine, Claire, and her son bracing for impact. The prelude swirls toward its climax, the orchestral sound building harmonically higher and higher with more and more furious repetitions of the Tristan Chord. And just as we get ready for the peak of the prelude, the planet crashes and all goes silent and black.

Silence follows for a few moments and then as the credits roll, we get another passage from “Tristan” – the third act prelude. With the world destroyed, we get that music that so beautifully embodied the void that Tristan experiences throughout Act 3. There is no redemption, but just more pain, which is exactly how Wagner’s third Act prelude builds on the one that opens the opera. Instead of relief we only get more suffering, even after humanity has died and fulfill its purpose.

“Melancholia” is by no means an uplifting film but it is a beautiful one, beauty which is amplified by the greatness of Wagner’s glorious music.


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