SAM Seminar: Earth-Object: Melodrama, Plasticity and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011)

When:12 Aug 2014, 5pm - 6:30pm
Venue:Webster Building 327
Who:Monique Rooney (ANU)
SAM Seminar - Monique Rooney

Lars von Trier’s cinematic oeuvre (which includes such films as Dancer in the Dark and Dogville) brings together theatrical and filmic traditions and canvasses philosophical ideas about being, affect, language and metamorphosis. Von Trier’s European-American crossover film, Melancholia (2011), idiosyncratically combines the affective power of the Hollywood ‘woman’s film’ with the disaster movie: its central characters—two sisters—encounter their differences to one another as a rogue planet hurtles towards earth, threatening the extinction of their world. It has also been described as a ‘music video’ and a ‘chamber piece’ and the latter designation particularly places it within a longer theatrical tradition. Continuous with melodrama (melo/drama, play with music) as it first emerged in the Enlightenment era, I argue that Melancholia is a plastic version of a mythic story that moulds new and old elements, including its combining of signature Dogme 95 filming techniques with the evocation of a theatrical or proscenium stage-like setting, its use of computer generated images of outer space for its cinematographically spectacular ‘Prologue’, citations and re-enactments of Renaissance and other classical painting and a Wagnerian musical score, Tristan und Isolde. The film’s evocation of melodrama opens the possibility of reading it through Rousseau’s ur-melodrama, Pygmalion: scène lyrique (written 1762; performed 1770)—about an artist’s beloved statue who springs to life on stage—and which dramatized the composer-philosopher’s theorisation of the relationship between aesthetics, social relations and cultural transformation. In particular, Pygmalion enacts arguments made in Rousseau’s treatise, Essay on the Origin of Language (publ. 1781 but written in the 1750s), about the differing expressive capacities of sounds and images.

My paper will read Melancholia as a melodrama that creates a (dis)unity of music and spoken word and that draws attention to a distinction between a language of affective immediacy or proximity (bodies that touch) and of distance (the spectacle of gestural bodies). In reference to Rousseau’s Galatea, and picking up on Catherine Malabou’s work on plasticity, my paper proposes that earth is Melancholia’s Galatea-object and a figure for thinking about a being that is both melodramatic and metamorphic.

Monique Rooney teaches English literature and film in the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics at The Australian National University, Canberra. She is currently completing a book, Living Screens: Melodrama and Plasticity in Contemporary Film and Television (Rowman and Littlefield International), which includes a chapter on Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.

SAM Seminar Series 2014
Convenor, Collin Chua –

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