Last night, The Girlfriend and I rewatched Melancholia and cast an analytical eye on the opening sequence. (I would include a video here, but the only YouTube versions I can find have alternate music, which makes me kind of sick to my stomach.) Many of the scenes in this abstract prelude are in extreme slow-motion — for instance, in one Charlotte Gainsbourg is carrying her son across one of the golf greens, and you can only faintly tell that the flag is blowing in the wind and the boy’s arm is moving. The Girlfriend observed that the presence of motion actually makes it more like a painting than if it were a still shot, and after teaching art for a few weeks, I can’t help but agree. The kind of motion portrayed in the scene with the golf green is exactly what a traditional painting would try to imply. Traditional paintings aren’t really “snapshots” of an isolated moment in time, but attempt to create the impression of a flow of time or sequence of events — to portray a whole historia, as Alberti would say — just as they use perspective techniques to create the experience of a space contiguous with the viewer’s.
One might think that technically proficient paintings from the early modern era were anticipating the photograph, but I think Lars von Trier is showing us that they were actually anticipating an extremely slow film. He reinforces this connection by actually introducing a painting into the sequence of images, indeed one of the first that Kirsten Dunst’s character selects when she angrily trades in her sister’s calm modernist paintings for less refined representational paintings. Perhaps we can even hear the recurrent Tristan motif as a particularly “painting-like” piece of music. Already Wagner stretches things out far beyond the usual compressed and rapid pace of classical music, and piling repetition on top of that only emphasizes the effect. It’s as though the slow emergence of the infamous Tristan chord is transposed into the same kind of slow-motion painting we see in the opening sequence.
Now I wonder if we can read this painterliness into the end of the film as well — if the collision with the planet Melancholia is somehow the perfect subject for a painting even as it marks the impossibility of any future painting. We hear repeatedly how beautiful the (supposed) near-miss with Melancholia will be, and of course all of the scenes portrayed in the opening evoke that moment. It’s as though von Trier is trying to turn his whole film into the subtle implied motion of the painted cloth blowing in the wind or the painted tensed muscle, but instead of opening out onto an idealized (or at least stylized) painterly world, his film-painting definitively closes down all possibility of worldhood.