The affective sublime in Lars von Trier's Melancholia and Terrence Malick's the Tree of Life

Zoe Ruth Shacklock, Sarah French

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


This paper provides a comparative analysis of Lars von Trier's Melancholia (2011) and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011), two recent films that engage with the sublime aesthetic. Bringing together Brian Massumi's writing on affect with Jean-François Lyotard's understanding of the sublime, we develop the notion of the affective sublime, a theoretical methodology that locates the sublime experience at the threshold between the cognitive and the corporeal. Drawing upon Lyotard's distinction between the modern and postmodern sublime, we suggest that while The Tree of Life establishes the sublime as a central absence within a nostalgic narrative, Melancholia forces a direct collision with the unpresentable. Consequently, in accordance with Massumi's delineation between emotion and affect, we suggest that the two films produce different affective responses. The Tree of Life provides absent content with formal and emotional coherence, quelling the feelings of pain and anxiety evoked by the sublime. In contrast, Melancholia refuses correct forms and actualises the potential of affective intensity through an encounter with sublime annihilation. We conclude that the affective sublime opens up new understandings of the interaction between the sublime object and spectator, one in which the visible object is less important than the sublime instant of affective experience.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)339
Number of pages356
JournalNew Review of Film and Television Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2 Oct 2014


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