The End Of The World As She Knows It: Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia

Scott Bradley


The poetic and wonderful Melancholia, written and directed by Danish provocateur par excellence Lars von Trier, might well be the gentlest apocalyptic movie ever made. This is more than a little surprising coming from the notorious filmmaker, who, prior to undertaking this movie, made the rather baffling announcement that there would be “no more happy endings” in his movies.  This after such fun-filled, life affirming rides as Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and Antichrist.  Huh?  

But Trier being Trier, meaning that he likes to play with his audience, that statement was clearly provocation by way of expectation to make us wonder what the hell the crazy Dane would come up with after the emotional and physical horrors of 2009’s Antichrist.  Especially when the premise here is nothing less than the apocalypse, both global (a rogue planet on collision course with Earth) and personal (deep and crippling depression, from which the director has suffered).  

premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in early 2011, where Kirsten Dunst was awarded the Best Actress Award for her work.  The film, alas, also became slightly lost in the fallout when Trier committed one of the biggest foot-in-mouth/bad-joke-gone-awry moments imaginable.  I won’t even try to summarize what happened – if you haven’t seen this, you really owe it to yourself ( – it’s like something out of, well, a Lars von Trier movie.  You might recall that Trier ended up being declared persona non grata at the festival, even after apologizing for his remarks.  One can imagine the reclusive Terrence Malick, whose film Tree of Life ended up winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, thinking to himself:  “That’s why I don’t do interviews and press conferences.”

Anyway, enough time has hopefully passed since the controversy and now Melancholia has gone wide, available on-demand and shortly in theaters, and we can see Lars von Trier the press conference chaos-making-machine is a very different creature from Lars von Trier the filmmaker, at least this time out.  The movie is so very much his work, yet also stubbornly non-confrontational, simmering with sadness rather than boiling over with hysteria.

Following a gorgeous prologue that gives an impressionistic rendering of the story’s end (set to the prelude from Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner), the film is divided into two parts, named after its two leads, sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  Part one shows the disastrous unraveling of Justine’s wedding party – with her bubble-headed husband (Alexander Skarsgård), her cranky brother-in-law (Keifer Sutherland), her estranged and unbalanced parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling), her employer (Stellan Skarsgård), and even her wedding planner (Udo Kier) all clashing with the bride and each other in the most ruinous ways imaginable.  Part two depicts Justine’s descent into depression as a planet dubbed Melancholia hurtles its way toward Earth – and the closer it gets, the less likely it seems that result will be the “flyby” predicted by scientists.  

And that’s really about it, narratively speaking.  Despite the science fiction/disaster movie conceit, nobody’s sending up Bruce Willis ala Armageddon to nuke planet Melancholia and avert calamity.  We don’t even get any real sense of what’s happening in the world outside the palatial estate where the characters await their impending fate, outside of a few glimpsed Internet pages (which allude to the notion that while the scientific community thinks Melancholia is harmless, conspiracy types are the ones predicting a world-ending collision – guess who’s right?).  It all fundamentally boils down to the haunting Cassandra figure of Justine and how she faces the End with her sister, brother-in-law and their young son (Cameron Spurr).  

While all of this might not, per se, sound incredibly appealing, given Trier’s reputation (unless you’re already a fan – which I am sometimes), Melancholia, in its elegance and humanity, might well turn out to be the Trier movie for people who hate Trier movies.  The cast is uniformly superb, starting with Dunst and her justifiably acclaimed performance.  While Trier has a fairly notorious history with actresses (supposedly driving Bjork to a nervous breakdown in Dancer in the Dark, et al.), he must be doing something right, because he gets such remarkable performances from them.

And this film really is Trier at the top of his game as a filmmaker.  However off-putting his public persona might be, it’s hard not to admire an artist who is not only open about his emotional problems, but also skillfully mines them to create works like Antichrist and now Melancholia.  His clear understanding of grief and fear gives us a remarkable prism through which to view the worst things imaginable.  That, to my mind, seems like exactly the kind of thing great art should do.  And in Melancholia, Lars von Trier has made a truly great movie.

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