Director – Lars von Trier – 2011 – Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden – Cert. 15 – 135m
End of the world drama concerns two sisters who must confront unspeakable disaster – original UK release date Friday, September 9th 2011 and back out again on Friday, September 1st 2023 as part of the season: Enduring Provocations: The Films Of Lars Von Trier.
There have been end of the world movies before, but this one, by Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier, breaks the mould. It comes in three parts: a prelude of apocalyptic imagery including a view of the planet Melancholia crashing into and obliterating the planet Earth, followed by two lengthy sections concerning two sisters.
The first section has the newly-wed Justine (Kirsten Dunst) making a mess of her lavishly planned, obscenely expensive wedding party at the house of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire’s wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland).
The second has Claire, John, their pre-teen son Leo (Cameron Spurr) and Justine awaiting what may turn out to be either the close passing by of Melancholia to the Earth or the fatal collision of the larger planet with the smaller. Depending on whether the prelude’s pictured events are actually going to happen or merely an imagined worst case scenario. A provocative game for a film director to play with an audience.
The prelude – slo-mo state of the art images underscored by classical music not unlike the opening to von Trier’s earlier Antichrist (2009) – has falling birds, static electricity, Justine in a wedding dress ensnared by forest branches and Claire carrying Leo through scenes of apocalyptic mayhem.
None of which prepares one for the Justine section, which starts off with the happy couple chauffeured in a stretch limo encountering difficulties negotiating impossible bends on a driveway. At the house, there follows a parade of numerous familial and wedding guest characters – the sisters’ anti-marriage mum (Charlotte Rampling) and separated, reprobate father (John Hurt), her ruthless ad agency boss (Stellan Skarsgard) and his hapless minion (Brady Corbett), the latter charged to extract a much-needed copy headline from the bride, and many more. There are intrigues, with Justine seemingly intent on sabotaging her financially expensive ‘special day’ at every turn.
In contrast to the first section’s ensemble, the second section is restricted to Justine plus Claire’s husband, son and sister alone on the lavish estate. As apocalypse becomes increasingly more probable than spectacle, the dominant husband’s credibility drains away and Claire moves from confidence to crisis. Here it’s the previously unstable Justine (addressed by young Leo as “my Aunt Steelbreaker”) who takes command, suggesting a way that the two sisters and the young boy can face the approaching end.
The special effects, when von Trier opts to wheel them out, are peerless; yet to describe this as a special effects movie would be both to miss the point and an inaccurate description. Psychological drama is perhaps closer to it. Surprisingly, for such a deep film with apocalyptic subject matter, any religious element is lacking – unless you find the idea of facing materialistic annihilation religious. Von Trier seems fascinated by human behaviour in the face of unthinkable disaster. Life may be about to end, but in the meantime it goes on. Until suddenly it doesn’t. Perhaps he’s thinking about his own mortality as he gets older.
Veering effortlessly between offensive, unsettling and gripping, this is an extraordinary cinematic tour de force which will handsomely repay multiple viewings. Beneath its well crafted veneer lie deep questions and observations about the mystery of being human. It could well turn out to be this writer’s film of the year.
Review originally published in Third Way, 2011.
Melancholia is back out again on Friday, September 1st 2023 as part of the season: Enduring Provocations: The Films Of Lars Von Trier.
Trailer (Enduring Provocations: The Films Of Lars Von Trier):