Article/ Melancholia: At the World’s End

The visually arresting Melancholia is the latest feature by one of contemporary cinema’s iconoclasts, Lars von Trier

By Anwar Brett

How do you solve a problem like von Trier? It’s a question that has dogged the career of the controversial Danish director since his international breakthrough with Europa and Breaking The Waves.

The director’s reputation flourished further in the aftermath of the Cannes controversies that surrounded Antichrist and the press conference for the altogether more thoughtfully conceived Melancholia. Whether this archetype of the enfant terrible is artful or artless in his highly quotable, albeit self-destructive, ramblings, von Trier remains a fascinating filmmaker, a view his latest film bears out.

Melancholia is a striking end of days tale that combines stunning visuals with a haunting use of music. It proves to detractors that the director is an artist still, despite the negative headlines. He is also, by all accounts, a hard taskmaster. And yet, he seems to engender fierce loyalty in his cast, many of whom have worked with him on more than one film. He is also adept at persuading Hollywood stars to venture into his world.

Kirsten Dunst does just that here, playing Justine alongside von Trier favourite Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire; unlikely sisters who are reunited for Justine’s wedding at a grand estate belonging to Claire’s pompous husband (Kiefer Sutherland). Justine stays on with her sister after this lavish event and the family are soon gripped by the prospect of a planet named Melancholia heading towards Earth. This will not end well.

This is a scenario that suits von Trier. He is known to share the northern European sensibility evoked by the film’s eponymous celestial object, which is beautifully expressed in a haunting prelude detailing the fearful majesty of this cataclysmic event. Accompanying it is Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, which the composer compared to the pain of love, where the “insatiable longing swells forth from the first timidest avowal to sweetest protraction”.

When von Trier described Melancholia as “a beautiful movie about the end of the world” you know he really intended it to be just that. Like Millais’ ‘Ophelia’, which he references in one sequence, Von Trier favours an arresting image as much as a shocking statement. And his work, as well as his pronouncements, frequently gives the impression of an artist in the grip of some personal crisis.

In discussing the film, von Trier cited German romanticism and the cinema of Luchino Visconti (Senso, The Leopard, Death in Venice) as two influences that tugged his artistic conscience in opposing directions during the genesis of the film. This duality is present too in the stark beauty of the event that threatens to obliterate life on Earth.

Melancholia is an apt noun for a body of work that challenges safe assumptions, bourgeois values and a lazy kind of predictability. Lars von Trier is the antithesis of that kind of unchallenging mainstream fare. He represents a vital figure in world cinema. He is an agent provocateur always offering an alternative to the world we live in, even if it means the end of it.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

Melancholia screens at Cornerhouse with an exclusive preview on Wed 28 September at 20:00. On general release from Fri 30 September