To dream the world’s end

Lars von Trier, that great maestro of facetious event cinema, is back with another instrument of torture. It’s a disaster movie about an enormous blue planet called Melancholia that crashes into planet Earth. It’s 20 times the size of Earth, but only half as big as the grain of salt you’re going to need. The film is entirely ridiculous, often quite boring, with a script showing worrying signs of being cobbled together.

But, even as a longtime Von Trier doubter, I have to admit Melancholia grows on you; there’s a mawkish fascination and some flashes of real visual brilliance, especially in the mysterious series of dream tableaux that begin the film, which take something from both Millais’s painting Ophelia and Alain Resnais’s film Last Year at Marienbad.

Melancholia is billed as a “beautiful film about the end of the world”: both the description and the film itself are as intriguing and exasperating as anything Von Trier has ever done. At his infamous Cannes press conference, in response to a question about German Romanticism and the use of Wagner’s music in the film, twinkle-eyed Von Trier said he sympathised with Hitler, then retracted the remark and has now retracted the retraction: none of these comments are any more serious or unserious than the action of the film itself. The anarchic publicity is part of the effect.

Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a troubled young woman who is getting married, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is her sister Claire, whose millionaire blowhard husband, played by Kiefer Sutherland, has paid for a grand and expensive wedding reception at a fancy country-house hotel.

Justine’s perfect day is marred by emotional tensions, not least between her estranged parents, formidably but all too briefly played by Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt, and these tensions catastrophically unlock Justine’s own tendency towards depression or indeed melancholia. Perhaps the marriage is, in Shakespearian terms, “ill-starred”, and they, like the rest of humanity, are affected by the gigantic planet supposedly on a course for imminent collision with Earth. It is Claire, supposedly the calm one, who succumbs to hyperventilating panic; for depressive Justine, the apocalypse is an ecstatic relief.

The entire wedding scene, effectively the film’s second act, looks suspiciously like something Von Trier might well have sketched out ages ago, inspired by Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen, and crammed in here to bulk out the film.

The third act is the world’s end itself: a woozy, dreamy, freaky event that is brilliant in its preposterous way, though it is odd that no one considers it necessary to turn on the TV news to find out what’s going on. The best of the film is the brief opening act: a weird hallucinatory montage of moonlit or Melancholia-lit images, which are an exposition of the film’s themes and a distorted premonition of its narrative. They are also an echo of some of the most disquieting images in Von Trier’s Antichrist.

Dunst’s performance has been much admired and was indeed a prize-winner at Cannes. Her descent into an almost zombie-like depression is forceful and very sincere, but it is impossible not to remember that the stunned, glassy-eyed look is something Von Trier has elicited from other leading ladies, including Björk and Nicole Kidman.

Melancholia is an absurd film in many ways, and yet it would be obtuse not to acknowledge those lightning bolts of visual inspiration. When Justine goes out into the fields to look at the awesome blue planet, and then takes her clothes off to bathe in its light, it is powerfully erotic and strange. In some ways, for all its silliness and self-consciousness, this is the happiest experience I’ve had with Von Trier for some time.

At the Bioscope in Johannesburg, Melancholia screens alongside Antichrist throughout the month of March. Go to for more information

The Artist. A movie about the black-and-white silent age of Hollywood that is itself in black and white, and silent but for music, this French-made movie won the Oscar for best picture this year. An older, established star (Jean Dujardin) helps a talented young woman (Berenice Bejo) on the path to fame, only to see his career decline as she hits the big time. The Artist comes as close to perfection as I have ever seen. It is one of those films you yearn to watch again and again — one of the most eloquent movies imaginable. — Peter Bradshaw

Staff Reporter
Guest Author

Study unpacks the ‘hidden racism’ at Stellenbosch

Students say they feel unseen and unheard at the university because of their skin colour

Workers’ R60m ‘lost’ in banks scam

An asset manager, VBS Mutual Bank and a Namibian bank have put the retirement funds of 26 000 municipal workers in South Africa at risk

‘Judge President Hlophe tried to influence allocation of judges to...

Deputy Judge President Patricia Goliath accuses Hlophe of attempting to influence her to allocate the case to judges he perceived as ‘favourably disposed’ to former president Jacob Zuma

SAA grounds flights due to low demand

SAA is working to accommodate customers on its sister airlines after it cancelled flights due to low demand

Press Releases

MTN unveils TikTok bundles

Customised MTN TikTok data bundles are available to all prepaid customers on *136*2#.

Marketers need to reinvent themselves

Marketing is an exciting discipline, offering the perfect fit for individuals who are equally interested in business, human dynamics and strategic thinking. But the...

Upskill yourself to land your dream job in 2020

If you received admission to an IIE Higher Certificate qualification, once you have graduated, you can articulate to an IIE Diploma and then IIE Bachelor's degree at IIE Rosebank College.

South Africans unsure of what to expect in 2020

Almost half (49%) of South Africans, 15 years and older, agree or strongly agree that they view 2020 with optimism.

KZN teacher educators jet off to Columbia University

A group of academics were selected as participants of the programme focused on PhD completion, mobility, supervision capacity development and the generation of high-impact research.

New-style star accretion bursts dazzle astronomers

Associate Professor James O Chibueze and Dr SP van den Heever are part of an international team of astronomers studying the G358-MM1 high-mass protostar.

2020 risk outlook: Use GRC to build resilience

GRC activities can be used profitably to develop an integrated risk picture and response, says ContinuitySA.

MTN voted best mobile network

An independent report found MTN to be the best mobile network in SA in the fourth quarter of 2019.