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Lars von Trier - An auteur's apocalypse, now

Lars von Trier, the controversial director of Antichrist, has made a film about the end of the world. Geoffrey Macnab takes a look at the arthouse approach to Armageddon

The auteur-driven "apocalypse film" sounds like a contradiction in terms. Conventional wisdom, underlined by films like Armageddon and 2012, is that you need a huge budget and armies of extras if you're going to make a decent film about doomsday. Nonetheless, Danish maverick Lars von Trier is putting the finishing touches to his cut-price Armageddon movie, Melancholia, likely to premiere in Cannes next month. His producers are billing it as "a beautiful movie about the end of the world."

In Melancholia, von Trier gets to destroy the world on screen. "That, of course, is great fun," he commented in a recent interview. However, von Trier being von Trier, he is using the end of the world as a starting point for an intensely focused character-drama. His thesis is that "there is more horror in seeing a face watching the end of the world than in showing it."

Melancholia promises to be the utter antithesis of Hollywood movies about humanity in terminal peril in which characters run to and fro frantically as the meteor hurls toward them, or the Martians attack, or the water runs out, or the zombies hold sway.

The very title hints at the reflective, introspective approach that von Trier is promising. But he isn't the first to come at a disaster movie from such an oblique angle. Scan through film history and you'll find plenty of arthouse film-makers who have taken doomsday as their subject.

Canadian director Don McKellar's millennial drama Last Night (1998) starts from the premise that the world is coming to an end "tomorrow". The question McKellar sets his characters as the clock counts down to a final midnight is one that audiences watching were clearly asking themselves – if you only have a few hours left on Earth, how are you going to spend them? There are many different answers in it. The Lothario character is determined to enjoy his last few sexual conquests. The architect wants to die alone. The married couple plan a suicide pact to pre-empt the deaths that will be inevitable anyway.

McKellar captures brilliantly the banality that is bound to go hand in hand with the ultimate apocalypse. The gas company is determined to keep its services running, and the middle-manager (played by David Cronenberg) is busy ringing customers to reassure them that they won't be cut off until the very last moment. The DJ is still playing easy-listening music. A teenage girl is whining to her mum that she wants her ear pierced. Couples are still agonising over their relationships. Family tensions don't disappear either. Just because the end is near, it doesn't mean that you're going to change your attitude about your sister's "asshole" boyfriend. As McKellar hints, people are so caught up with their day-to-day problems that they can't quite focus on the oblivion that is beckoning. At the same time, gangs are marauding through the streets, clearly enjoying the breakdown in the rules that normally govern behaviour. "People want to experience things and we're all going to die anyway," is their philosophy as they proceed on their looting sprees.

The fascination of apocalypse for arthouse film-makers is that it is an excuse to show human beings stripped down to their essence. The trappings of civilisation will be torn away and behaviour often reduced to its most primal. For example, Ingmar Bergman's Shame (1968) showed Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow as a bourgeois couple trying to survive in the aftermath of a horrific war. At the start of the film, they're strapping, good-looking types. By the end, they're a hobbling old couple in rags. Their home has been razed.

Bergman was far more interested in the "inner violence" wrought on his bourgeois protagonists than in portraying the fires, bombings and massacres that go hand in hand with a total war. As he put it, echoing von Trier's remarks about the real horror being what you see in people's faces as they confront catastrophe: "When society can no longer function, the main characters lose their frame of reference. Their social relations cease. The people crumble. The weak man becomes ruthless. The woman, who had been the stronger, falls apart.

"Everything slips away into a dream-play that ends on board a refugee boat. Everything is shown in pictures, as in a nightmare."

Arthouse film-makers and their production designers relish the visual opportunities that Armageddon presents, too. It's an opportunity to show deserted streets or post-nuclear landscapes. The starkest imagery can be the most effective. Chris Marker's La Jeteé (1962), set in a post-apocalyptic Paris after the Third World War, is made up of still images but is all the more eerie because of what we can't see than because of what we can.

Andrei Tarkovsky's eccentric final film The Sacrifice (1986) takes a Chekhovian approach to apocalypse. It's set around a summer house in Sweden. As nuclear war breaks out, an ageing writer/actor (Erland Josephson) has to make a symbolic sacrifice to spare the world from destruction. Slow-moving, with a self-consciously spiritual undertow, this is certainly not an end of the world movie as Jerry Bruckheimer might envisage it.

Now comes Melancholia. It features sisters with radically different temperaments (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) reacting to the prospect of oblivion in a completely opposed ways. The teaser trailer, released earlier this week, provoked a mini-media-frenzy, although this was less to do with the apocalyptic subject-matter than a few seconds of footage of a naked Kirsten Dunst, in long shot, lying beside a waterfall and looking like Eve cast out of the garden. (As von Trier has long been aware, sex and celebrity remain key selling points in movies, even when your subject is the ultimate catastrophe).

When I spoke to von Trier, he cited Richard Brooks's In Cold Blood (1967) (adapted from the Truman Capote book about young drifters who murder a farmer and his family in Kansas and are then themselves executed) as an influence. The Danish director also suggested that, storywise, Melancholia can be compared to Titanic in "the sense that everyone knows the Titanic is going down. It's just a matter of how it is going down. There is not the matter of who will survive."

In other words, the fact that you're already aware of where the movie is headed heightens the tension rather than reducing it. You're willing the characters to behave in a different way, but the fates are already turned against them. The iceberg can't be avoided.

Another important inspiration for von Trier was the wedding scene at the start of Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978). Melancholia also features a lengthy, very detailed wedding sequence in which family and generational tensions are gradually laid bare.

As his remarks hint, the planet Melancholia, the red body hurtling toward Earth, is almost certainly just what Alfred Hitchcock would call the "MacGuffin" – the conceit that sets the plot in motion. The world may be about to end, but that is not what the film is really about. Whatever the case, Melancholia underlines the continuing fascination of apocalyptic scenarios for arthouse and mainstream directors alike. The apocalypse movie is nothing if not protean. Different directors have used the end of the world for dark, introspective dramas, ripping action-yarns, ecological fables and even for comedy. (Early this spring, Keira Knightley was reported to be in discussions to co-star with Steve Carell in A Friend for the End of the World, which is being described as an end-of-the-world rom-com). In today's era of nuclear accidents, economic crashes, wars and terrorism, it's hardly a surprise that so many film-makers are thinking so hard about Doomsday.

'Melancholia' will be released on 1 July