Civilization as veneer, scientistic faith as naivete, nihilistic venom, and a future which doesn't have much to say -- this is the extent of what von Trier deems sufficiently important to capture in his rendering of the ultimate fate of human life. Given the scale of his visual imagination, the smallness of this conception only reinforces the sense of meaninglessness that his film conveys. All von Trier offers in this film is a half-hearted and half-realized engagement with profound questions.
Still, von Trier is a filmmaker to know, and students turned out en masse for this one.
Afterwards, several of us were standing around for a minute, talking about it the final image of the "magic cave." What was it? My colleagues thought it a bonfire (of the vanities?), an image of sacrifice. Not terribly affirming. For what it's worth, I see it as a crack in Justine's, and the film's, nihilism. The final image comes from sympathy for innocence. When her nephew expresses fear, Justine caresses him. They build a pyramidal structure on a bare hill together out of sticks, but it's no funeral pyre: it's a tepee, i.e. a primordial human shelter. As such, it is not a permanent shelter but an obviously very temporary one, so to Justine it is indeed a fiction (she calls it a "magic cave") -- but they all do sit in it together. This is nihilism's concession to love. Another chink: Justine says, in what is presented as her big soliloquy of a few lines that "the world is evil. When we are gone, the universe will not miss us." This is not nihilism but misanthropy. It's also gnostic, since von Trier elevates this perspective ("I know things," says Justine, and the film doesn't contradict her) by suggesting that she has correctly guessed the number of beads in a jar from the lottery at the wedding.
In short, Justine's nihilism does not go all the way down. It rarely ever does.
The best part of the film is the opening series of slow-motion images. But even here, there's a lack of full commitment: birds of prey, which fall apocalyptically from the sky behind Justine's haunting face, are stuffed. The image loses power. Much more powerful is a dark horse on the grass below the stars, gleaming and lowering itself to the ground as if it were sacrificing itself; and the image of a mother running in agony while holding her child, sinking into grassy quicksand during a hailstorm as something massively destructive approaches her from behind. These tap into ancient archetypes. If the film were a succession of such images, or seriously grappled with more numerous human stories than it does, it would have been a film at another level. As it is, it's "a beautiful film about the end of the world," says von Trier.
Only partly, alas.