There aren’t any self-cannibalizing foxes declaring “chaos reigns,” as in “Antichrist.” But in writer-director Lars von Trier’s latest exercise in Apocalypse Chic, Kirsten Dunst’s morbidly depressed character comes close when she announces, “The earth is evil — we don’t need to grieve for it.”
Heck, we’ve all had days like that. By his own account, though, von Trier had not a few bad days, but a series of deeply depressed years. His latest film, “Melancholia,” acknowledges the gravity of that affliction and wrestles with it artistically. Sad to say, gloom and doom (and hollowness) win out in the end — even if they do so in a visually stunning fashion. (Important viewing notice: “Melancholia” isn’t in cinemas yet. It’s slated to open nationally in select theaters on November 11, but it’s already available for small-screen viewing on iTunes and Video On Demand. This review is based on that option.)
Imagine a 1950s B-movie like “When Worlds Collide” wrapped in the rich, chocolaty brocade of European art films at their lushest (and, yes, most pretentious). That may give you a sense of the strange tone of “Melancholia.” Divided into two halves, it starts with a lavish wedding reception hosted at a very high-end hotel and golf resort by its owner, John (Kiefer Sutherland). The event is for Justine (Dunst, above), the sister of his wife, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). A prized advertising copywriter, Justine is marrying a long blond streak of dazzled earnestness named Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), who can’t quite believe he’s lucky enough to be marrying such a beauty. He has reason to doubt.
As the long night wears on, Justine — fighting what we come to realize is her closest companion, depression — starts to behave badly. Almost as badly as her estranged parents (played with throwaway eclat by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling). Filmed with hand-held cameras in the winding corridors and sprawling grounds of the resort, this half of the movie comes off, to its detriment, as an homage to “The Celebration (Festen).” Nothing here quite approaches the haunted quirkiness of Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 instant classic.
A strange star glimpsed in the wedding-night sky has, in the new film’s second half, been identified as a large planet, dubbed Melancholia, which has emerged from a hidden orbit behind the sun and is coming closer for what scientists claim will be a harmless fly-by past our planet. Or will it? Focusing now on Claire, the movie sets the two sisters up as competing examples of character types, either accepting or denying the possible end of life on earth. Though Dunst won the best actress award for this role at Cannes, Gainsbourg (who earned the same accolade for von Trier’s “Antichrist” two years ago) is the more interesting performer — translucent in her emotions, where the heavy-lidded Dunst is perpetually veiled. Both, though, are fully committed here.
Unfortunately, their character study unfolds in the hermetically sealed environment of the countryside resort, which seems to have neither paying guests, televisions, newspapers nor general access to the outside world. (When Claire and her young son are briefly seen logged on to the Internet, this intrusion of the 21st century is almost as shockingly incongruous as an onscreen flash of explicit porn would be.) “Melancholia” pads out its running time with scenes of Claire and Justine waiting out the end of the world (should it come) with a remarkable lack of dramatic tension. Like most of von Trier’s movies, “Melancholia” stretches well past the two-hour mark. Somebody needs to tell him: if you haven’t said what you need to say in under two hours, maybe you don’t really know what it is you need to say. (The movie’s main message — depression can eclipse the sun and destroy your world — is handled pretty effectively by those 30-second antidepressant commercials on TV.)
Seeing “Melancholia’s” planetary imagery, it’s hard not to think of another ambitious, cosmically inclined film from earlier this year, “The Tree of Life.” But while Terrence Malick’s moody but life-affirming movie keeps on giving long after you see it — playing on in your mind like the flicker of memories, which the movie’s structure itself emulates — “Melancholia” is a case of diminishing returns.
Slogging through von Trier’s first big global art-house hit, “Breaking the Waves,” sometimes felt as grueling as the suffering of actress Emily Watson’s character. Still, there was hope and redemption in the end. In his earlier years, von Trier could be downright devilish in his impulse to entertain. (I strongly recommend his hospital-perched-on-a-hellmouth Danish TV miniseries, “The Kingdom.”) The tone of his “Dogville” — “Our Town” meets “The Young Marxist’s Handbook” — was didactic, but improbably entertaining too. “Melancholia” is superficially beautiful and emotionally dead.
The movie’s best images have a life separate from the main narrative. They appear in its opening minutes, scored to the fittingly beautiful and ominous strains of Wagner’s prelude to “Tristan und Isolde.” In extreme slow motion, Dunst witnesses lightning bolts rise from her fingertips and birds plummet from the sky. Images such as these could have come from a chic campaign created by the advertising agency Justine claims to despise. They are like this movie as a whole: a fetish of doom that’s gorgeous, but as cold as the tomb. Here’s hoping that von Trier, with this film, can truly break free from the limiting orbit of his own melancholia.
“Melancholia.” With Kristen Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård. Written and directed by Lars von Trier. 136 minutes. Rated R. Available now via iTunes and Video On Demand; in theaters starting November 11.