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Don’t hold Lars von Trier’s past transgressions against him. For every repugnant Antichrist, there’s a devastating Breaking the Waves; for every infuriating Dancer in the Dark—or am I alone in hating that one?—there’s a transcendent Melancholia.
The latter is von Trier’s newest and most accessible film—mostly because it’s also his least von Trier-like. Although the Danish writer-director long ago tossed the spartan aesthetics of his Dogme 95 movement, now he’s going so far as to indulge in sci-fi special effects. Instead of unimaginable cruelty and fucked-up theatrics, we get relatively normal family dynamics. Chaos does reign here, but it doesn’t take Antichrist’s meme-worthy talking fox to tell you so.
Like an art-house mash-up of The Tree of Life, Another Earth, and Martha Marcy May Marlene, Melancholia tackles themes of death, family bonds, mental illness, and, oh yes, the discovery of a creepy new planet. (As with Terrence Malick’s confounding meditation, there’s plenty to read into here, so your mileage may vary.) The title happens to be a tangible thing, a planet that’s orbiting way too close to Earth. But it’s also a condition, the crushing clinical depression suffered by Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a superficially happy young woman whose wedding comprises Part 1 of the film.
When we first meet Justine, she’s kissing and giggling with her groom, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), as the driver of their stretch limo unsuccessfully navigates curvy country roads. They arrive at their reception hours late, ticking off the hosts, Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). Held at the couple’s mansion abutting a private golf course, the party cost John “an arm and a leg,” he tells Justine. It’s gauche, yes. But Justine ruins her own celebration from the moment she arrives, disappearing to tuck in her nephew and later, um, pee on the green as the guests await the newlyweds’ ceremonial duties. At one point, both the stupefied Justine and her bitter mother (Charlotte Rampling) have wandered off to take baths; John packs his mother-in-law’s bags and chucks them out the door, exasperated by the whole family.
Eventually, Claire digs into Justine, too, and we get our first hint that the bride’s got more than just the blues. “But I smile, and I smile, and I smile…” she tells her sister. And she does: At the warmth-exuding reception, Justine is a portrait-perfect bride, radiant as she mingles with guests and snuggles with Michael. The party briefly moves outside, where guests send glowing lanterns off into the sky; the effect is ethereal and lovely while bringing attention to that strange red dot amid the constellations.
Part 2 is titled “Claire,” though really it’s about Justine, as well as that planet’s worrisome trajectory. Set in an unspecified future, a now-single Justine goes to live with Claire and John, so utterly consumed by her depression that she can barely enter a cab or lift her leg to step into a bath. She sleeps endlessly and stares off with a lobotomized blankness. And she worries—not so much about her sister, whom she says she sometimes hates, but about the end of the world. John, an amateur astronomer who walks around the house in ties and vests, assures Claire that Melancholia won’t hit the Earth, that reputable minds have calculated a near-miss. The best thing to do is to enjoy this historic, awe-inspiring moment.
Parts of Melancholia could be fragments of The Tree of Life that Malick left on the cutting-room floor. A menacing yet poetic prologue strings together future scenes amid images of space, with motion so slow it’s sometimes barely discernible. Foreboding music from Richard Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde makes up much of the soundtrack. You won’t know what the hell it all means until the film’s finale, which at the very least still gives it an advantage over Malick’s muddled vision of universal meaning.
Yet this film’s story, for all its cosmic question marks and occasional surrealism, is linear instead of time-jumpingly episodic, its plot divided squarely between Claire’s care of her sister, Justine’s family-wrecking depression, and the possible end of life on this planet. It’s weird but mesmerizing stuff. And, unlike von Trier’s previous offerings, the characters very rarely act out in ways so uncomfortably bizarre that they take you out of the movie.
Still, certain aspects of Melancholia are irritatingly nonsensical. How Justine’s husband leaves her. (It’s ridiculously abrupt.) The way a major character’s death is handled. (No one seems to care much.) Why the rest of Justine’s family (including her father, played by John Hurt) have British accents but she’s as American as, well, Kirsten Dunst. That’s just a quibble, though, thanks to Dunst’s marvelously damaged performance. Like Natalie Portman’s turn in last year’s Black Swan, Dunst runs deftly through whole ranges of emotions in minutes: During the reception scenes, Justine can seem joyful one second and belligerent or nearly comatose the next. Gainsbourg, meanwhile, was probably thrilled to return to her usual groove as the coddled, unhappy, and unkempt wife (will somebody get her a comb?) after her loony-toons turn in Antichrist. Sutherland is fine, too, putting a suave, carefully spoken, richer-than-God spin on a character unlike any he’s played before.
The closing chapters are devoted to the planet’s nearing, and they’re utterly transfixing. There’s panic and there’s calm, fear and acceptance. For someone who doesn’t typically dabble in special effects, von Trier crafts a gorgeous finale as Melancholia rises up like a blue monster on the Earth’s horizon. The last scene’s a powerful and ironic one—after von Trier’s years-long obsession with naturalistic, genre-free filmmaking, his foray into science-fiction finds him at his most humanistic.