Lars von Trier has mellowed. His new film appears to argue that humankind is evil and should be eradicated, but makes the point with far less studied dullness than in “Dogville” or visual and sexual nastiness than in “Antichrist.” Indeed, in terms of appearance “Melancholia” is actually rather attractive, with some stately, refined compositions that the stridently anti-technology enfant terrible of the Dogma movement would once have contemptuously dismissed as cinematic pedantry. And he sets many of them to the lush, plaintive strains of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” prelude. But all the lovely packaging can’t disguise the fact that the movie has far more pretension than profundity.
The picture is divided into two parts, one each named after sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who presumably were raised separately given the distinct difference in their accents. The first details the expensive but chaotic wedding reception hosted by Claire and her businesslike husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) at their palatial estate, where John is especially proud of his new eighteen-hole golf course. The event is derailed not just by the girls’ divorced parents (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling; he’s a likable slouch and she’s an embittered woman scornful of social conventions like marriage) but by Justine’s manic-depressive conduct. She smiles and goes through the motions with her tolerant new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), but abandons the hall periodically to sulk in her room, take a bath, or wander off onto the golf course. And though standoffish when it comes to having sex with her hubby, she does so with a young man (Brady Corbet) brought to the affair by her tough-nosed boss in the advertising game (Stellan Skarsgard), who makes the fellow’s employment contingent on getting Justine to cough up a tag line he needs to complete a campaign.
The eight-minute, slow-motion prelude to “Justine,” in which a series of tableaux play out against that Wagner piece (given in full), is visually stunning, and there are amusing moments sprinkled through “Justine” (like Rampling’s totally inappropriate toast-harangue), but overall it’s a mostly tiresome business in which the bride so repeatedly delays the various pre-planned bits of traditional business that she becomes as irritating to us as she must be to the guests, who apart from the principals remain an amorphous, undefined mob.
One image from the prologue becomes the overarching fact of the film’s second half,
“Claire,” which is set some time after “Justine.” An emotionally distraught Justine is brought back to her sister’s mansion, her marriage a distant memory that had ended almost as soon as it had begun. Claire hopes to revive her. But hanging over the family—and the world—is an imminent threat in the form of a huge new planet, dubbed Melancholia, that has long been hiding behind the sun and has now emerged on a path toward earth. The official scientific projection—which John embraces—is that it will come close but pass by our planet, briefly shutting down power but doing no lasting damage. The alternate belief—espoused on the Internet and presumably based on the view that any “official” pronouncement must be a lie—is that the two globes will engage in a “dance of death” in which earth will be annihilated. Justine calmly embraces this view like a fatalistic prophetess; indeed she seems to see the coming catastrophe as a much-needed apotheosis, though to what is unclear.
In fact much is unclear about “Melancholia”—and not merely the astrophysics. There’s a studied ambiguity about just about everything in it, from the interrelationships among the characters to the chronology. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case it seems less an artistic choice than an affectation—a mimicking of Resnais or Antonioni rather than an expression of Von Trier’s own creative spirit. And it’s not pulled off very well. Too often “Melancholia” is merely brassily busy (as in the entire reception sequence) or turgid. It does offer some magnificent images amidst the clutter (including the final apocalyptic shot), but neither they nor the strong cast—led by Dunst, who apparently refused the director nothing (including a couple of nude moments)—are sufficient compensation.
In the end the film falls into the same trap as films like Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” All are ostentatiously arty, visually extravagant pictures that testify to their makers’ evident ambition, but deliver messages that are more muddled than revelatory. Reportedly the idea for “Melancholia” cam to Von Trier when he was being treated for depression. It turns out to be a film that, insofar as the viewer is concerned, is more likely to be a cause of depression than a cure for it