It will require a certain frame of mind to see it as such, but Lars von Trier’s hermetic, nihilistic, family-unfriendly new film “Melancholia” might be the perfect Thanksgiving movie. With more doomy bombast than it knows what to do with, and an eye too jaundiced to even bring itself to wink at the audience, this is pretty much the anti-“Muppets.”
“Melancholia” may not be as inherently sensational as von Trier’s previous effort, the “gynocidal,” genital-mutilating art-horror flick “Antichrist,” but it comes with some alluring baggage of its own. Namely, his “I’m a Nazi” gaffe at Cannes, and advance word that this might be the pinnacle of Kirsten Dunst’s career. (Her performance in the film, that is, not the look on her face when he said that.) Here, as an illuminating proxy for the filmmaker, Dunst plays a new bride suffering from corrosively placid depression. Her populous and peculiar wedding party must cope with that fact, and with a rogue planet, called Melancholia, that may or may not be on a crash course with Earth.
Spoiler alert: It is. No, not really a spoiler. Von Trier shows the crash right up front, in an extraordinarily strange and beautiful overture that also introduces what must be the best cinematic application of Wagner’s prelude to “Tristan and Isolde” since Bernard Herrmann riffed it into the score to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” This opening, especially, makes “Melancholia” so outwardly mesmerizing that its rickety construction and not-quite characterization almost don’t matter. Almost.
Claire and Justine are sisters, and relative opposites. Justine, the blonder and curvier and more impulsive one, is played by Dunst. Claire is darker and sharper and more responsible and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Each sister gets a chapter named for her. In the movie’s first half, Claire keeps things together, like Justine’s otherwise chaos-tending wedding reception. In the second half, by the time she finds Justine basking naked in the nighttime glow of Melancholia, Claire is tending toward chaos herself.
Some context is supplied, but not much. The sisters’ father (John Hurt) is a weary drunkard. Their mother (Charlotte Rampling) seethes with contempt for the institution of marriage, and says so in her wedding toast. The groom (Alexander Skarsgård) does his best to keep grinning and tolerating.
The reception, and all action thereafter, occurs at the enormous country estate owned by Claire’s husband (Kiefer Sutherland), a wealthy and tightly wound man who appreciates astronomy and tells everyone, unconvincingly, that the approaching planet poses no threat. As the physical embodiment of the mood that ruined Justine’s wedding, how can it not pose a threat?
Von Trier foregoes the standard disaster-movie montage of peoples of Earth reacting to the bad news. In fact, outside this extended wedding party and beyond the borders of this estate, it’s never clear that there are any other peoples of Earth. But if there are, they’re doomed too. That much we know.
If this is all sounding vaguely ludicrous and overwhelmingly bleak, perfect. Von Trier wants to show what it’s like to feel ready for the world to end. He is an artist who has become known to American audiences by putting women through hell and pointing cameras at them. He is also, by his own admission, a depressive. The suffocating lead blanket of that condition is authentically and pitilessly depicted here, as in moments when all the feeling Justine can muster for her worried sister is exasperated nastiness. There is humor too, although it may not be apparent to anyone not inclined to watch a movie like this on the weekend of Thanksgiving.
Matters are made stranger by a vague sense that the actors haven’t agreed on just what style they’re working in, but together they’ve cemented a career capstone for the filmmaker: this apotheosis of luminous, oddly absorbing tedium.
So maddening and and spellbinding a thing could only come from von Trier. Having taken up Hamlet’s temperament as some sort of national responsibility, this melancholy Dane even goes so far as to position one of his heroines in homage to John Millais’ famous portrait of Ophelia afloat in a river and just about to drown. It’s just one of several exquisite images sent forth to do battle with the general air of fuck-it-all nihilism. Although grandiose, “Melancholia” is not pretentious. It takes up its own self-issued challenges with complete sincerity.