It’s the end of the world but also the start of something new for Lars von Trier, whose mind-blowing “Melancholia” offers perhaps the gentlest depiction of annihilation one could imagine from any director, much less the Danish provocateur. If “Antichrist” was the needle in the eye von Trier needed to shake a bout of pulverizing depression, then “Melancholia” serves as his unexpectedly lucid response, blending grand-scale Hollywood effects with intimate, femme-focused melodrama. Think “The Celebration” meets “Armageddon,” a marketable combination that brings spectacle to the arthouse, sure to inspire discussion and debate in ways no studio-made disaster movie possibly could.
Whereas the last 15 years of von Trier’s career have been characterized by a state of extreme agitation, going back at least as far as “Breaking the Waves,” this latest endeavor preaches Zen-like acceptance in the face of mankind’s potential extinction. This remarkable calm is perhaps the most shocking thing about a film in which much of the action centers on the dynamic between two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose French accent is never explained), as a passing planet threatens to obliterate the earth.
“Melancholia” opens with an eight-minute overture set to Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” featuring a series of surreal tableaux — stunning, digitally retouched shots that echo the dreamlike compositions of American photographer Gregory Crewdson: Justine looking impassive amid a shower of dead birds, trudging through a dark forest in her wedding dress, floating Ophelia-like in a murky pond and reaching out as flames of electricity dance across her fingertips. Intercut with these indelible supernatural images are stellar visions in which the visiting planet (which von Trier has cheekily christened Melancholia) approaches and ultimately collides with earth in a wall-rattling, seat-shaking thunder.
While disorienting, the sequence certainly gets us thinking in grand, cosmic terms. Cut to Justine and her newlywed husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), trying to reach their own wedding party, as the chauffeur struggles to navigate their stretch limo up the winding driveway of her brother-in-law’s palatial mansion. The shooting style, so carefully controlled throughout the opening montage, immediately reverts to the more disorienting handheld approach von Trier employed in his Dogma 95 days, bringing a raw immediacy to the festivities.
After the couple arrives at the party, von Trier slowly reveals subtle tensions between the other family members, especially John Hurt and a wonderfully cantankerous Charlotte Rampling as the sisters’ divorced parents. But these dynamics are little more than a diversion, temporarily distracting us from the fact that Justine is not at all the level-headed young lady she appears to be. As the evening wears on, Justine’s behavior becomes increasingly abnormal, threatening to ruin the entire wedding. She’s prone to anxieties, doubts and good, old-fashioned hysteria.
But unlike the damaged women von Trier has offered up in the past, Justine actually appears to be the character with whom the director most closely identifies. Her wedding could just as well be a film festival or any other stage in which the public expects von Trier to play the good puppet. (His post-“Melancholia” press conference at Cannes, where he told journos he understood Hitler, found the director back in his usual frisky humor.) Justine’s character works in advertising — that crassest of professions, presented here as an analogy for sell-out commercial filmmaking — and her boss (Stellan Skarsgard) hovers constantly at the wedding, pressuring her to deliver a tagline like a wheedling producer demanding to know what the director’s next project might be.
Justine has visions. “I know things,” she tells Claire in the film’s second half, which takes place a few weeks later, mere days before the two planets collide. Von Trier also knows things. Such is the Cassandra-like curse of the artist, who risks ridicule for daring to show the public what it doesn’t wish to see — in this case, a willingness to confront death and the very futility of our existence.
Yes, doomsday looms as a planet hurtles toward Earth, but as in all great science fiction, this fantastical premise allows the artist to play sociologist. “Melancholia” takes a page from M. Night Shyamalan, using a blockbuster genre to study how a tight-knit family unit responds under an extreme set of conditions. Here, it is the seemingly unbalanced Justine who emerges as the film’s strongest character, eclipsing her know-it-all brother-in-law, Jack (Kiefer Sutherland, whose smug expertise von Trier happily puts in its place, much as he checked Willem Dafoe’s character in “Antichrist,” only far less graphically).
For all the tyrannical disdain he’s shown other filmmakers over the years, von Trier once again demonstrates a mastery of classical technique, extracting incredibly strong performances from his cast while serving up a sturdy blend of fly-on-the-wall naturalism and jaw-dropping visual effects. Given the film’s high-concept premise, things could have been a lot different in the hands of another director, but with von Trier, it’s just as Justine tells her exasperated spouse at the end of their chapter together: “What did you expect?”