Apocalypse Blues

A few minutes into Lars Von Trier’s latest operatic psychodrama “Melancholia,” Earth is destroyed. Echoing the prologue of 2009’s cathartically disturbing “Antichrist,” Von Trier again opens with an extreme slow-mo montage set to classical score. This time around: beautifully composed surrealistic images of the film’s somber female leads and a mysterious blue planet’s apocalyptic collision with our own.  
So often fodder for every summer’s obligatory disaster-flick-with-half-baked-environmentalist-message, “Melancholia” instead reduces human annihilation to a simple metaphor for Von Trier’s own chronic depression.

Coming from the guy who was recently banished from the Cannes Film Festival for jokingly sympathizing with Nazis, the arrogance seems fitting of his tortured-artist persona. But — as any fan of the Danish auteur will attest — it is only a persona, and Von Trier’s struggle with depression has always been either the inspiration or thematic focus for his darkly groundbreaking films. In “Melancholia,” he embraces it in full.

Fittingly, part one of the film takes place during the bleakest wedding in cinematic history. Justine, the bride (a strangely catatonic Kristen Dunst), wanders in and out of the reception in a morose trance, leaving her increasingly anxious sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) to placate her outrageously pissed off mother (Charlotte Rampling), sleaze-bag father (John Hurt) and manipulative, business-minded boss (Stellan Skarsgård). But the chaos doesn’t seem to bother Justine as much as the foreboding blue star — the oh-so-subtly named planet Melancholia, we later learn — with which she’s become transfixed.

The mixed bag of animated characters, shot on Von Trier’s trademark frenzied hand-held, finds the director inching closest to dark comedy as he’s been since 1998’s “The Idiots.” Justine’s deadpan interactions with a company newbie (Brady Corbet) even provide a small glimmer of comic relief amid the first act’s draining despair.

But darkness quickly falls upon the decidedly more dramatic part two, as planet Melancholia slowly approaches John and Claire’s manor — now unoccupied by the clamorous wedding guests. Justine’s dread is now replaced with numb acceptance — a testament to Dunst, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her performance — as she supernaturally becomes aware of her mounting fate. The real star, however, is Sutherland, whose tightly-wound John delivers a haunting parable of the over-logical in the face of uncertainty.

As expected, “Melancholia” abounds with stunning cinematography and dynamic singular images. A scene in which Claire spies Justine lying on a stream bank in the middle of the night — her fragile, nude body eerily illuminated by the now-giant Melancholia’s terrifying beauty — is remarkable, as are the (literally) explosive final minutes of the film.

But linked only by dreary faux-doc footage of the cheerless heroines trudging around the massive home, these spectacular moments often prove too little, too late. It’s easy to wish Von Trier would just pop a few uppers and delve deeper into his emergent Gothic-Romantic kick, giving Tim Burton a final nail in the coffin.

Von Trier is far too serious for that, though — which is, consequently, what makes his work so stubbornly unique. And while “Melancholia” is far from the director’s most provocative (no genital mutilation or Bjork-led musical numbers) and, by no sane person’s standards, an enjoyable experience, the film has enough gorgeous images and interesting ideas to keep us readily awaiting his upcoming and more promisingly-titled “The Nymphomaniac.”

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