Achingly beautiful and fiercely nihilistic, “Melancholia” may very well be Danish director Lars von Trier’s ultimate philosophical statement.
And since von Trier (“Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer from the Dance,” “Antichrist”) is both genius and jerk, this is one of those love/hate deals.
You may despise what he has to say; you’ll be floored by the skill and artistry with which he says it.
“Melancholia” begins with a series of mysterious images, all of which will be revisited before the film’s over. These are presented as slo-mo tableaus:
A black horse stumbles and falls beneath a sky illuminated by the aurora borealis.
Electric arcs flicker from a woman’s upraised hands.
A mother struggles to carry her child across a golf putting green, but her legs sink in turf as loose as quicksand.
A bride in white runs through a forest glade, but tree roots and branches reach out to entangle her legs.
Finally the Earth collides with another planet in a cataclysmic dance of destruction.
That’s right. In this movie the misanthropic von Trier actually destroys our planet. But not before taking us on a disturbing and weirdly compelling ride.
The film’s first segment, which runs for about an hour, takes place on a plush private estate at the wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Mike (Alexander Skarsgard).
Their marriage appears doomed from the outset. The stretch limo in which they are riding is too long to negotiate the curves in the road to the big house; the newlyweds must walk most of the way, arriving late.
Justine’s sister Clair (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her filthy rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who are hosting the reception, can only roll their eyes. Obviously, they’ve often been disappointed by Justine; this tardiness is just par for the course.
There are other signs of dysfunction. The bride’s cynical mother (Charlotte Rampling) gives an inappropriate toast in which she trashes the very notion of marriage. Justine’s father (John Hurt) is a seedy ne’er-do-well cadging drinks and flirting with young women.
Most telling of all is the look of uneasiness on the bride’s face. Justine is damaged goods. Although she struggles to put on a happy front for the guests, it’s clear that she harbors some terrible demons. She may be schizophrenic. Whatever the diagnosis, Justine seems incapable of experiencing joy.
Her poor, sweet groom, who worships the ground she walks on, will spend his wedding night alone.
It’s impossible to underestimate the effectiveness of Dunst’s Oscar-worthy performance. She dominates the screen with a potent blend of sadness and sexuality. One moment we mourn for her; the next she has left us sputtering in frustration and anger.
And what’s astounding is that it’s almost a totally physical performance. Justine is talked out; she has exhausted the words that describe what she’s going through. We simply look into her eyes and know.
In its second half of “Melancholia” shifts much of the emphasis to the other sister, Clair. Justine has suffered a total collapse; Clair must now bathe her sibling, coax her into eating, nudge her toward some semblance of normalcy.
John has little sympathy for this long-suffering houseguest. He’s mostly concerned with studying a remarkable astronomical phenomenon, the appearance of new planet previously hidden by the sun and now drifting toward earth.
As this object grows larger in the sky, scientists assure the public that it will pass by without causing harm.
Somehow Justine knows better. “We’re alone,” she tells a unsettled Clair. “Life can be found only on Earth. And not for long.”
Von Trier does something very sneaky here. He initially presents Justine as a person whose madness has driven her to delusions about the end of the world.
And then he pulls a switcheroo revealing that just the opposite is true. Somehow Justine knows about the fate of the Earth, and that knowledge has driven her mad.
My words are inadequate to express the full import of this metaphysical sleight of hand. But within “Melancholia’s” viewing experience it is a devastating revelation, a shattering vision of the end of days, a hymn to human futility.
“Melancholia” is like “The Tree of Life” for hard-core pessimists (von Trier reportedly has suffered for years from depression). And like this summer’s Terrence Malick’s epic, it extrapolates from the story of one family generalizations about all humanity.
According to the Gospel of von Trier, our endeavors are futile, meaningless, empty.
But here’s the thing: No world can be meaningless if it can produce a film like “Melancholia."