Even if you look past his jokes about Hitler, Lars Von Trier can be a tough pill to swallow. An inveterate button-pusher too talented to be ignored, the man will drag your cringing psyche through the depths of his soul just for kicks. And if along the way he taps into some greater universal truth, well that's just gravy for him.
Von Trier's new film, "Melancholia," is told in two parts, each named for one of two sisters, Justine (Kirstin Dunst), a brillaint mainic-depressive, and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). We find them on the day of Justine's wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), a lavish affair taking place at a mansion owned by Claire's husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland).
The second half focuses on Justine, Claire and John, and their son preparing for the passing of Melancholia. It's a fast-approaching planet that John, a knowledgeable amateur astronomer, and scientists swear will swing clear of Earth—but Claire isn’t so sure. It's not until those around her are gripped with fear that Justine pulls it together, acting as a calming influence on her sister and nephew.
The film is packed with stunning, if occasionally nonsensical, imagery, and Dunst's Best Actress prize at Cannes was well earned—playing a manic-depressive with that level of maturity and discipline is not easy. Dunst always has you believing in her performance, even if you find dubious the alleged motivations within Von Trier's script.
"Melancholia" finds Von Trier gleefully sadistic, setting his sights on the audience. His previous film, "Antichrist," sparked all manner fury for its scenes of genital mutilation. And so this time around, Von Trier lets his camera rest on every blade in sight, even a cake server, just long enough to make you wonder.
But it's all in the name of art, as the shots go a long way toward building the sense of foreboding one might naturally feel as the apocalypse approaches. Von Trier creates mood with the best if them, but his narrative here is rather choppy and inconsistent, with seismic changes occurring without notice or comment, or characters acting in ways that don’t jibe with their past.
"Melancholia" is aptly titled, evoking the evoking the emotion advertised, and there are moments of true wonder and beauty, but it ain't at all fun—though to be fair, that's not Von Trier's mission.
"Melancholia" opens in limited release