The exterior mirrors the interior and vice versa in Melancholia, Lars von Trier’s second consecutive allegorically autobiographical work about crippling depression (after 2009’s Antichrist), which he here confronts via the story of a wedding-gone-awry and a subsequent world apocalypse. Those two events are a vehicle for von Trier to explore both emotional and spiritual crisis while also proffering a pitch-black worldview with regard to God and life’s meaning, concerns that feature little of the overt glibness that plagued Antichrist, whose provocations and stylistic tics regularly undercut its psycho-horror, but remain issues that the Danish director treats at a frustrating remove. Von Trier still appears to care more for conceptual stunts than actual people and feelings, though at least he tries in this instance, commencing with a gorgeously wrought, if decidedly over-the-top, series of foreshadowing end-of-days tableaus set to Wagner before seguing into the more restrained action proper, in which Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) first glide, then wobble, and finally crash through their nuptials at an opulent and remote estate.
Justine’s crushing unhappiness is the cause of the escalating ceremonial catastrophe, though that affliction isn’t wholly without cause, given the squabbling between her lothario father (John Hurt) and his caustically cynical ex-wife (Charlotte Rampling), as well as the professional haranguing of her ad-agency boss (Stellan Skarsgård) and the constant reminders about the cost of the festivities from her sister Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) golf-loving bourgeois husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). After his expressionistic prologue, in which Claire is seen running across a quicksand-like golf course cradling her son, Leo (Cameron Spurr), and Dunst floats down a river in her white gown and gazes at the electricity emanating from her fingertips, von Trier splits Melancholia into two reflective halves, the first concerning Justine’s self-destructive sabotage of her wedding (and marriage), and the second focusing on Claire’s anxiety in the aftermath. Looming over the entire affair is a sci-fi conceit: A mysterious planet (dubbed Melancholia) has been discovered behind the sun…and is headed for a potential collision with Earth. Thus, literal Armageddon directly speaks to Justine’s inner chaos, which is driven by despair and the belief that there’s no God, afterlife, or purpose to our brief time alive, all sentiments that directly rebuke Claire’s apparent stance that social gatherings, family, and rituals are of paramount importance.
That ideological conflict is starkly addressed via a conversation between the two on the eve of destruction, and given von Trier’s rampant pessimism about man and religion, there’s little doubt what side of this divide his film will ultimately fall. Nonetheless, it’s something of a shock to find that the director refuses to overtly incite controversy, instead trying his best to understand—and, in his proxy Justine’s case, empathize with—his two-sides-of-the-same-coin sister protagonists. Trying isn’t doing, however, and Melancholia is ultimately beset by the same nagging problems that plague all of von Trier’s more subdued works—namely, that it never seems fully sincere, or engaged with its characters, in a way that might compellingly grip one’s heart or imagination.
While its opening is full of breathtaking imagery that portends a drama of epic emotional and literal scale, that sequence, like Antichrist’s similar moments, proves show-offy in a way that negates a good bit of its intended impact, and while the story’s plotting is assured, its astronomical conceit never feels as urgent as it should. Still, as far as candor goes, the film’s there’s-nothing-after-this convictions are occasionally potent, and are elevated by a forcefully forlorn characterization of clinical depression by Dunst, who—in a superb performance of madness and agony trembling beneath, and then decimating, warm, and cheery fake-smile façades—conveys inner and outer collapse through eyes increasingly blackened by hopelessness and body language crippled by despondence. She’s the cold, dark epicenter of Melancholia’s misery, and alongside Gainsbourg’s frantic flipside sibling, expresses the world-annihilating desolation and angst wrought by depression even when von Trier’s CG devastation and ruin comes off as yet another of the director’s semiserious poses.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.