Photo by Magnolia Pictures
Last year, Lars Von Trier hyped his latest movie, "Melancholia," as the first of his movies with an unhappy ending. This is from a guy who ended his Palme d'Or-winning movie, "Dancer in the Dark," with his lead actress dangling from the end of a rope.
Von Trier has a real gift for inciting controversy, as his cringe-inducing spiel at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where he compared himself to a Nazi, proves. His movies are no less divisive. You might love his movies or hate them -- I've gone back and forth -- but Von Trier's works are never boring. I'd much rather see a flick that infuriates me, as "Dancer in the Dark" did, than something as tasteful and tepid as, say, "J. Edgar." (And by the way, when did Clint Eastwood go from being a Hollywood badass to making the cinematic equivalent of Pottery Barn furniture?)
"Melancholia" opens with a series of stunning, dreamlike friezes that looks like they were pulled from some apocalyptic fashion spread, culminating with a shot from space of a planet colliding with Earth. There are no spoilers here. Von Trier's tells you right from the beginning that this is a movie about the end of the world. Cut to Justine (Kirsten Dunst) at the reception to her wedding. She looks luminous in her wedding dress and the event, which is in a castle and couldn't be more lavish. Yet fissures soon start to appear in the wedding's storybook façade.
Justine's mother (Charlotte Rampling) delivers a turd-in-the-punchbowl speech about the futility of marriage. Soon afterward, somewhere between the speeches and the cutting of the cake, she begs off to take a bath. It turns out that she is so depressed and dead inside, she can't even fake her way through the reception. By the end of the night, she's discovered having an impulse fling with a guest in the middle of a golf course, and her marriage, which really just started, comes to a crashing end.
Sometime later, Justine is still in the throes of a very deep funk, living in that same castle, owned by her fussy brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). As it becomes more and more obvious that the planet Melancholia is not going to pass the Earth harmlessly but collide with it, Justine seems to draw strength from the impending doom as John and Claire fall apart. Just before the bitter end, Justine tells her panicking, desperate sister, in a creepily matter-of-fact tone that "Life on Earth is evil. It won't be missed."
Think of "Melancholia" as the bizarro, feel-bad version of "Tree of Life," only without dinosaurs or Sean Penn. Terrence Malick's movie reveled in the pantheistic wonder of nature. "Melancholia" declares, in the most artful, gorgeous way, that everything sucks.
Over the years, Von Trier has increasingly mined his very public struggles with depression, and this has made him a much more interesting filmmaker. His last movie, "Antichrist," which featured a traumatizing scene involving scissors, is not the product of a happy, healthy mind. It is, however, quite possibly a masterpiece. "Melancholia" is an even more personal movie; the logic and story of the movie feels very much informed by his mental illness. Though this movie doesn't quite rise to the unhinged heights of his last movie, but "Melancholia" is something that you'll remember, even if it ticks you off.