The end is nigh in Melancholia, writer-director Lars von Trier's latest wading pool of misery. If you had two hours and seventeen minutes to live, how would you spend them? Weeelll, probably not in the company of Melancholia. Cinema's self-styled enfant terrible starts from a couple of potentially fertile ideas: the wedding reception of a deeply depressed woman named Justine (an impressively raw Kirsten Dunst) and doomsday explored on ground level, rather than in the customary cartoony action context. Von Trier has also assembled some interesting actors and crafted some striking imagery to be sure (much of it Dunst lain emotionally or physically bare). But it ends up largely feeling like an empty exercise, not unlike life as the auteur sees it.
The clunky first half of Melancholia concerns that wedding reception, which puts Justine through unbearable paces and results in predictably horrible behavior on her part. The groom (Alexander Skarsgård) tries to turn her world on with his smile; bride's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) harangues Justine not to be depressed—not a useful strategy; their mother (Charlotte Rampling) gives a toast about the dismal insensibility of marriage; Claire's husband John (Keifer Sutherland) rubs in the cost of the reception, which he has carried; and Justine's boss (Stellan Skarsgård) absurdly hounds her for an ad-campaign tagline.
Had he dialed up the pitch-back comedy of making practical and emotional demands on someone utterly incapable of complying, Melancholia might have been wicked fun, but von Trier has bigger fish to fry in the film's second half, a monument to dying and denial (the film's sole setting, John and Claire's country mansion, serves as its own kind of monument: to the delusions of perfection and permanence). As a planet named Melancholia follows a seeming collision course toward earth, the film shifts into existential horror, von Trier cannot help but win pathos from the contemplation of "the end" and the innocent presence of Justine's young nephew.
It takes a fair amount of deliberately paced wheel-spinning to get to the point: that depression may be the best preparation for dealing with nature's way, or at least a damn sight better than willful ignorance. "All I know is life on earth is evil," says the clear-eyed, calm Justine of the film's second half, once it's her sister's turn to sink into despair. It's enough to make the Coen Brothers look like happy-go-lucky optimists.
Since von Trier blurs out character detail, the film must stand on its broad-strokes symbolism, and let's face it: it doesn't get much broader than naming a planet "Melancholia." The few but potent graceful and moving passages—including an artfully composed prologue set to (who else?) Wagner—keep threatening to make Melancholia work as a tone poem, but the director's emotional sadism and laughable bluntness in his symbolic approach leave us in the cold, to pick through the art-auction catalog of Manuel Alberto Claro's cinematography and contemplate Dunst's award-winning suffering.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]