The very first thing Lars Von Trier does in his most recent film is destroy the world. This turns out to be a smart move. Being shown that the end is near in dreamlike snatches, even if you don't really believe he'll go through with it in the final reel, makes some of the dodgier patches of Melancholia (Magnolia DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming) easier to get through. That's not to say the film itself is dodgy—as is typical of the Danish writer/director's mature work, it's masterful, visually sumptuous, surprising, and provocative. But as has been typical of Trier's work all along, it boasts its share of distracting idiosyncrasies. There are moments in Melancholia that are as transfixing as anything else you'll see onscreen this year, though ultimately those parts slightly outweigh the whole.
The dreamlike/nightmarish opening invokes his last film, 2009's polarizing Antichrist, but immediately after the title card Trier cracks a visual joke: a gaudy white stretch limo trying to navigate a winding little rural drive. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are late for their wedding reception at the opulent country estate of Justine's sister Claire (Antichrist's Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her rich-prick husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). Jostling among the guests with a handheld camera, just like the old Dogme 95 days, Trier captures the typical rites of a big family wedding. Of course, this being a Trier film, in Justine and Claire's family Dad (John Hurt) is a grizzled eccentric and Mom (Charlotte Rampling) a harridan cynic whose wedding toast culminates with her spitting "Enjoy it while it lasts" at the couple while the rest of the guests' jaws drop. And then there's some ridiculous business about Justine's self-satisfied boss (Stellan Skarsgård—yes, Alexander's father) trailing her around the party and hounding her for a tagline for some luxe ad campaign.
With Trier's lens right there, in the formal-wear scrum, he can best capture Dunst's extraordinary performance as her mood droops and her behavior disintegrates. Justine, it seems, suffers from depression, and you can watch its dull, hollow pall creep slowly over Dunst's features, transforming them by millimeters. Even the way she hesitantly nips a morsel of wedding cake off a fork proffered by puppyish manboy Michael telegraphs her mounting despair. By night's end, not only is her hours-old marriage in ruins, but she's noticed that a particular star in the sky isn't there anymore.
That's because it's been eclipsed by Melancholia, the name Trier's script gives to a rogue planet zooming toward Earth. If that sounds like an overblown metaphor, it doesn't play that way, in part because the movie pivots 180 degrees at the halfway point to focus on pulled-together, supportive Claire. Months later she brings the all-but-incapacitated Justine back to the estate to nurse her with meatloaf (not a joke) and the beneficial presence of her young son Leo (Cameron Spurr). As Melancholia hurtles closer, John reassures Claire that it will hurtle right by, missing the Earth, but the horses in the stables stay spooked. Before long, Justine seems to achieve a certain calm, and Claire is the one barely keeping it together.
Melancholia divides into two stories about two sisters shot in two different styles. The shaky-cam footage of Justine's reception/breakdown emphasizes the warm glow of candles, incandescent bulbs, and a social gathering, while Justine's recovery in Claire's home is more stately and tinted by cool Nordic half-light reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice, a film that Melancholia brings to mind in more ways than one. In the end, Trier has made a film about the fragile constructs we build for ourselves to ward off our fate in the implacable gears of the universe, and when he arrives back at the critical moment, it packs a suitably apocalyptic wallop. But the first half's extended detour through upper-class kookistan seems more than a little out of the way to get where he's going, leaving each set of halves feeling somewhat disconnected.
Yet he manages some extraordinary filmmaking here. The reception sequence, a few eye-rolling wobbles aside, can stand up alongside the great weddings of cinema storytelling. And once his story starts to embrace its underlying sci-fi basis, Trier surprises and delights over and over again. He creates suspense with a child's toy and evokes looming doom with everything from Melancholia itself, never visibly moving but always threatening, to insects deserting the very soil like the proverbial rats fleeing a sinking ship. If nothing else, Melancholia is worth seeing for another subtly brave performance from Gainsbourg and a revelatory turn from Dunst that relentlessly undercuts any sense of unreality or far-fetchedness, whether it's death by planetary collision or a creative director working on her wedding night. Melancholia may be CGI, the golf-course-ringed setting may be a rented location, Sutherland may be a moonlighting TV actor, but in almost every moment Justine is real. m