The logline of director Lars von Trier’s latest film could actually be described in a manner to lure in genre fans (“At the home of a millionaire scientist, as a rogue planet hurtles toward Earth, do the premonitions of a fragile young woman hold the key to survival for the gathered inhabitants?”), but Melancholia unfolds at a pace, and with a mannered coyness, to match the emotional remove of its lead character, rendering its impact diminished.
The day of her wedding to Michael (Alexander Skarsgaard) should be one of the happiest of her life for Justine (Kirsten Dunst, in a strong performance), an advertising junior executive. She’s in a deep funk, however. Against a backdrop of dinner reception bickering between her hostile mother (Charlotte Rampling) and kindly but detached father (John Hurt), Justine begins to withdrawal further and further into a shell, confounding Michael and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose put-upon husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) is picking up the tab for the event. After much drama, the evening ends with Justine and Michael a couple no more.
The second chapter of the film opens with Justine severely depressed, and unable to even get out of bed. Claire tends her every physical need, but news of a new planet that is supposed to pass perilously close to Earth in its orbit makes her anxious. As that improbability seemingly gets ready to become a reality, Justine eventually achieves a sort of zen calm, in contrast with her sister’s increasing hysteria.
Billed by the famously provocative filmmaker as “a psychological disaster movie,” Melancholia is gorgeous in many respects (cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro’s tones and handheld camerawork are evocative), but also swollen and portentous. “Artful hooey” might be the best critical shorthand, even though there are flashes of dark humor embedded throughout. A sort of tragicomic opera, Melancholia isn’t a film that for one instant one holds tremendous regret over watching, and yet it doesn’t connect in a lastingly emotional way, because for every moving or interesting thing that occurs, there’s another frustrating moment, or missed opportunity to dig into the marrow of characters’ relationships.
As with von Trier’s last film, the wildly divisive Antichrist, Melancholia makes use of a stunningly artful opening credit sequence (in this case presaging later events) and a partitioned narrative. The problem is that, while its title and story have both literal and metaphorical heft, von Trier seems to shy away from a more subjective point-of-view that would give his film emotional punching power. Melancholia is in theory about how depressives can react more calmly in stressful situations, already expecting the worst to happen. Dunst gives a captivating performance, her best in years, but the audience is still left on the outside of her character, looking for a way in. (Magnolia/Zentropa, R, 130 minutes)