“Melancholia,” Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s latest provocation, opens with a stately fantasia of slow-motion, backward-motion and otherwise distorted visions of the end of the world. Call it “The Tree of Death.”
But while director Terrence Malick spoke in platitudes in that other meditation on life and death, von Trier is ripping open his tortured psyche.
Famously depressive, he wants you to know that he is right and the rest of us — going to work, having children and getting on with our lives — are benighted fools. An exercise in self-justification disguised as something more profound, “Melancholia” can be accused of many things, but at least it doesn’t mince words.
Kirsten Dunst, in a lacerating performance that appears to expose the torment beneath the surface of Spider-Man’s dimpled sweetheart, plays von Trier’s alter ego, a bride who would rather be anywhere other than her own wedding reception. Justine wants neither her husband (Alexander Skarsgard) nor her ad agency promotion, although perhaps this is because her boss (Stellan Skarsgard) is hounding her for an ad tagline throughout the reception.
The reasons for her depression are never given, but her philandering father (John Hurt) and disgusted mother (Charlotte Rampling) offer ample clues. Maternal duties have been taken up by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is hosting the reception with her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), in their waterfront mansion, surrounded, as John takes pride in pointing out, by an 18-hole golf course.
The second half of the film concerns Claire, whose good fortune is no match for Melancholia, a planet that has been hiding behind the sun and is now growing ominously larger, hurtling toward Earth. She has much to lose, including her son (Cameron Spurr). John, a von Trier stock character, is the voice of reason, stocking up on supplies in case the power goes out.
But as the end of the world looms, Justine grows stronger, while Claire breaks down. “The Earth is evil,” Justine says. “We don’t need to grieve for it.”
Von Trier has called his film “romantic,” lavishing it with Wagner’s death-besotted “Tristan und Isolde,” and it is, in that adolescent way. But it’s also fundamentally dishonest: If von Trier truly believed what he says, he would have offed himself a long time ago.
It’s also derivative, the first part of Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration,” another film about a dysfunctional family party in an isolated mansion, the second of “The Sacrifice,” Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ingmar Bergman-indebted, valedictory film about the end of the world. It’s not so much German romanticism but Swedish melancholy that looms large here, and it is hard to watch Dunst and Gainsbourg’s expertly acted scenes together and not see Bergman’s women, two halves of a disintegrating hole.
Still, after the cheap shocks of von Trier’s “Antichrist,” “Melancholia” is a welcome comeback for a director who often lets his misery get the best of him. If only he were more generous with the rest of us.
(At the Tivoli.)