Melancholia (Magnolia Pictures, R)

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Here, von Trier focuses less on realistically depicted depression and dysfunctional family mechanics and more on the strange beauty of the apocalypse.

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Although one of the more divisive filmmakers on the globe, it’s hard to argue with the fact that Lars von Trier is one of the most important—his movies, good or bad, have a tendency to get people talking, thinking, arguing, feeling. His new film, Melancholia, may or may not be his best film (I vote not, but I’ve already encountered several who think that it is), but either way, it does feel like something of a culmination of all of his previous work. Perhaps this is because depression is the one overriding theme in his oeuvre, and he’s never dealt with it as head-on as he does here.

His and our vessel for getting there is primarily Justine (Kirsten Dunst), who at the beginning of the film (excepting the film’s actual opening, which comes chronologically last in the world of the film) is newly married to a boy named Michael (Alexander Skarsgard); they’re in a limo on the way to their wedding party, and seem genuinely happy. This is about the only point in the film where much of anybody seems happy, given that as soon as the young couple arrives at the wedding party they have to deal with their crappy family and all of the familial politics and bullshit that tends to bring. Leave it to Lars to know that the two biggest causes of depression are marriages and families. (Wait—is that just one thing?)

For much of the first half of the movie we see Justine willfully holding up the party by hiding in the bathroom, traipsing around on the property, or otherwise keeping her distance from the gathering. Meanwhile, we’re given about an equal amount of time floating around those who are waiting for her to come out of her selfish funk and just let everyone get on with it. This section of the film is particularly effective, given how easy it is to sympathize with both sides of the problem. Among those waiting for her are her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, here working with von Trier on his second consecutive movie after 2009’s Antichrist—she’s a real trooper); Claire’s testy, rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland); her boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard); her mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling, here stealing the few scenes she’s in, as always); her father Dexter (John Hurt); and a handful of others. While most of the screen time goes to Justine, Claire, and John, we still get a good feel for how and why Justine is acting this way: Dexter and Gaby are estranged, and are aggressively crappy with each other in a way that seems familiar.

But wait! In addition to all of this, we learn in that aforementioned opening scene that the world’s about to end—a planet dubbed Melancholia is on a collision course with earth. (You don’t have to dig too deep to get to the symbolism on that one…) Melancholia’s approach is what takes up the bulk of the second half of the film, which is ostensibly Claire’s half (the two parts are named after the sisters; Justine’s comes first). Here, von Trier focuses less on realistically depicted depression and dysfunctional family mechanics and more on the strange beauty of the apocalypse. It’s hard to describe in the best possible way, and von Trier is impressive in visually depicting what is essentially the mental landscape of at least one of the characters. He’s aided in this visual quest by his new cinematographer, Manuel Alberto Claro. (Claro is only new to von Trier (Lars’ usual DP is Anthony Dod Mantle, who sat this one out for whatever reason), but not to film in general; I know him for his work on Christoffer Boe’s films, most notably the underrated 2003 gem Reconstruction.) Regardless, as reliably great as Mantle’s work is, I have to give Claro the edge here. Turning this kind of dark subject matter into something weirdly pretty is quite a feat, and not only does Claro achieve it, but the rest of the cast and crew do, as well. Funny that what seems likely to be devastating to the audience ends up being empowering. | Pete Timmermann

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