This new film from notorious, torturous Danish helmer (known for his Dogma style) Lars Von Trier is more metaphysical and subdued than usual, as the intimate, vivid production works well off the universal trappings of his narrative.
Melancholia stars a top-flight Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgaard, and Kiefer Sutherland, and doesn't have the dramatic wallop of earlier Von Trier like Breaking The Waves and Dancer In The Dark. But, he elicits another varied, mature performance from his female headliner, now Dunst as Justine.
The tale is divided into two sections, first "Justine", and the other, "Claire", her older sister as played by Gainsbourg, who has developed as an impressive character actress, generally in low-budgeted forays. She displayed quite the amount of fortitude in the last nightmarish drama from Von Trier, Antichrist.
Justine, a marketing copywriter, is about to wed the love of her life, Michael, an affable Skarsgaard of cable TV's True Blood and very good in the remake of Straw Dogs. It's not clear where the nuptials are taking place, though on the remote, sumptuous estate of Claire and her wealthy astronomer-husband John, a decent Sutherland, who are raising a son Leo (Cameron Spurr). As Gaby and Dexter - Justine and Claire's parents, Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt make for strange, bickering folks whom the adult children don't really resemble. A dysfunctional gathering isn't helped by the couple's late arrival.
From the opening montage ( quite an amazing eight-minutes), one gets the impression that something major is going on the galaxy with a disoriented Justine in her bridal gown focused on the camera. Von Trier uses a wonderful Wagner selection to create a foreboding mood with slow-motion activity involving descending birds, a horse losing its gait after shadows have enveloped a pristine garden. Weeds and water are amidst Justine. Earth will never be the same again and the narrative division reflects the disparate outlook on an impending large-scale demise.
The filmmaking employs jump-cutting within a hand-held personalized approach (for those familiar to Von Trier or like powerful ones like The Celebration) juxtaposed with more lushly rendered (if occasionally overly expressive) interludes complements of painterly lensing by Manuel Alberto Claro. If there is too much vagueness during "Justine", then "Claire" brings more of a familial clarity when a self-destructive Justine remains with Claire and a money-minded John after the wedding goes awry. She becomes convinced of a possible extinction as the titular planet continues on its course while Claire becomes more panic-stricken for Leo. John tries to get him through it as a game.
Of this genre hybrid, gradually there is some meditative force to an evocative, if unsteady picture made more accessible by Dunst's layered, highly watchable portrait of an unusually troubled heroine (possibly mirroring the filmmaker's personal plight). More often than not, "Melancholia" is an arrestingly artful psychological disaster movie which has an odd cathartic translucent quality about it. Yet, something that may be too disdainful for those not into Von Trier's apocalyptic frame-of-mind now.