It's the end of the world as we know it, and Lars von Trier feels ... well, depressed.
That's not an entirely unusual state for Mr. von Trier, the cinematic provocateur whose highly stylized indie film spectacles — including such acts of big-screen cruelty as "Antichrist" and "Dogville" — have plumbed the depths of human depravity.
His latest, "Melancholia," is a film about the spectacular destruction of the Earth — before the end of the first reel, a long-hidden planet sneaks out from behind the sun and blows the whole planet to bits. It's a disaster movie of sorts, like "2012" for the Euro-friendly art-house set.
The difference is that the destruction that has Mr. von Trier down is on a much smaller scale than any Hollywood blockbuster. With "Melancholia," he offers a gorgeous, self-serving lament about the general miserableness of everything — marriage, family, work, advertising, wealth, capitalism and human relationships in general. It's (by design) a movie only people who hate everything can love.
After opening with a jaw-dropping slow-motion setpiece that ends when the two planets collide, Mr. von Trier steps back in time to capture a different sort of disaster: a wedding.
The bride and groom, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), arrive hours late to their own reception, held at the mammoth estate of Justine's tightly wound sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her endlessly frustrated husband (Kiefer Sutherland). She's just in time to watch her bitter, selfish parents (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) hurl insult-laden speeches at each other, and to be pressed repeatedly by her advertising company boss (Stellan Skarsgard) to complete yet another product tagline before the night's over.
Mr. von Trier spins viewers through an hourlong fun house of domestic triviality and tragedy — isn't it so maddeningly awful to be comfortably middle class? — before scaling down even further with a second hour focused on Claire, and Justine's declining mental state.
It's a moody, misanthropic fantasy that throws up its hands and declares that the world is so awful it would be better if it was just over — and then goes ahead and literally smashes the planet into a million beautiful pieces.
That's right, beautiful. Many of Mr. von Trier's previous films were constricted, formalistic exercises in intellectualized sneering — part juvenile Brechtian brutality, part Artaud-inspired cinema of cruelty. They reveled in their off-putting ugliness, their lack of emotional hooks; the idea was to be difficult.
But "Melancholia" is an altogether different sort of creation — at once both bigger in scale and more intimate in its humanity. It's melodrama recast as mega-drama. And this time around, Mr. von Trier has made it lush, sweeping and intensely romantic, alternating between candlelit golden hues and endless starry vistas. Neurotic and apocalyptic, rarely entertaining but often amazing, it's a movie that's both hard to watch and hard to look away from.
Which is probably the point. Like so many depressives, Mr. von Trier seems overly taken with the perceived grandiosity of his own little story. The difference is that he can stage a planet-sized catastrophe to prove he's right.
CREDITS: Written and directed by Lars von Trier
RATING: R for language, brief nudity, emotional violence
RUNNING TIME: 136 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS