MOVIE REVIEW: 'Melancholia' turns out to be director Trier's finest effort to date



3 1/2 out of 4 stars

For the entirety of his 40-plus-year career, writer/director Lars von Trier has been a lightning rod for controversy and is regarded by even those who like him as a deranged egomaniac. He started including the "von" in his name in the mid-'70s even though he's not actual Danish royalty. During a press conference earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival promoting this film, he rambled on about how Hitler had some "good ideas." Less than 24 hours after he made his remarks, Cannes banned him for life.

This guy is a pretentious gasbag of the highest order and is probably not the kind of person you'd ever want to meet, but he does know a thing or two about making a good movie. "Melancholia" might just be his finest effort to date.

The movie opens with a 10-minute prelude/overture that is a series of ultra-slow-motion images set to Wagner's unnerving "Tristan and Isolde." Not until the movie has completely finished does any of it make a lick of sense and in retrospect it is stunningly brilliant. The remaining 120 minutes is split almost exactly in half with the two parts being titled "Justine" and "Claire."

For about 15 minutes, we are completely in love with Justine (Kirsten Dunst), an ever-smiling, happy-go-lucky girl who is more than a tad late in arriving to her own wedding reception. It's being hosted by her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland) and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) at their home, a full-blown castle with more rooms than a midsize hotel and a private 18-hole golf course.

Even though Justine and her husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard, "True Blood") have kept their guests waiting for hours, almost everyone is in relatively good spirits. Then come the buzz-killing toasts by the divorced parents (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) of the bride and the best man/Justine's boss (Alexander's real-life father Stellan) and whatever good vibes might have been present completely vanish and, with them, Justine's managing of her crippling depression.

What follows is beyond what could ever happen at your typical wedding reception where your uncle gets hammered and falls down in a heap or a fistfight starts. What transpires here is, well ... embarrassingly cataclysmic. If Justine's parents hadn't opened their big yaps, it all might have turned out better.

In part two, in what looks like to be a couple of weeks after reception, the morose Justine arrives back at the castle looking and acting worse than before and it's now Claire who is starting to show signs of cracking. Not about her sister but rather the seemingly eminent destruction of Earth.

The only recently identified planet Melancholia -- which is about the size of Jupiter -- is on a collision course with Earth. John, an astrology buff -- and with that distinctively authoritative, gravely, "24" Sutherland baritone -- reassures Claire that all is well and this will be just a near miss.

Whether intentional or not, Trier has channeled both Hitchcock and Kubrick into a film that categorically defies description. As painful as most of it is to watch, there's something oddly cathartic about it. Trier wrote it after his own bout with depression and that comes through in every frame.

Never one to shy away from exposing or agitating any raw emotional nerve, Trier pushes the limits of human frailty here yet always accompanies it with wickedly sardonic humor. It's a disconcerting mix but one that achieves balance.

It also falls in lock step with this truly weird 2011 fall season of extremely well-made dramatic films that both enlighten and depress. (Magnolia)