Melancholia, Lars von Trier's latest assault on audiences, does an admittedly fine job of making you feel depressed -- as a tool for making you empathize with someone who is drowning in clinical depression, it's a success. What it isn't, however, is drama, or storytelling, or anything other than another attempt by the director to see how far he can go to alienate an audience.
Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a bride who, as the film opens, is on her way with her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) to a lavish wedding party thrown by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire's wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). While everything seems to be pleasant on the surface, there are intimations that Justine doesn't really want to have this party; she disappears for long stretches of time, hiding in one of the many rooms of Claire and John's mansion. The behavior of the sisters' wildly different divorced parents - life of the party Dexter (John Hurt), and severe, joyless Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) -- lets us know that these young women didn't grow up in an emotionally stable household.
This extended party sequence makes up the first half of Melancholia, and it's something of a tease. Von Trier utilizes handheld cameras to give us a sense of intimacy -- there are passages that remind us of the offhand casualness of Jonathan Demme's roving camera in Rachel Getting Married -- but he isn't actually interested in getting you to care for any of these characters.
Those intentions are made clear in the movie's second half, when Justine, suffering from a near-catatonic depression, returns to her sister's home so that Claire can attempt to care for her. While she's there, amateur astronomer John keeps an eye on a large celestial object that some are worried will crash into Earth and wipe out all of existence. As Claire, her young son, and Justine eventually realize that their fates are sealed, they continue to bicker about how to live their remaining moments.
Von Trier is a provocateur. Judging by his public utterances at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and pretty much all of his films since Breaking the Waves, he seems to desire nothing more than to get a strong reaction from viewers. From his sadistically joyless musical Dancer in the Dark to his mutilation fever dream Antichrist, his later work seeks primarily to offend. And while great artists certainly must shake up the status quo from time to time, Von Trier's willfully perverse work offers no hope of any kind. He's an intellectual nihilist, and the most-defensible explanation for his work is that his complete lack of faith in humankind isn't justified as long as people continue to feel what he creates is so troublesome.
There are few filmmakers alive with his level of technical skill. His films all look amazing -- even when they're ugly, they're supposed to look that way. There are shots in Melancholia of the celestial sphere colliding into our planet that can only be described as majestic. But Von Trier is like Terrence Malick minus the core belief that there is real beauty in the world worth preserving and that people are capable of transcending life's pain. Melancholia could just as easily and truthfully been titled Tree of Death.