Lars von Trier makes long, slow-moving, thought-provoking, fascinating movies. They're unsettling, disturbing, different. The hand-held camera work can be off-putting. And yet, I found "Melancholia" a gripping experience. Of course, the end of the world is a gripping experience, too. Everyone thinks about it, wonders about it.
Combining the end of the world with a fancy, fantastically expensive wedding at a gorgeous estate is a way to get a lot of characters involved in a rather unreal situation, one that brings out both the best and the worst in people. Think of Thornton Wilder's novel, "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," or Robert Altman's movie, "A Wedding." Both involved disparate groups of people, one to mourn, one to celebrate.
We have a wedding reception in "Melancholia," too, with Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) honored at a party thrown by Justine's sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), who constantly reminds Justine just how much he is spending on the party. The fine ensemble cast also includes Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt as Justine's parents and Stellen Skarsgard (Alexander's father) as an ad executive who is Justine's boss and as tyrannical, petty and sadistic an employer as ever existed.
Troubles with their limo cause Justine and Michael to be very late to the party, so things are very tense. In addition, Justine is seriously depressed, which allows the director, always thinking of ways to keep his audience interested, to provide a double meaning, with melancholia another word for depression, and also the name of the big, blue object in the sky.
Since we never get off the estate, we don't know if this huge object is visible to other people on earth, and when you think about it, it's not very important. But John watches it through his telescope, and his son, Leo (the excellent Cameron Spurr) is fascinated by it. It's coming closer, too, and we watch it growing from a speck in the night sky to a looming menace like the planet in "Independence Day."
Dunst and Gainsbourg play off each other with real style, and the glorious Dunst always is a pleasure to watch. Her performance as the young bride earned her Best Actress honors at the Cannes Film Festival last spring.
Von Trier titles the first half of the movie "Justine" and the second "Claire," but Justine is the leading figure throughout. Sutherland is splendid, too. Von Trier's films always are interesting to watch, even if they tend to be a little long.
Melancholia opens today at the Tivoli