You’ve probably heard a lot about Lars von Trier’s publicity problems (involving Nazis and stuff), and you may recall his picking-the-wings-off-Björk misogyny in Dancer in the Dark. Let’s not dwell on that and instead focus on his other problem, the more serious one. You have to go all the way back to 2003’s Dogville to find a trace of the unflinching director of domestic tensions, the arguable heir to giants like Carl Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman. Meanwhile, a whiff of Antichrist, Von Trier’s histrionic 2009 psychodrama, still lingers—the kind of ripe embarrassment that often signals early retirement.
How wonderful (and rueful) it is, then, that us dyed-in-the-wool Von Trier–haters will now require a rethink. Melancholia marks the major return of the artist’s vitality, and serves a reminder of his considerable ability as a builder of suspense. Granted, the movie starts off with nothing less than the end of the world: two planets colliding in Kubrickian grandeur to the strains of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. But this is actually Von Trier settling in to the cozy confines of sci-fi melodrama; his prelude is followed by the wicked sight of a stretch limo stranded on a tight curve. For the next two hours, the writer-director will try to achieve the same level of cosmic futility within the parameters of a wedding, a castle-like mansion and a ritzy estate—and he’ll get there, amazingly enough.
And if Von Trier has gotten there, it is largely due to the vivid yet mysterious presence of Kirsten Dunst (a sentence I never thought I’d type). Dunst has had her moments, notably as the doomed Lux in The Virgin Suicides. But mostly, even in cushy Hollywood gigs, she’s seemed lost in a haze, her offscreen problems dulling her potential. As Melancholia’s Justine, though, she does an impressive swan dive, starting off as a giddy bride (freshly wed to True Blood hottie Alexander Skarsgård, no less). As the reception wears on, though, we watch her unravel, fleeing before the cake is cut so she can take a leisurely bath, wilting in the glare of her divorced mother (the ferocious Charlotte Rampling) and falling into misery. Justine escapes into the night. Relieving herself on the golf course, she looks up to the sky—humanity at its most primal—and sees a dark star that’s been haunting her.
Depression is a magnificent subject for Dunst (and her director, who’s revealed his own battles with it). It is during Melancholia’s second half, after a ruinous conclusion to the wedding, that the real magic happens, with our heroine hardened into a wry, cynical Cassandra—the voice of Von Trier himself. Justine has company: sister Claire (Gainsbourg, bringing the sullen, flushed cheeks) and her fatuous, wealthy husband (Sutherland), who insists the heavenly body will harmlessly pass in a flyby. But Justine knows better, her ache having evolved into a clean sense of apocalyptic liberty: “The universe is evil,” she offers. “No one needs to grieve for it.”
This, as it happens, is a perfect summation of the director’s most cutting instincts, now leavened with a dash of compassion and taunting familial competition. How Von Trier has stumbled into clarity is one of the beautiful ironies of Melancholia—it may be that by attempting something as banal (and potentially commercial) as a Michael Bay flick, he’s limited himself to a few essential points. The whiz-bang conceit hasn’t made him a softie, just more direct. Even if Von Trier takes a few missteps—a bit of violent horse-whipping feels like something from the old torture-master’s playbook of yore—he’s back, bruised and that much closer to brilliant.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf