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The Loss of It All

Melancholia (2011)

Christian Geisnaes/Magnolia Pictures

The Cannes Film Festival this year bestowed on Lars von Trier the rare distinction of being persona non grata after he expressed sympathy for Adolf Hitler. While his inflammatory Nazi talk was indeed inexcusable, Mr. von Trier was probably right drawing parallels between himself and a dictator reviled by the world. But unlike Hitler, Mr. von Trier does deserve our sympathies. After being taken to task by critics for systematically subjecting female protagonists to escalating cruelty throughout the “Golden Heart” and as-yet incomplete “U.S.A.: Land of Opportunities” trilogies, Mr. von Trier purposely did a 180 with “Antichrist,” in which the woman is the tormentor. But his critics only grew more vocal.

In any case, Mr. von Trier stubbornly ventures further down the “Antichrist” path with “Melancholia,” an apocalyptic piece of science fiction allegedly inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky. But Mr. von Trier’s latest attempt to draw a cosmic connection between women and nature is even less well thought out than his previous. In both films, women are primal. Unlike their clinical male counterparts, they succumb to hormones, mood swings and intuitions in Mr. von Trier’s universe. Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the protagonist in “Melancholia,” is a modern woman working in advertising who sabotages her own wedding reception because she foresees the end of the world. This ability is analogous to horses in her stable becoming restless because of their sixth sense, as Mr. von Trier crudely reveals.

Instead of fleshing out his grand theory into something profound, Mr. von Trier puts it squarely into Danish movie tropes that are by now cliché. The film begins with a huge wedding reception that recalls all those dysfunctional family reunions in “The Celebration,” “After the Wedding” and Mr. von Trier’s own “Breaking the Waves.” And Justine’s long-suffering sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), evokes the Katrin Cartlidge character from “Breaking the Waves.” Then there are the uninspired zooms and jump cuts that take away the ethereal quality achieved by the slow-motion prologue similar to the picturesque chapter headings also in “Breaking the Waves.” Love it or hate it though, you’ll need a moment to collect yourself by the time “Melancholia” is over. Though far from Mr. von Trier’s best, its power is still undeniable.


Opens on Sept. 30 in Britain and on Nov. 11 in New York and Los Angeles.

Written and directed by Lars von Trier; director of photography, Manuel Alberto Claro; edited by Molly Malene Stensgaard; production design by Jette Lehmann; costumes by Manon Rasmussen; produced by Meta Louise Foldager and Louise Vesth; released by Magnolia Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Kirsten Dunst (Justine), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Claire), Alexander Skarsgard (Michael), Kiefer Sutherland (John), Stellan Skarsgard (Jack), Jesper Christensen (Little Father), Charlotte Rampling (Gaby), John Hurt (Dexter), Udo Kier (Wedding Planner) and Brady Corbet (Tim).


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