I’d been anxiously awaiting Lars von Trier’s Melancholia ever since first getting a gander at the trailer back in April, mainly hoping that it would be an improvement on the incoherent flop that was Antichrist (2009). That film only contained one moment that really left me stunned: a shot of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in mid-coitus against the trunk of a fallen tree, a tangle of ghostly arms and legs sticking out through the branches. It was like something out of Hieronymous Bosch. But the rest of the film felt sloppily put together and at times borderline ludicrous. Melancholia revisits many of that film’s themes—the violence of nature, the failure of science, apocalyptic doom—but handles them with masterful control rather than chaotically. It’s not only the best film I’ve seen so far this year, it also ranks among von Trier’s finest work.
For Melancholia, von Trier has jettisoned many of his most offensive trademarks, like his tendency to humiliate and terrorize his heroines, or the scenes of genital mutilation that horrified so many audience members in Antichrist. He is interested in something far grander and even more devastating here: the whole world gets mutilated in Melancholia, named for a mysterious planet slowly barreling toward Earth, monitored worriedly by Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, in a rare case of an actress returning for a second von Trier film). Claire’s rationalist husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) insists that the planets will avoid colliding; she is less certain. Meanwhile, her chronically depressed sister Justine (a very good Kirsten Dunst) considers the thought of cosmic destruction with cold, clear-eyed acceptance, even anticipation. In one of the film’s many striking images—one that wouldn’t feel out of place in a D. H. Lawrence novel—we see Justine lying naked on the bank of a pond, bathed in Melancholia’s moon-like light, as if inviting it to ravish her body. Nervous and cagey through most of the film, rarely does she look so serenely beatific: apocalypse becomes her.
And apocalypse becomes the film itself, which left me feeling exhilarated (if drained) instead of confused and betrayed, the way Antichrist did. The end of the world is rapturously, pristinely beautiful in Melancholia—gone is the weedy, visually murky Gothic-horror feel of Antichrist. Here, the brutality of nature is sublime, courtesy of some of the most luminous cinematography ever to appear in a von Trier film and expert use of music (Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde prelude, which evokes both quiet despair and epic disaster). If Antichrist gave us one great image, Melancholia overwhelms us with them; it’s a grand, magisterial work, one that recalls (and deserves to be ranked with) the masterpieces of Andrei Tarkovsky, clearly an influence on these latest von Trier films (Antichrist was dedicated to him; Melancholia variously references The Sacrifice, Solaris, and Andrei Rublev). Where Antichrist insists on the violence of nature by shredding everything in the frame, including itself, Melancholia renders that same violence with painterly care. Never has a disaster movie made disaster feel so exultant.