If you can brush aside the furore generated by Lars Von Trier's ill-advised comments at the Cannes Film Festival, there is plenty to admire about his latest film. Aesthetically dazzling from start to finish, with the possible exception of Kirsten Dunst taking a pee on a golf course, Melancholia is a striking take on the classic 'end of the world' scenario.
Far from the CGI fest that one might expect from such a premise, which involves a rogue planet hurtling towards the Earth, Melancholia is stark in its foregrounding of the human condition ahead of special effects. This is encapsulated within the character of Justine (Dunst), whose severe depression and disaffection with life threatens to overshadow her wedding to Michael (True Blood's Alexander Skarsgård).
The tension is palpable as her family, including sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland), desperately try to keep Justine from spiraling into a depressive episode on her big day. Their efforts seem futile though, as the bride plunges into sadness and desperation (hence the aforementioned urination incident, which will make greenkeepers weep).
Yet as the world's end becomes an increasingly distinct possibility, Justine takes on a whole new dimension and the narrative tightens around the main protagonists - leading to a highly personal approach rather than a global one.
Kirsten Dunst delivers an engrossing performance in an extremely difficult role to tackle, requiring her to portray extreme sadness and serenity at various points. The fact that she is so instantly convincing, despite the lack of an explanatory backstory being spoonfed to the audience, showcases her superior skills and Von Trier's notable ability to produce emotionally raw work from his leading actresses.
Charlotte Gainsbourg, who becomes increasingly prominent in the narrative, portrays the most identifiable character in the film. Her panic to protect her son Leo from the oncoming doom, despite the seeming futility, is both disturbing and compelling to watch unfold. Furthermore, although his gravelly growl borders on a Frank Butcher impression, Kiefer Sutherland proves to be an adept proponent of dry humour - much needed given the general tone of the film.
Arguably though, the main star is Von Trier's lens. It beautifully and emotively depicts the Earth's devastation in the opening and closing sequences, laden with stark, poetic imagery. A foreboding score superbly enhances one's perceptions and ramps up the harrowing nature of events while crucially never undercutting the splendor of the visuals.
Melancholia is far from flawless however. Von Trier's affinity with Dogme filmmaking necessitates the use of hand-held cameras for the early interior scenes, with the excessively shaky camerawork being an unnecessary distraction. The deliberately heightened melodrama of the petty feuding among the supporting characters during the wedding party is also an annoyance, but fortunately gives way to more palatable material before too long.
Despite minor irritations, Melancholia is a fascinating movie that sets Lars Von Trier's sensibilities on a collision course with the broad precepts of a Hollywood disaster flick. The results are devastating. It's the end of the world, but not as we know it...