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Melancholia (15)

Von Trier’s disaster movie has woman trouble.

Melancholia (15)
dir: Lars von Trier

Like Lars von Trier's 2009 picture, Antichrist, which was nominally a horror film, Melancholia makes the same promises as a straightforward genre piece without delivering on them. It asks how many conventions of the disaster movie can be withheld before a film is disqualified from membership of the genre. Whether one can draw a parallel with the director's behaviour this year at Cannes (how much kinship with Hitler can a director claim before being ejected from a major festival?) is no question for a humble film review.

Arriving at a country hotel several hours late for her wedding reception, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) marvels at the strange, red star in the sky. As the slow-motion prologue - a kind of woozy visual overture - hints, trouble lies ahead. The star turns out to be a wayward planet. It is named Melancholia, rather than something reassuring like Cuddles or Fluffy, and it is on a collision course with Planet Earth. The really bad news is that it isn't due to arrive until after the wedding speeches.

None of this is known at the reception, where Justine's sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), tries to keep the peace among a family that has been on the brink of its own apocalypse for years. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling) loudly declaims the institution of marriage while her father (John Hurt) sits at the next table, stealing cutlery and pawing women. Claire's husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), gripes about how much the reception is costing him. There is a pointless competition to guess the number of beans in a jar. A better challenge might have been to explain how two English parents could produce one American daughter (Dunst) and another (Gainsbourg) who is French.

The scenario may whet the appetites of admirers of Deep Impact (deadly comet), Armageddon (deadly asteroid) and Meteor (take a wild guess) - but those movies' missions to avert catastrophe are nowhere to be found in Melancholia. What it does have is the soap-opera quotient and starry cast of the best-known disaster flicks (such as The Towering Inferno), in which acting royalty are subjected to extreme health and safety hazards. On the verge of death, everyone discovers that what matters is love, or altruism. It's never bespoke tailoring or a decent conditioner, is it? Perversely, von Trier makes all but a handful of his characters oblivious to the impending doom, which precludes those emotional lessons typical of the genre. Without the knowledge that their lives are about to be abbreviated, everyone goes on being as selfish as ever.

While it is obvious what Melancholia subtracts from the disaster movie, its main addition is announced more gradually. By the point where Justine takes a bath in her veil when she should be cutting the cake, it would appear that she is suffering from depression. The suspicion is confirmed when Claire grabs the bouquet from her sister's listless hands and tosses it on her behalf. The threat of the approaching planet corresponds so closely to Justine's mood that it becomes a fully fledged manifestation of it: the graver her condition gets, the closer Melancholia looms. It's as if Ava Gardner's bad hair day were directly responsible for the destruction in Earthquake, or the ocean liner in The Poseidon Adventure capsized because Shelley Winters had hit menopause.

It is disproportionate yet highly inspired to use the destruction of the earth as a symbol for one person's depression, but nothing is ever simple where von Trier is concerned. The supernatural connotations he attaches to Justine's emotional instability threaten to trivialise an otherwise intelligent portrait of depression as an annihilating force. Late in the day, Justine announces that she "knows things", such as how many beans there are in that jar. Her offhand approach to the end of the world verges on the malevolent. "The earth is evil," she says flatly. "We don't need to grieve for it."

If von Trier keeps pursuing his delusions about the volatile enigma of womankind and its impact on the environment, as he does here and in Antichrist, viewers may start to ask whether he wasn't made for higher pursuits than turning out middlebrow retreads of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?