No filmmaker inflicts pain like Lars Von Trier. The master of excruciating situations that try one's patience, sympathy, will to live, Von Trier never lets his audience off easy. But for all the pain of the endeavor, the pleasures in Melancholia, Von Trier's latest film, are many, due to how achingly beautiful it is. But be warned; it's the ache that comes with our individual mortality and the earth's.
It's also the ache that comes from the title condition, a psychological state that robs all situations for depressed bride Justine (Kirsten) of joy. The pleasures Von Trier provides are mixed with an almost metaphysical sense of useless sorrow.
Often the images are striking — not least those involving the vast planet called Melancholia that's on a collision course with earth. The film opens with a prelude of hypnotic images that seem torn from a gallery of allegorical art, each one expressing in tableau the entire mood of the film which is, in a word, Wagnerian. There are also wonderful moments like an aerial shot of Justine and her long-suffering sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, mostly looking exhausted and nervous) riding horses up a long road in morning mists. Von Trier's cinematographer, Manuel Alberto Claro, seems to work with light the way the Old Masters worked with tempera. Everything glows, everything looks its best.
The opulence on hand for the wedding, in the film's first half, called "Justine," is lavish, the bad behavior at times amusing, at times grimly fascinating, such as the wanderings and mood swings of Justine — including long baths, babying her nephew, sex with a random guy on the golf course, and frigidity with her new husband, all while the party continues — and at times as irritating as any pretentious party you'd like to flee.
In Dunst, Von Trier has found his muse: she's more than equal to every task — to glow, to fret, to insult her obnoxiously over-bearing boss, to beseech her cold, insensitive mother, to mope, cry, and go to some deep place behind the eyes while informing us that life on earth is evil and trivial; there's no need to grieve for it, no one will miss it.