Lars von Trier's 'Melancholia' Is a Dark, Challenging Masterwork

[caption id="attachment_91919" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Magnolia Pictures"]Melancholia[/caption]

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying Lars von Trier is one of the world’s most important filmmakers.

When the “Dogville” auteur showed up at the Cannes Film Festival with his latest masterwork, “Melancholia,” early pundits positioned it as the film to push him into the mainstream. No wonder. It marks von Trier’s first stab at science fiction and stars “Spider-Man” star Kirsten Dunst in a special-effects laden drama about the end of the world. If there ever were a film to bring him a new legion of admires, "Melancholia" would be it.

Now, despite glowing reviews and a Cannes Best Actress win for Dunst, the potential for “Melancholia” to become a crossover hit is up in the air, and it's the filmmaker’s own doing.

For the uninitiated: At the press conference for "Melancholia" in Cannes, von Trier made some remarks saying he sympathized with Hitler. He was swiftly kicked out of the festival after being declared "persona non grata" by higher-ups. The director has since confirmed that he will no longer address the press in any manner following this blowout. Maybe that's for the best.

[caption id="attachment_91943" align="alignright" width="220" caption="Magnolia Pictures"]Melancholia[/caption]

We know it ain't easy, but try to put aside your thoughts on the man behind the camera, and watch "Melancholia" on its own terms when it comes out this Friday. It’s one of his most accomplished works, and that’s saying a lot.

The film launches with a stunning montage showing the end of the world, and in von Trier’s hands, it’s a glory to behold. The narrative beginswith the most depressing wedding ever, where new bride Justine (Dunst) struggles, and fails, to keep a happy demeanor during a lavish reception orchestrated by her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It’s soon evident that Justine is suffering from depression and has yet to fully recover, if ever. The epic scope of “Melancholia” comes into play during the film’s second half, when the planet Melancholia, which is heading towards Earth, threatens all human life. Justine reacts passively to the terrifying scenario. Claire, not so much.

As always, von Trier gets a career-best turn out of his leading lady  in this case Dunst). This is the director who put Emily Watson on the map with “Breaking the Waves,” helped Gainsbourg land the Best Actress award in Cannes for his controversial horror-pic “Antichrist,” and proved Bjork could act in “Dancer in the Dark.” In “Melancholia,” Dunst sinks into Justine's depressed mindset so fully, the line between between "acting" and "being" is blurred. You might not like her character, but you'll you admire Dunst for taking Justine on, warts and all.

The rest of the cast is exemplary as well, the standout being Gainsbourg, who arguably is the film's other protagonist.

But in the end, this is von Trier's show. That means it's depressing as hell, expertly crafted, dark, challenging and very personal. He's not one to hold back, and neither should you. Run out and see it.