For the second time this season, filmgoers are getting sucked into the black hole of a pretty young woman's emotional problems. First came Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene, starring Elizabeth Olsen as a young woman hobbled by post-traumatic stress disorder after fleeing an abusive cult. Now comes Lars von Trier's Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst as a young woman in the grips of an unspecified mental illness, which causes her to swing between sociopathic aggression and near-paralysis. Martha was a small, careful, rigorously life-size gem about the weird stasis that can follow trauma; Melancholia is an operatic explosion that connects one woman's sickness with the literal annihilation of the earth.
In some ways, it feels like Lars von Trier has been hungry to wipe out humanity from the beginning. Breaking the Waves (1996) tracked a woman of childlike innocence who whores herself to death for the man she loves. Dancer in the Dark (2000) concerned a woman of childlike innocence who's struggling to save her child and winds up executed by the state. In both films, the female protagonists seemed designed to elicit maximum sympathy. (In addition to her childlike innocence, Dancer's lead character was nearly blind and played by internationally beloved art-pop pixie Björk.)
Compared with von Trier's previous tortured angels, Melancholia's female lead is repellent. In the film's first half, she lazily wreaks malevolent havoc at her own million-dollar wedding; in the second, she's all but comatose, moved only by a vague horniness for the end of the world. In both halves, Kirsten Dunst comports herself well, seemingly surprising even herself with her initial bursts of malevolence before sinking into a deep, tangibly aching funk. But the extremes of her behavior cast her character as something both more and less than human—a symbol, which is much harder to feel for, and much easier to disengage from, than a person.
Similar if less-pronounced types fill out the cast, with Charlotte Gainsbourg as our villainous heroine's long-suffering sister, Kiefer Sutherland as Gainsbourg's fatally romantic amateur-astronomer husband, and Charlotte Rampling as the sisters' spiritually troubled mother. Gone are all Dogme 95–ish austerity measures, as von Trier brings his nihilistic fairy tale to life with gorgeously composed shots and all sorts of previously forbidden cinema magic. Despite the formal break between the film's halves, Melancholia casts a cumulative spell that swept me along in slowly growing dread while keeping me strangely disengaged emotionally. No doubt this is by design—when von Trier wants to gut us, he does it. (See Björk dangling from a noose.) Instead, we're trapped in the numbness that devours our heroine—a formally perfect trick that nevertheless limits the film's impact. It's a film you watch, rather than feel, but it's an incredible thing to see.