11/09/2011 07:25 am ET Updated Jan 09, 2012

Movie Review: Melancholia

See that image of Kirsten Dunst with the electricity crackling from her fingertips? Would that suggest Lars von Trier's Melancholia had a fraction of the magic of that image.

Indeed, as I tried to think of something nice to say about the overrated Danish filmmaker, I thought of that image and came up with this:

Von Trier can be quite the visual fabulist when he puts his mind to it.

On the other hand, he can't create characters or tell a story to save his soul. Once upon a time he could. But he's immersed himself in a kind of cinematic contrarianism that challenges an audience to maintain interest in what he's doing.

If it does, it will be rewarded -- at the very end -- with something eye-popping or, at the least, startling. But it's a long slog to get there, one that requires the patience of a saint -- which seems only fair, given von Trier's devilishly crude attempts to be a cinematic troublemaker.

I'm not going to reference his previous film, Antichrist, but will focus instead on his latest, Melancholia, which reaches theaters Friday (11/11/11) after playing at film festivals and, for the last month, on video on demand.

Melancholia consists of a few moments of startling imagination, between which are sandwiched almost two hours of dreary, opaque storytelling. The film opens with a series of super slow-mo images -- of fantastic imagery that, in essence, compresses the film's entire story into that handful of visuals.

The key is the final moment of that prologue, when another planet crashes into Earth, as seen from outer space. This image is reprised -- from a different angle -- at the film's conclusion, when we see the imminent collision from Earth, from the viewpoint of the characters around whom von Trier has built his film.

In between, well, sorry, but that's von Trier's meditation on meaninglessness of life as viewed from the perspective of a young woman in the throes of depression. She's played by Kirsten Dunst, first glimpsed at her wedding to an inarticulate and unshaven (but tuxedoed) groom, played by Alexander Skarsgard. She's acting funny and gets weirder, until she essentially says (with her actions) to call the whole thing off.

The wedding itself is an elaborate, sour party thrown by Dunst's anxious sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her fed-up (but rich) husband (Kiefer Sutherland). There's bad blood between the bride's mother (Charlotte Rampling) and father (John Hurt), who shows up with two rather coarse-looking tarts in tow. But, really, it's an aimless sequence, meant to show us how unplugged and unhappy Dunst is. Whee.

The second half of the film essentially studies Dunst's depression -- which means watching her sit and lie around being depressed. Double whee. Oh -- and after telling everyone that the new planet which has just popped out from behind the sun is just a harmless body bypassing Earth, Sutherland admits that, in fact, scientists have concluded that it will crash into us and destroy life on Earth as we know it. Good times.

Von Trier's early slow-motion doesn't just presage the story fragments to come; its pace is meant to tip us to the way the rest of the film will unfold.

Melancholia is not aggressively execrable like Antichrist. It's just pretentious, dull and decidedly non-earth-shattering.

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