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Coming from a director who actively courts a reputation as European art-cinema’s enfant terrible, Lars von Trier’s latest feat of filmic nihilism is a relatively genteel affair, especially as a follow-up to the rusty-scissors-to-the-clitoris hijinks featured in 2009’s Antichrist. And while its emotional impact is correspondingly dulled, Melancholia, von Trier’s apocalyptic tragedy of manners, is among his most conceptually accomplished efforts, approaching Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life as a work of outrageous beauty.

Indeed, Melancholia is virtually the anti–Tree of Life: Both films pair candidly intimate family portraits with humbling scenes of celestial violence but reach opposing conclusions. Malick views the world with a rapturous, spiritual reverence. Von Trier, ever morose, wouldn’t be bothered if it ended tomorrow. His self-admitted bouts with depression and anxiety are represented, respectively, by sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Both are participants, as bride and hostess, in an implosively calamitous upper-class wedding before they learn that a once-hidden planet (christened “Melancholia”) will collide, catastrophically, with Earth.

Performance-wise, both are superb, as is von Trier’s staging of these decidedly unhappy events. The film is divided into two distinct chapters and opens with a stunningly operatic prologue, as a series of surreal, slow-motion vignettes prefigure an extinction-level event. The introduction shrouds the film in a grim inevitability that dawns on its characters only belatedly, through an ingeniously conceived DIY end of days–detector. The crude device is the central totem of Melancholia‘s second chapter, in which Justine emerges from a catatonic gloom to savour the coming annihilation. Claire, in contrast, fretfully clings to the hope that her family will be spared until Melancholia’s impact becomes a breathtaking certainty. The blackly comic first chapter is devoted to Justine’s nuptials, which are no less a disaster as she commits a series of social disgraces and begins to slip into clinical despair.

That despair contributes to keeping Melancholia at a dispassionate remove, making it a film that commands admiration rather than surrender. It’s hard to care for a character that is so resolutely resigned to a belief in absolute nothing, though Gainsbourg does at least provide some outlet for audience empathy. On the other hand, it’s equally difficult not to marvel at Melancholia‘s singularly audacious vision. Leave it to von Trier to seduce us into applauding our own collective demise.