Critics have been comparing Lars Von Trier's Melancholia--about Earth's fatal collision with a mysterious planet that's also called Melancholia--with Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life--a luminous mediation on God, life, and death--since the two premiered at Cannes in May.
For me, though, there's no contest--Malick's film is the clear winner. Not only are The Tree of Life's images more beautiful, they're also more meaningful. They point beyond themselves to something deeper and universally true. Melancholia's images, as beautiful as they may be, are undermined by a ruthless nihilism and a lack of imagination; they mean nothing beyond the obvious.
Just as problematic, for me, was the movie's oppressively gloomy tone and Kirsten Dunst's subdued performance. Melancholia is essentially a one-note picture, with the brooding Dunst as the sun around which everything--a lavish wedding party and the end of life as we know it--orbits.
I wish I could say that I felt some empathy for her character (she plays Justine, a young bride suffering from clinical depression) but I can't. I couldn't connect with her, just like I couldn't connect with the rest of Trier's movie. The whole time I felt as restless and bored as Dunst looks during the wedding party in the film's first half.
If Melancholia has any power at all (and it has very little), it comes from the sound design and the use of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. In the movie's final shot, as Earth and Melancholia collide and life is extinguished in a brilliant burst of flame (trust me, this isn't a spoiler), the deep rumble of the planets and Wagner's triumphant music vie for dominance. It's a breathtaking finish to a forgettable art house film.