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‘Melancholia’ / ‘Young Adult’

Plumbing very different depths

by Kaori Shoji

Lars von Trier (“Manderlay,” “Dancer in the Dark”) is just as famed for his works as for his strange statements to the press (such as a recent expression of sympathy for Adolf Hitler). He’s also frank about having been diagnosed with acute depression, disclosed in numerous interviews since 2006. Since then, von Trier has come out with two films that plumb the abyss of his turmoil: “Antichrist” (2009) and last year’s “Melancholia.” Both test the limits of filmmaking on the part of the director, and the capacity to hang on to sanity on the part of the audience.

It’s said that von Trier was strongly recommended by the producers to release these films in 3-D but he refused. Thank God for that. To behold these images in an extra dimension may have shattered the senses beyond repair.

“Melancholia” marries the highly personal (for von Trier) topic of clinical depression to the more universal concept of the end of the world. That the story compares depression with a huge rogue planet — the titular Melancholia — making a sudden appearance in our solar system and threatening to collide with Earth is both the film’s conceit and its defining factor.

And it’s no spoiler to say that the collision does happen — in the first act, in fact, as von Trier wastes no time in assuring us that our planet will be torn apart like a body trapped in some medieval torture instrument. Here he creates a visual sequence with more impact than “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and one can only imagine the inner hell von Trier had been immersed in, as his film takes a viciously operatic lunge toward total destruction.

Enacting von Trier’s depression and embodying the fate of Earth is Kirsten Dunst as Justine, a young woman suffering from severe distress and unable to function except in spurts. Still, she announces her engagement to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), upon which sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who starred in “Antichrist”) and her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), throw a grand wedding party for them at a resplendent manor house.

The wedding is a nightmare, however, with the thorny family matriarch (Charlotte Rampling) tossing off caustic remarks through clenched teeth and Justine running away from Michael to make love with a stranger right on the lawn. Not surprisingly, Michael makes a fast exit and Justine withdraws further into her shell of despair. Above her is the rogue planet, edging closer to Earth even as John assures her the collision can be avoided.

From start to finish, “Melancholia” is a web of poetry as only von Trier can weave it — see it at your peril, for its strands will clutch at your synapses and grip you in a hold from which it seems there is no escape.

Offering an almost bizarre contrast to von Trier’s consummate European art-house take on the tragedy of existence is the latest from Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Thank You for Smoking”). Reitman has carved out a position as Hollywood’s comedic auteur, and his latest film proves him a deeply cynical critic of American adulthood.

The protagonist is Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), who ghostwrites “Y.A.” (young adult) fiction for the teen crowd out of her Minneapolis condo. The series is coming to an end, and so is Mavis’ reserve of self-respect. Occasionally sleeping with guys she meets online and subsisting on bourbon, Coke and TV dinners, Mavis is miserable without really knowing it. Then she gets an email invitation to a baby-naming party hosted by her high-school boyfriend and his wife, and decides she’s gotta show up to rescue him from small-town obscurity.

Theron gets better with every role she tackles, but here she does what she does best: being a monster. Indeed, in “Monster” nine years ago she played a prostitute-cum-serial killer in heavy silicone makeup; in “Young Adult,” she’s almost as terrifying without the cosmetic artillery. The wonder is that an actress with Theron’s shimmering supermodel looks could actually depict so much neediness, seedy meanness, delusion and denial.

In high school, Mavis had been one of the in-crowd: privileged and beautiful. And she has chosen to be stuck in that time, because at 37 years old, nothing very privileged is happening in her life.

Back in her hick hometown with the inglorious name of Mercury, Mavis holes up in a motel, chugs whiskey like Gatorade after a workout, and calls her old flame, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). She’s, like, insanely busy, but would Buddy like to meet up for drinks?

The screenplay, written by Diablo Cody (of “Juno”), is spot on, charting Mavis’ psychotic patheticness while never stooping to pity or ridicule.

Theron’s powerhouse performance is matched by Patton Oswalt as Matt, the “fat geek guy” who had the locker next to hers at school. For reasons far more damaging than Mavis’, Matt is also stuck in his teenage past and can’t budge. The tragedy is that unlike Mavis, he’s clear-eyed enough to know it, but without the wherewithal to do a single thing.