If Lars von Trier put as much effort into making sense as he does into teasing and offending he would be a film-maker of world-class talent. His most recent act of provocation, you will recall, was to offer an apologia of Hitler (which he later said was a joke) that duly got him thrown out of the Cannes festival. Probably the most interesting thing he could do at this point in his career would be to say nothing at all, but that's not going to happen anytime soon.
The film he was promoting at the festival, Melancholia, turns out to have something even bigger than Hitler in its sights. It's Lars counting down to – deep breath – the end of the world as we know it, and he does so with his signature mix of visual bravura and head-in-the-clouds silliness. One has only to watch the long opening montage of images – birds falling from the sky in slo-mo, planets spinning off their course, a bride floating in a watery bower – to feel instantly plunged into that trough of bafflement Von Trier so delights in creating.
At times it's close to a Malick-esque fugue of transcendence, pumped up by thunderously loud bursts of Wagner. But where Malick says, Behold these wonders and rejoice, Von Trier is more ominous, more Ozymandian: look upon them and despair.
The overture complete, the film splits a narrative down the middle, each half named for two sisters. Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, arriving with bridegroom Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) at an opulent country house for a wedding reception that's been planned by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and paid for by brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). With the couple already two hours late, the reception staggers from bad to worse: Justine's prankish father (John Hurt) is sniped at by her embittered mother (Charlotte Rampling), her boss (Stellan Skarsgård) is badgering her about work (she's an advertising copywriter), and the wedding planner (Udo Kier, mainstay of Eurocreep cinema) covers his eyes because he can't bear to look at the bride who's ruined "his" wedding.
You can hardly blame him. Justine, who seems at first merely vague, turns out to be the full Von Trier fruitcake – tearful, skittish, self-destructive, maddening. That much is clear once she snubs her gentle uncomprehending husband and sneaks off for al fresco sex with a stranger (Brady Corbet). When Claire tries to pull her through the dark vale of depression, Justine meets her sisterly solicitude with near-catatonic blankness: even her favourite meatloaf "tastes like ashes". The film lurches from one social calamity to the next in a manner reminiscent of Altman's A Wedding and, particularly, that other Danish family disaster Festen, yet the engine of its woe is, for a while, mysterious. The eerie mood of foreboding seems to emanate from Justine. Does she know something we don't?
The second half of the film suggests that she might. Claire, as if she hasn't enough to worry about, is obsessively watching the skies for an ice-blue planet, Melancholia, that's been hiding behind the sun. Allegedly this planet does a "dance of death" with Earth every few millennia, but always avoids collision. Despite the assurances of her amateur astronomer husband, something tells Claire that this time their luck will run out, and with so much to lose – her young boy, her privileged life – she's in a mortal panic. Von Trier doesn't go the traditional route of cosmic doom: the wedding guests have gone, and there appears to be no television blaring global terror or social breakdown. Here the impending cataclysm is prefigured by the horses in the family stable going nuts and a background rumble that waxes in volume: apocalypse soon?
In contrast with Claire, Justine becomes a model of serene stoicism. "The earth is evil," she says, "there's no need to grieve for it". You might find this attitude just as infuriating as her earlier dead-eyed neurasthenia, yet Kirsten Dunst somehow works against the chilling grip of her director to make herself watchable, if not quite bearable. She joins a parade of leading ladies whom Von Trier has tested to the very edges of humiliation and despair – Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, Björk in Dancer in the Dark, Nicole Kidman in Dogville and, spectacularly, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist. Not since Alfred Hitchcock has there been a big-name director so enthralled by female masochism. But there must be a great persuasive energy in Von Trier, because all of those performances, with the exception of the hopeless Björk, have been vivid and unsettling.
What renders Melancholia somewhat short of a smash – I mean the film, not the planet – is Von Trier's thick ear for the way people talk to one another; it's either school-play banality (Hurt's stupid jokes, Rampling's charmless barbs) or high-falutin philosophical blather, with nothing in between. At times one is tempted to echo the famous objection Harrison Ford made on reading George Lucas's script for Star Wars: "You can type this shit, Lars, but you sure as hell can't say it." Consequent upon this is the air of unreality that infects all of his films, an obtruding sense that we are watching "movie" behaviour rather than the human sort. Yet there is a quality about Von Trier that keeps us involved. Perhaps it's the sheer extravagance of his misanthropy, the determination to tell us the worst about ourselves. Or it might be simpler than that. Emerging from this fable on the end of days I found an afternoon of late September sunshine, the next Von Trier movie a long way off, and just then life seemed very hard to let go of.
The Debt (15)
Starring: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain
Remade from Israeli thriller Ha-Hov, this sombre story of revenge and guilt carries echoes of the Eichmann case. A trio of Mossad agents are detailed to kidnap a fugitive Nazi (Jesper Christensen) – "the surgeon of Birkenau" – in mid-1960s East Berlin and bring him to Jerusalem for trial. Much of the drama occurs in the safe house where the three agents (Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas) hold their quarry in an atmosphere of escalating personal tension; when the plan goes awry a tough decision is made, which will return to haunt them 30 years later. The director John Madden handles the moods of suspicion and recrimination adroitly, until Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds as the trio's older incarnations are brought to a reckoning – and the film's dramatic credibility suffers a serious late collapse. A terrific first hour, all the same.
Red State (18)
Starring: Michael Parks, John Goodman, Melissa Leo
American Psychos, Part 1. The director Kevin Smith calls this "a parlour trick of a movie", which is one way of describing a Waco-style face-off between the FBI and a heavily armed clan of right-wing Christian fanatics. Watch for the deceptive opening, seeming to concern the antics of three horny high-school friends before swerving off course into the death wish of a nutso pastor (Michael Parks). John Goodman plays the unfortunate Fed called in to deal with the siege. Smith, who made his name on low-budget slacker stuff (Clerks, Chasing Amy), decided not show this to US critics, but lifted that embargo for English ones, perhaps sensing our affection for heavy ordnance and the grotesque reaches of American fundamentalism. Funnily enough, it's his most watchable movie in years.
The Woman (18)
Starring: Sean Bridgers, Pollyanna McIntosh
American Psychos, Part 2. Suburban family man and lawyer Chris (Sean Bridgers – think a straight-man Will Ferrell) is out hunting one day when he spots a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) prowling in the woods. So he captures and imprisons her in the cellar, enlists his wife and kids as jailers, and sets about trying to "civilise" her. As you do. Is it social satire or horror movie? The writer-director Lucky McKee wants to keep us guessing, and for a while Bridgers's chilling alternation of charm and sadism recalls something of Terry O'Quinn's demonic patriarch in The Stepfather. Too bad it descends into a crude attack on misogyny, though torture porn fans will not feel hard done by.
Red, White & Blue (18)
Starring: Noah Taylor, Amanda Fuller
American Psychos, Part 3. British independent filmmaker Simon Rumley pieces together a story of strangers meeting, first amorously, then calamitously. Central to it is Amanda Fuller as Erica, a nymphomaniac in white boots who can barely support herself but keeps the promiscuous males of Austin, Texas, fairly busy. Only fellow boarding-house resident Nate (Noah Taylor) treats her as a friend, though his past as a US Army interrogator in Iraq spells trouble down the line. Franki (Marc Senter), a wannabe rockstar who looks after his ailing mother, will make a tragic discovery that connects him to a one-night stand with Erica some time back. Rumley's acute observation of these marginal lives seems to position the film as an eccentric romance, until an out-of-nowhere revelation tips it, kicking and screaming, into psychotic darkness. The three leads are superb, Fuller in particular conveying a spiritual damage that has no outlet other than casual sex.
What's Your Number (15)
Starring: Anna Faris, Chris Evans, Blythe Danner
Anna Faris, the Goldie Hawn de nos jours, plays another of her ditzy blondes in this production-line chick flick. Here she's Ally, who reads in a magazine article – where else? – that women who've had more than 20 lovers are the least likely to find a husband. Oh no! Ally's up to 19! Will the next one be "the" one or is she doomed to a life of singledom? Chris Evans, permanently chowing on junk food, is the next-door neighbour who's keen to avert the crisis. Faris isn't a bad comedienne, but the cumulative pressure of American entitlement, unfunny sex banter and a happy ending seen from a mile off makes this anything but a pleasure. Martin Freeman provides respite – ie. five minutes of actual comedy – as one of the fortunate exes.
Broken Lines (15)
Starring: Doraly Rosa, Paul Bettany, Harriet Walter
Some good acting enlivens this modest and not altogether believable drama of thwarted passion in North London's Finsbury Park. Dan Fredenburgh and Doraly Rosa collaborated on the script and take the leads. He's grieving the death of his father, an old-school Jewish tailor, and unsure about marrying his fiancée (Olivia Williams); she's a waitress struggling to live with her boyfriend (Paul Bettany) after his boxing career has been disabled by a stroke. The first-time director Sallie Aprahamian makes good use of the urban locations, and the sense of an era coming to an end – a tailoring business without an heir – is also strong. But the device of one lover spying on another through an uncurtained rear window, and the subsequent discovery thereof, is a dramatic convenience too far.
Starring: Taylor Lautner, Maria Bello, Lily Collins
Cover your eyes. A more gormless attempt to cash in on a young star's 15 minutes would be hard to imagine. Taylor Lautner, the ever-unshirted teen werewolf from the Twilight movies, carries his first lead role without much troubling to act – how could he, equipped with only Sumo glares, sculpted abs and monotone voice? He's the unlikely target of an Eastern European no-goodnik who's after a list of spies encrypted on Lautner's mobile phone, with the CIA, represented by Sigourney Weaver and Alfred Molina, also in pursuit. The plot will have you bamboozled; the dialogue will have you cackling with derision. He can always go back to modelling.
Cane Toads: The Conquest 3D (PG)
I'm afraid so: a documentary, in 3D, about... toads. Specifically, the South American cane toad, transported to Australia in 1935 in an effort to combat the beetles that were munching through sugar cane crops. Unfortunately, the toads weren't content with a single task, and started spreading faster than an online rumour. An army of travelling dustbins could not swallow down more food, and Australians have been stumped ever since to halt their march. The tenacity and adaptability of the creatures are remarkable: if they were better-looking they'd have it made.