Lars von Trier‘s Melancholia is a morose, meditative in-and-outer that begins stunningly if not ecstatically and concludes…well, as you might expect a film about the end of the world to wrap itself up. Von Trier’s ensemble piece “isn’t about the end of the world but a state of mind,” he said during this morning’s press conference. My thinking exactly.

But Melancholia is a much more striking thing for where it starts and what it attempts than how it plays.

And yet I believe it’s the best…make that the gloomiest, most ambitious and craziest film Kirsten Dunst has ever starred in. Way bolder than Spotless Mind. It’s kind of La Notte-esque, now that I think about it. Dunst pretty much scowls all through Melancholia and does three nude scenes. What I really mean, I suppose, is that she’s never operated in such a dark, fleshy and grandiose realm.

I can understand Cannes critics going “wow!” over the film’s audacity or whatever (the moody-gloomy beauty, the melancholy current), but I can’t honestly see how they could call it a top contender for the Palme d’Or. It’s basically just a stylishly nutso, intriguing, semi-bombastic ensemble piece about despair in the face of eventual ruination. You know…the kind of thing that most HE readers have in their heads each and every day.

I felt elation only in the very beginning, and somewhat at the very end. But otherwise it mostly felt like a meditative slog. It’s not without its intrigues but lacking tension and a through-line and a story, really, of any kind. I don’t imagine this film will be embraced by pro-family Christian groups, or even the rightwing end-of-days crowd (although…naah, forget it).

I tried to ask Von Trier what the F-U-C-K tattoo on his right-hand fingers was about. A tribute to sensual joysex? The middle word in life? A nihilistic fuck-off statement? But press conference moderator Henri Behar didn’t pick me.

After the stunning, tableau-like, slow-motion opening, a brief impressionistic symphony, Melancholia gets down to basic business. Situation, circumstance, character, mood.

Justine (Dunst) is getting married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and her control-freak sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has orchestrated the wedding with husband Keifer Sutherland‘s money, and not the funds of Dunst’s father (John Hurt). Charlotte Rampling has a couple of scenes as Dunst’s blunt, cynical mom.

But right after the wedding Justine (allegedly based on Von Trier himself) slips into gloom-head nihilism and suddenly stops being attentive to Skarsgaard and starts meandering and moping around and fucking some guy (Brady Corbet) she barely knows near a golf course sandtrap.

Did I mention that the Earth is apparently on some kind of collision course with a planet called Melancholia, which has recently emerged from behind the sun? And that no one turns on a TV news station throughout the whole film, and that Gainsbourgh goes online only once?

The movie is never “boring” but only rarely gripping. It’s Von Trier, after all, but when all is said and done it’s basically a downhill swamp-trudge with tiny little pop-throughs from time to time.

There’s an overhead tracking shot of two horseback riders galloping down a trail during a foggy morning that’s heartstoppingly beautiful. That plus the beginning I will never, ever forget.

Melancholia is definitely better than Von Trier’s Antichrist — I’ll definitely give it that. Death dance, death art…when worlds collide. Von Trier had a mildly intriguing idea here but didn’t know what to do with it, or he perhaps didn’t care to try. All he does is riff about how tradition and togetherness are over and very few of us care. My sense is that Von Trier experimented and jazz-riffed his way through most of the filming.

All I know is that I feel the way Dunst’s Justine feels during most of the film, and I’m not dealing with the end of the world. Vaguely scared, unsettled…something’s coming.

Forget Von Trier’s Nazi remarks during the press conference. He’s turned into a very dry and clumsy kidder. Nothing is even half-sincere — absurdist put-on all the way.

“My next film…and Kirsten demanded it…will be a porn film,” Von Trier said at one point. “That’s how women are. Really hard-core. That’s what I’m writing now.”