Two sisters, a wedding reception and the end of the world — these are the building blocks of Danish director Lars von Trier's aptly titled Melancholia. The title refers to the state of mind suffered by Justine (Kirsten Dunst), who has just gotten married in a futile effort to normalize her life and battle her debilitating depression. "Melancholia" also happens to be the name of a giant planet that is hurtling through space on a collision course with Earth. Will it result in the end of life as we know it, rendering meaningless all that happens in Trier's long and difficult movie?
Well, yes and no. The wayward planet does represent a fiery end to all things. That's not a spoiler: In an eight-minute opening sequence of almost breathtaking beauty, slow-motion images are matched with the grandeur of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" to paint a vivid portrait of our complete annihilation. From the first shot, in which Justine slowly opens her eyes as birds fall from the sky behind her, we know exactly what's happening. But what follows is anything but meaningless, which is no mean feat given our suddenly reduced circumstances.
After the overture, the film is divided into two roughly hour-long parts. The first, called "Justine," details diminishing returns at the wedding reception. As the night unfolds, relationships deteriorate and events spiral out of control. People worry vaguely about the Melancholia gradually falling from the sky, but the one that takes hold of Justine represents a more immediate threat. The film's second part, "Claire," is named after Justine's well-adjusted sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Patience with part one is rewarded here as the film finds its purpose in the shifting responses to impending doom, made all too real by the subtle work of Dunst, Gainsbourg and a supporting cast that includes Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling.
Trier claims firsthand knowledge of his subject matter. He's an admitted phobic who makes films about the U.S. but has never been here because he's afraid to fly. Trier occasionally suffers depression severe enough to prevent him from working. He's also a founding member of the "Dogme 95" collective of Danish filmmakers, which pledged to forego big budgets and high technology, emphasize story and theme, and use mostly basic techniques like handheld cameras and location shoots. All of this is on display in Melancholia. Trier makes trying films as a sort of homespun therapy for his own ailing soul.
The surprising thing here is that we share in that experience to some degree. It's oddly cathartic watching the end of the world play out, even as we've been expecting it for a couple of hours. The director has half-jokingly called this a happy ending, if only because his heroine gets what she really wants: validation of her view that the world is a truly horrible place. That's probably going a bit too far. But the sense of relief it provides is more than a little troubling. And that, one suspects, might make Trier very happy indeed. — KEN KORMAN
Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Kiefer Sutherland and John Hurt