The first eight minutes of Melancholia is so breathtaking, it's hard to imagine how the director can possibly follow it. Think of it as an overture — not of sounds (though a Wagner prelude is soaring in the background), but of rapturous slow-motion images, a kind of dreamscape of what director Lars von Trier sees when he contemplates the end of world.
Seriously, the end of the world. He sees a manicured garden where something's slightly off, and then you realize what's wrong — every shrub has two shadows. He sees a bride struggling through a forest as tree roots tug at her gown, a horse falling back on its haunches, birds dropping from the sky, a woman sinking in a golf green that has turned to quicksand. And then finally, he sees two enormous planets swirling in a tragic slow-motion dance of death.
All of those images figure in the story that follows — the story of Justine, a bride who's being tugged downward in real life not by tree roots, but by depression. As played by Kirsten Dunst, Justine rarely stops smiling as her storybook wedding goes off the rails. But behind the smile, her eyes go someplace far, far away as her parents offer toasts — her father by insulting his ex-wife, her mother by condemning marriage altogether.
At least there's Justine's sister: calm, sensitive Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who keeps everyone around her sane.
Not for much longer, because as we crash Justine's wedding reception, director Lars von Trier is preparing a crash that's more literal — a crash of planets that will spell an end to far more than squabbles about marriage. Justine is the first to notice the speck in the sky that turns out to be the planet Melancholia, hurtling toward Earth on an apparent collision course.
As it looms closer, it will cast those second shadows in the garden by moonglow, and cast a pall over the usually optimistic Claire. (Though not over her science-minded husband; played by Kiefer Sutherland, he's been calibrating his telescope, and he's convinced the collision will be more like a near miss.)
Still, Claire finds herself undone by the planet's approach. Not Justine, who has always thought the world was headed for hell in a handbasket; she feels vindicated, and becomes strangely calm and self-possessed as the film careers toward its conclusion.
So does director von Trier, who is himself famously depressive, and who has here found a gloriously misanthropic response to the Claires of the world — to everyone, in fact, who has wished after one of his throbbingly downbeat movies that he would just cheer up. When Justine expresses her worldview — "life on Earth is evil," she says, and "nobody will miss it" — you can't help feeling it must be close to the director's own.
While life's still here, though, von Trier sure makes it gorgeous to look at: landscapes that suggest Old Master canvases, a candle-lit wedding reception, shrouds of mist, and Dunst stretched out nude on a riverbank, oddly ecstatic in the midnight glow of a planet come to destroy everything she knows.
It's a planet that can't come soon enough for her, but one that I kept willing away. Not, I'm a little embarrassed to say, to save humanity from Melancholia, but simply to stay in this remarkable movie's presence just a little longer. (Recommended)
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