Metaphors don't come balder than the one at the center of Lars von Trier's Melancholia. It's both the emotional state of the protagonist Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, and also the name of a small planet on what might be a collision course with Earth. Actually, it does strike Earth in a lyrical, eight-minute, slow-motion prelude, but there's no way to know if that's real or a dream. Of course, the whole film can be taken as a dream, a bad but gorgeous one scored to the same few bars of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde.
That prelude features birds dropping from the sky, Dunst in a wedding dress amid leaves and tendrils as if merging with the doomed planet, and other inexplicable but unnerving images. Then comes section one, the ghastly wedding of Justine and her handsome but dim husband played by Alexander Skarsgard. They're getting hitched on the lavish country estate of John, played by Kiefer Sutherland, the wealthy husband of Justine's sister, Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.
This part of Melancholia is like one of those nightmares in which time stretches maddeningly out. The wedding couple is hours late after their limo gets stuck, and then the increasingly miserable Justine is constantly disappearing, running off to spend time with a horse or soak in a tub. Her father, played by John Hurt, is a bitter drunk who's barely present, while her misanthropic mother, Charlotte Rampling, is all too present: Her wedding toast ridicules marriage. The wedding is bad vibes layered on top of bad vibes, and it doesn't end well.
If Justine explodes her own world in part one, part two is a long wait for the rest of the planet to come to an end. Kiefer Sutherland's John stares into a telescope and insists Melancholia will pass by Earth, Claire becomes increasingly agitated, and Justine feels her heart beginning to lighten. It's as if the sisters are trading places, the stable one wracked with grief, the mad one almost serene.
Von Trier made Melancholia after a very deep and public depression, during which he managed to make the insanely violent psychodrama Antichrist, in which Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe took turns mutilating each other in the forest. Reportedly, he was much happier shooting Melancholia, although not so stable that he couldn't get himself thrown out of the Cannes Film Festival after making some bizarre remarks about Hitler. I've always found him a loathsome character. He famously drives his lead actresses to the brink, and most of his films are fatuously nihilistic. I particularly detest Dogville, his sour, three-hour kindergarten-Brecht parable about the monstrousness of Americans.
There's a level on which I detest Melancholia, too—it's as hateful as it is hate-filled. But it's also, in its fatuous-nihilist way, a masterpiece, a sublime fusion of form and content with a truly Wagnerian climax, the planet moving closer and closer until you feel as if your heart will explode.
I'm not surprised Kirsten Dunst is so good — I'm surprised so many people are surprised. She's almost always good, and here, in her final scenes, she has the radiant self-possession of someone who has stopped fighting her tragic worldview. Gainsbourg, having been broken in by von Trier for Antichrist, goes with evident ease to the worst place inside herself and makes the last scenes of the film quake with fear. Sutherland gives the most unexpected superb performance, playing a man so overly controlled that the prospect of catastrophe breaks him.
That prospect left me feeling oddly elated, though. Von Trier might be an egomaniac, but he has fully realized his vision onscreen, and how many artists can say that? In the face of such an achievement, what can you do but surrender to Melancholia? (Recommended)