Editor's note: This review was originally posted as part of Indiewire's coverage of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Nothing in "Melancholia" can match the dazzling experience of its opening sequence. Within minutes, director Lars Von Trier combines the visual splendor of expressionistic sci-fi with the refined look of a morbid fashion commercial. It's also a handy guide to the ominous event that concludes the movie and haunts everything leading up to that point–namely, the end of the world. Revisiting the bleak tones of his last feature, "Antichrist" — which began with a similarly hyper-stylized prologue — Von Trier has constructed a mesmerizing elaboration on his favorite motifs, masterfully elevating them to an epic scale.
In the first shot, a dazed Kirsten Dunst looks off into the distance as dead birds slowly rain down behind her. A succession of mini-scenes follow: She dashes through the forest in slo-mo, her wedding dress tied up in weeds. Cut to outer space, where Earth and a much larger planet gradually inch together. Back on the surface, a horse silently falls to the ground as Wagner's prelude to "Tristan and Isolde" reaches its frenzied crescendo on the soundtrack. Dunst holds up her arms to invite the incoming doom, and it shortly comes to pass. With the arc firmly established, the movie begins as a kind of extended elaboration. The world will indeed end, but Von Trier invests more in the complex range of reactions to that eventual fate than its inevitability.
The greatest possible expression of Von Trier's recent "no more happy endings" edict, "Melancholia" is supremely operatic, enlivened by its cosmic sensibility, and yet amazingly rendered on an intimate scale. Beyond its opening and closing minutes, the movie's appeal mainly comes from its fine-tuned performances, each of which adds to the developing sense of dread.
Dunst plays Justine, a rising young advertisement executive recently married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), the son of her scheming boss (Stellan Skarsgård). The couple arrives at a party hosted by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and step-brother John (Kiefer Sutherland) at their lavish mansion, where the rest of the family awaits. Drinking and good cheer eventually give way to increasingly awkward exchanges, beginning with a dour prognosis on marriage delivered by the siblings' jaded mother (Charlotte Rampling): "Enjoy it while it lasts." Such basic foreshadowing outlines Von Trier's wider assertion that all good things come to an end, and Justine soon embodies his outlook.
As she grows increasingly disinterested in the festivities, the first half of "Melancholia" (titled "Justine" at its start) plays like Von Trier's version of "Rachel Getting Married," another family drama about one sour grape dragging down the celebratory mood. Von Trier, however, actively avoids even the slightest hint of sentimentality. Justine ultimately becomes a rebellious beast, defying social norms and rejecting the pleas of everyone around her. The section concludes with a social apocalypse to balance out the physical one that follows.
By the second half of "Melancholia" (titled "Claire"), Justine has completed her transition into a psychopathic prophet of doom, and winds up crashing with Claire, John and their inquisitive young child in a mentally uneasy state. Meanwhile, a massive blue planet reveals its hiding spot behind the sun and starts growing larger in the sky. John, an amateur astronomer, assures his wife that the planet – named "Melancholia," as if the symbolism weren't already clear enough – will pass them by. But Justine coldly asserts otherwise, having already made peace with her fate.
Veering toward inevitable destruction, the plot maintains an eerie calmness. The four characters gear up for their lonely fate. One extended scene in which the planet drains a part of the Earth's atmosphere, forcing its inhabitants to hyperventilate, could be read as a prolonged panic attack, which Von Trier has said he often suffers from. "Melancholia" avoids the shock tactics of "Antichrist," maybe because the director lays bare his psychological fragility. While not an angry movie, its heavy sadness contains a furious core. Talk about potent therapy.
The basic premise of "Melancholia" bears a marked similarity to "Another Earth," the Sundance hit about a duplicate planet appearing next to our own. However, while that movie exudes an optimistic vibe about the prospects of discovering new life, the giant rock in "Melancholia" never takes on an identity except as an object of otherworldly beauty and insurmountable doom. "Life is only on Earth," says Justine, "and not for long."
The two sisters clearly represent dual ways of reacting to chaotic events: Utter fear (Claire) and spiritual reverence (Justine). Von Trier's own perspective exists somewhere between those attitudes, because "Melancholia" hovers in ambiguity with riveting aesthetic prowess.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Set for U.S. and Canadian distribution this fall via Magnolia Pictures, "Melancholia" will probably reach an even larger audience than "Antichrist," given its tantalizing sci-fi components and star power in addition to the director's cult appeal.
criticWIRE grade: A