Justine's husband Michael (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard) is doing his best to accommodate his new wife’s mood swings. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is also trying to be understanding, but she’s been in this situation before, and her patience is wearing thin. Claire’s husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who footed the bill for the lavish reception at a posh country club, isn’t quite as understanding: He’s fuming mad.
Oh, and scientists have discovered that a new planet named Melancholia that was hiding behind the sun is going to pass dangerously close to Earth in five days. Some people believe it’s going to crash right into us.
If Ingmar Bergman had directed Armageddon, the result might have turned out a lot like Lars von Trier’s latest movie — the second born out of the writer-director’s much-publicized bout with depression. The first one, 2009’s Antichrist, was an intentionally graphic, shocking, bloody work, as if von Trier had wanted to take his anger and frustration out on his audience. But Melancholia is something entirely different. Von Trier got the central idea while in therapy, when he discovered that severely depressed people would be able to function rationally in the face of incomprehensible doom. Their familiarity with despondency would give them an edge over everyone else.
Leave it to von Trier to conceive an intergalactic sci-fi metaphor for a psychological disorder — and then make it work so astonishingly well. The Danish filmmaker has always thought out of the box (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville): His creativity is often so startling, and his joy at working over the audience so enthusiastic, you approach each of his movies with equal parts curiosity and dread. But Melancholia isn’t merely a fiery provocation, nor is it an experimental melding of two seemingly incompatible ideas. Von Trier has thought his conceit through, and his vision was thorough enough to attract a superb cast to join him on his one-way joyride to hell.
As the brittle, impulsive bride, Dunst won the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year — even after von Trier was sent home for making some tasteless jokes about Hitler at a news conference. His behavior might have completely derailed a lesser movie, but Dunst is marvelous at depicting Justine’s emotional volatility and petulant behavior: You understand why the people around her are tired of her antics, but you also sympathize with her, knowing she’s being buffeted by forces beyond her control. Gainsbourg is just as good as the increasingly frustrated Claire, who deeply loves her sister but wonders if at least part of her tantrums may not be desperate attempts to gain attention.
Sutherland brings the attitude and swagger of 24’s Jack Bauer to his portrayal of a confident man who has an answer for every problem — until he doesn’t (arrogance is one of the sins von Trier never forgives.) The supporting cast is deep, and all the players contribute their unique notes to Melancholia’s symphony of dysfunction. Two standouts: Charlotte Rampling as the sisters’ mother, a smoldering ruin of a woman who hasn’t gotten over her divorce and wants to make sure everyone shares her misery; and Udo Kier as the hilariously irritated wedding planner who is furious at Justine for sabotaging his efforts.
Melancholia opens with some staggeringly beautiful images, set to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, that won’t make sense on first viewing (a horse collapsing to the ground, Justine emanating small lightning bolts from her fingertips) but end up being a preview to the craziness ahead: They're postcards from the apocalypse. Von Trier also shows you the end of the world in that opening prologue, letting you know he’s not kidding around and that the movie is not going to wuss out. As Melancholia nears its climax, you share the panic and fear the characters are experiencing: This Armageddon feels real, and the decisions the characters have to make are heartbreaking (would you tell your frightened young son what was happening if you knew Earth was going to be pulverized in a few minutes?) And in Dunst’s Justine, von Trier has found his most eloquent mouthpiece. "All I know is life on Earth is evil," she observes. No wonder she feels fine! This is a tremendous, daring movie. Get ready to be rattled.