A bride trudges through a sodden golf course. Dead birds fall from the sky. A boy carves a piece of wood. And an enormous planet crashes into Earth, shattering it. From the dream-like opening montage of Lars von Trier’s captivating end-of-days picture, it is clear that this is not going to be another cinematic apocalypse-by-numbers, where special effects are bandied around to distract from the clichéd characters, and Bruce/Keanu/John Cusack is bound to save the day – and get the girl – in the end.
After its almost surreally beautiful opening sequence, all set to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the film is divided into two acts, one named for Justine, a bride en route to her wedding reception, and the other for her sister Claire, whose millionaire husband (Kiefer Sutherland) is hosting the couple’s bash. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is young, beautiful and successful, with a loving husband and night of extravagant revelry ahead of her. But something is badly wrong. As a few hitches – starting with the limousine getting stuck on the way to the party – and awkward exchanges escalate into growing calamity, it becomes clear that Justine is on the brink of severe depression, which she desperately tries to forestall for the sake of her husband and flamboyantly dysfunctional family, including warring divorced parents played sublimely by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling. The second half switches the focus to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the aftermath of the disastrous reception, and as the planet Melancholia advances on a possible collision course with Earth.
The title alludes both to the planet bringing our destruction, and to the depression engulfing Justine. Though we know from the first few frames that the world is doomed, top-notch script, direction and acting ensure that Justine and Claire’s troubles are still utterly compelling:
Melancholia is a gripping study of mental illness, drawn from von Trier’s own experience of depression. It never hits a wrong note. This is an intelligent, adult film, with realistic, interesting characters and a masterfully controlled portentousness that had me transfixed through over two hours of running time.
Though patently unreal, it reverberates with realism. The sterling cast delivers uniformly spot-on performances: Dunst, whose Justine plunges from blushing bride to near catatonic, is brilliant. von Trier, whose previous films have showcased extreme violence and divisive avant-garde techniques, has eschewed such provocation to produce a polished, grown-up movie. It is a beauty.
Directed by: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling
On at: Cinema City Cotroceni, Cinema City Sun Plaza, Grand Cinema Digiplex Baneasa, Hollywood Multiplex, The Light Cinema