Stargazing has never been so devastating.
“Melancholia,” the latest work by controversial Danish director Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves,” “Dogville,” “Antichrist”) pieces together the final days before the end of the world through two sisters with opposite personalities, the impulsive but charming Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and the controlled, serious Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). A visual feast, the film takes its title from the planet about to collide with and destroy Earth.
With such a title, “Melancholia” promises anything but a feel-good flick, but brings us into Justine and Claire’s world with a surprisingly bubbly scene laced with only the subtlest hints of the devastation to come. Justine first appears as a charmingly whimsical woman who attempts to drive in her fluffy wedding dress and dashes to look at her horse even when she is two hours late for her nuptials, hosted at Claire’s grand chateau. However, this charming if somewhat childish irresponsibility soon gives way to Justine’s crippling depression, as ugly realities sink in at her wedding reception.
Overcome with frustration and fear, Justine grows increasingly unstable through the course of the night, offending her boss, alienating her husband and exploiting a young colleague for sex on the nearby golf course. Built on soft dialogues and restraint, Dunst’s provocative performance captures the fragility and fear of a woman on the verge of breaking and highlights the numbness that grows out of Justine’s brittleness and exhaustion. But through the sharp emotional episodes that betray Justine’s spite, Dunst captivatingly coats her character with an even grimmer layer: selfishness, disrespect and a self-imploding attitude. Alienating herself from her friends and family, Justine’s only consistent interest is in the night sky, which leads her to realize that a red star, Antares, has disappeared.
As the family worries about the impending celestial collision, Justine is so overwhelmed by her depression that she can no longer perform daily activities such as bathing and eating. However, as the clock winds down for Earth, the roles reverse, with Justine recovering her composure and Claire overwhelmed by the fear of total obliteration. As she watches her once-composed sister slide steadily into complete loss and frenzy, Justine remains calm and undisturbed. Her fatalistic perspective and disgust with the world — “All I know is life on Earth is evil,” she spits into Claire’s pleading eyes — becomes the better, or at least more poised response to the annihilation of the world. To provide Claire’s son with solace, Justine helps him build a “magic cave” as his imaginary haven in the face of a destruction with no salvation. As the three clamber inside, the boy obedient with closed eyes, Claire broken and distraught, and Justine, emotional but collected, an inferno devours them and every other bit of life.
Then a monumental silence.
Oh no — did I just spoil the movie? But the ending is apparent right from the eerie, visually spectacular prologue, in which super-slow motion camerawork stretches every scene into postcard-worthy images: electricity growing out of Justine’s fingers like antennas milliseconds before lightning strikes, golf greens sucking in Claire’s feet as she tries to escape with her son, the drably-colored opening close-up of Justine’s face behind which birds fall from the sky and — surprise, surprise — the final image of Earth shredded apart upon impact.
Reeking of gloom yet at times breathtakingly exquisite, “Melancholia” exudes a less ambitious but equally impressive majesty, focusing on the powerlessness and unreliability of humanity in a shorter timeline than the expansive chronicle of Terence Malick’s opus. Though the dramatic tricks at the wedding reception and towards the end of the movie taste slightly stale, “Melancholia” refreshingly leaves out the mass commotion, media turmoil and wistful romance that commonly dominate other end-of-the-world tales. This is not an exaltation or an elegy of heroism, as its sadistic mockery of hope and control, both embodied by the ever-pragmatic Claire, whose composure crumbles to the drama of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” As impending doom pumps up our adrenaline, the roles of the sisters are reversed: knocked to her utmost feebleness, Claire turns to the fatalistic Justine, who readily accepts their fate.
So why would you want to watch a movie that grips your heart with despair? The reasons range from the personal to the technical: the relief that life goes on, the stunning power of the visuals, sounds and a thrilling plot that slice open the chambers of naked humanity, the juicy performances of Dunst and Gainsbourg (who won the Cannes Festival Best Actress Award for this film and von Trier’s previous feature “Antichrist,” respectively) and the eternal human fascination with our own ending. But the singular attraction was this: enveloped in the preposterous, the futile and the wildly disturbing, “Melancholia” is an elegantly crystalline tragedy. The power of broken beauty, or the beauty of the broken, tucks us in. And that is precisely what “Melancholia” is all about.