Tactfully composed, coolly fatalistic, and conspicuously adult, Melancholia is a broodingly downbeat self-portrait; a frigid, resonant mood piece with visuals to die for; and an unwieldy, strangely hypnotic ode to human suffering. Fearless and merciless, it’s like some gargoyle-like version of German romanticism.

Justine (Kirsten Dunst, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are celebrating their marriage at a sumptuous party in the home of her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Antichrist) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland). Meanwhile, an approaching rogue planet, Melancholia, threatens to collide with Earth, pushing the sisters’ already strained relationship to its breaking point.

Prominently featuring music from the prelude to Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, the poetic, referential succession of near-still images in the eight-minute prologue so immaculately distills Melancholia – its lush, ripe mood and its esoteric, demanding narrative – that it makes the two-plus-hours that follow seem regrettably redundant.

Dunst gives a hard-bitten, incomparable performance that runs the colour spectrum of emotions, even if she is playing an attitude rather than a character. She’s a fierce savant, a thing of mired grit and serene beauty, fully deserving of the Best Actress Award she received at Cannes. Alongside Gainsbourg’s Claire, the actresses’ work intertwines beautifully, like twin climbing vines vying for the attention of the sun.

Nutty Danish provocateur Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, Dogville) once again demonstrates a mastery of classical technique, extracting strong performances from his cast while serving up a sturdy blend of jaw-dropping visual effects and fly-on-the-wall naturalism. Working with a new cinematographer, Manuel Alberto Claro, von Trier produces digitally painted heavenly vistas. Yet Melancholia represents the director’s ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy, von Trier at his best and worst. His latest fable is nothing without its blaze of majesty. Rooted in his frustrating, provoking style, it feels as if it’s something from another world, lying behind an impenetrable pane of glass.

As a window into a mournful state of mind, Melancholia provides the gentlest depiction of destruction in years. With a nod to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Melancholia hovers in ambiguity with riveting aesthetic prowess, and it’s lent an exciting frisson by the authenticity of an actress and filmmaker with first-hand experience of psychological trauma. Von Trier illustriously particularizes the disintegration of females stuck in an interminable, patriarchal vortex.

The vision is as hateful as it is hate-filled, but the fusion of form and content is so exact that it borders on the sublime. Melancholia floats in an air of supernatural malaise and millennial angst, a melancholy mirrored in everything and everyone, spinning its themes into a blast of cosmic sparkle dust. Its true subject is melancholia as a spiritual state, a destroyer of happiness that emerges from its hiding place. Bedazzlement is depression’s surprising byproduct; it’s the little moments that annihilate us, day by day.

Magnetically beautiful and glacially slow in tempo, like a newborn planet, Melancholia is a seductive, sobering, and surreal descent into dystopia. A strange mix of apocalyptic sci-fi and darkly comic social drama – a remote funereal dirge spiralling in its own orbit – it may be the perfect match for The Tree of Life on a bipolar double bill. Stay to the end for the grand planet-busting, when the tragic magic of the opening scenes is reasserted.

Leave it to von Trier to conceive an intergalactic sci-fi metaphor for a psychological disorder – and then nearly pull it off. Likely to exasperate as often as it moves, to annoy as many viewers as it captivates, Melancholia is an intense, exhausting experience, trailing a dizzying glow of aesthetic satisfaction. The unconverted will remain unconvinced, but the curious may uncover buried treasure. Proceed with caution, but proceed nonetheless.


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