The new millennium has been fraught with post-apocalyptic visions, but Lars von Trier’s Melancholia considers life on the precipice, those days when the end times are potentially imminent. With a nod to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, von Trier uses the proximity of a mysterious planet more as the basis for existential drama than science fiction. The planet, in this case, is a giant bottle-washer headed straight for the little blue/white marble we call Earth. From the opening scene, von Trier eliminates any suspense about whether Earth is struck—though audiences should discover it for themselves—so Melancholia focuses instead on how its characters grapple with the possibility of apocalypse now. But the grand concept is really just a vehicle for a more intimate study of depression and its dangerous, shifting polarities.
Split into two distinct parts, the film opens with Kirsten Dunst as a young bride trying to keep a wave of crippling depression from spoiling her reception. Her more grounded sister Charlotte Gainsbourg and rich American brother-in-law Kiefer Sutherland have spared no expense in hosting the wedding on their sprawling estate, but Dunst, in spite of her new husband’s best efforts, can’t keep that reassuring smile plastered on her face for long. (Udo Kier gets big laughs as a wedding planner so annoyed by Dunst’s flakiness, he literally can’t bring himself to look at her.) Set some time later, as the foreign planet begins its approach, part two finds the siblings’ perspectives dramatically changed: Gainsbourg is seized by anxiety and doubt about her family’s future, while Dunst seems more sanguine now that her doom-filled vision of the world has been affirmed.
Unlike Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Melancholia is neither mysterious nor terribly complex, and it doesn’t engage in philosophy beyond the blunt implications of the Earth’s possible demise. Yet it’s nonetheless eerie and restrained (by von Trier’s standards, anyway), and bracingly personal: Von Trier suffers from bouts of depression, and few films have more accurately captured both its paralyzing effects and the immense frustration of those who care about the afflicted. Though it lacks the titanic emotion of von Trier’s best films, Melancholia makes it up in stomach-churning dread as the planet inches ever closer to Earth and forces everyone to come to terms with it, whether or not they’re emotionally equipped to do so.