The beginning of “Melancholia” is full of striking and unforgettable images. Birds fall from the sky, a young woman in a wedding dress sinks into a lake, and, most ominously of all, a gigantic planet slowly moves on a collision course with Earth. These opening shots, set to Richard Wagner’s ominous prelude to his opera “Tristan and Isolde,” are so haunting they immediately set the tone for the rest of film, creating a sense of unease that is impossible to shake.
The film is centered on Justine (Kirsten Dunst, "Spider-Man"), who is set to marry Michael (Alexander Skarsgard, "True Blood") in an elaborate wedding planned by her sister, Claire, (Charlotte Gainsbourg, "The Science of Sleep") and paid for by her brother-in-law John (Keifer Sutherland, "24"). Justine suffers from severe and deliberating depression, and as her wedding goes on, she quickly and inexplicably begins to fade. The onset of her downward spiral coincides with the rise of the enormous blue ball quickly hurtling toward Earth, so it can’t be a coincidence that the planet, which could very well cause the end of all known life, is called Melancholia. It is a word that represents both the most personal, and yet the most universal, problem in the film.
The impending apocalypse is the perfect material for director Lars von Trier, whose films have been filled with characters unable to escape their own doom. Like the main characters in “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark,” Justine exudes an innocent and naïve quality. When she runs away from her own wedding to talk to her horse, or to frolic on the estate’s golf course, for example, she is both maddening and pathetic; a child inside an adult’s body. That Justine is tolerable at all is completely due to the acting ability of Kirsten Dunst. This film has brought the best out of von Trier, as well as his star. Dunst is so good in this film, playing a character unlike any other she has ever attempted, that she won the award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. Even if the film itself were not the incredible work of art that it is, Dunst’s performance alone would be incentive enough to recommend it.
“Melancholia” is everything that film should be: It is challenging, sometimes frustrating, mysterious, operatic and ambitious. Hopefully, the incendiary comments by von Trier during his press conference at Cannes, where he jokingly described himself as both a Nazi and an admirer of Adolf Hitler, will not dissuade anyone from seeing “Melancholia.” The film is close to being a masterpiece, and it would be a shame for some poorly worded comments to keep anyone from experiencing it.
"Melancholia" screens at noon. Sunday at United Artists East Hampton. Arrive early for rush tickets at the box office.