Dark, sublime ‘Melancholia’ may be Lars von Trier’s finest hour

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Justine asks, “What star is that?” It’s her wedding night. She has just married Michael. They stumble late into their wedding reception held at her sister Claire’s huge mansion in the country as Justine notices something is not right with the stars. Everyone brushes it off, but it seems that Justine knows something they don’t.

Lars von Trier, the Danish writer/director of such fearless and rightly controversial films as “Europa” (1991), “Breaking the Waves” (1996) and “Antichrist” (2009), has made what could be his best yet with “Melancholia,” a film about depression both galactic and small. Von Trier forgoes his typically misogynist narrative — though his women do have the power, detractors be damned — for a film that has as much emotional payoff as it does technical bombast.

The opening sequence is a series of moving tableaux that distill all the themes of the movie into such languid, slow-motion images as birds dropping from the sky and Justine floating down a river a la Ophelia. As apocalypse looms, von Trier does not want us guessing whether the world will end or not. A rogue planet called Melancholia, much greater in size than Earth, is set for a collision course with our planet, and in the film’s operatic beginning — set to Wagner’s monumental, doom-filled prelude to “Tristan and Isolde” — we see the planets meet head-on. Recalling the slow-mo opening of “Antichrist,” von Trier primes us for an experience that will walk us through depression, a depression he experienced as an artist and now seems to be coming out of, instead of the usual tour of his psychosexual nightmares.

The themes here — debilitating sadness, the end of the world, the power of nature — are massive in scale, and the emotions burn just as bright, yet the subtle characters and intimate drama are miniature. This is not a science fiction epic, but rather, arthouse fare par excellence, featuring a lot of lady drama and serious acting.

Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the bummed bride of the film’s first half, inexplicably undergoes despair. At the reception, surrounded by her dysfunctional bourgeois family and well-meaning but naïve husband (Alexander Skarsgard), Justine grows listless with the possibilities of her new life. Her depression takes corporeal forms as she becomes almost catatonic, and it seems that the cosmos is beckoning her. The second part, “Claire,” is more about Justine’s sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who becomes increasingly hysterical as Melancholia approaches.

A manifesto bent on minimalism, the Dogme 95 movement was inaugurated by von Trier with his contemporary Thomas Vinterberg. Von Trier has always worked on a grand scale, building highly constructed, histrionic imagery around naturalistic, handicam realism. In the first part of “Melancholia,” von Trier gestures toward his Dogme past and to Vinterberg’s film 1998 “Festen,” about a dinner party gone wrong. “Justine” stands on its own as a one-act drama and a straw man to be defeated in “Claire,” which works as a claustrophobic thriller about the end of times.

While von Trier films like “Antichrist,” “Dogville” and “Breaking the Waves” — his three best, right beside “Melancholia” — traffic in misogyny, martyrdom and Sadean torture games, this one excises its sick unconscious in favor of characters who are real human beings. And von Trier, too, seems to be at peace with his own demons as the film proudly pronounces the death of his depression, which shadowed the gloomy, creaky “Antichrist.”

Von Trier is always able to extract a good performance out of his actresses. Years from now, Justine will be remembered as Dunst’s breakout role. Positively put, she is Justine. There is nary a moment where we feel like this is “acting.” But “Melancholia” belongs to Gainsbourg as much as it does to Dunst. It’s hard to imagine that any actress would come back to Lars von Trier wanting more, since he really put Gainsbourg in the sexually fraught wringer with “Antichrist,” but she is note-perfect.

Instead of weighing his leading lady down by tying her to a giant wheel (“Dogville”) or bestowing her with some serious psychoses (“Antichrist”), von Trier gives his women the depth of fully rounded literary characters. Events in this film may be phantasmic, but Justine and Claire behave as real people would in such a state of emergency. Von Trier grasps texture of grief, reducing a world of panic to the microcosm of that lavish chateau inhabited by Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland).

“Melancholia” and “Antichrist” are sisters of the same planet. Both dwell in depression, defunct families and an imminent doom. When Justine tells Claire, “Life on earth is evil,” there are echoes of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character in “Antichrist,” who says, “Nature is Satan’s church.” Indeed Lars von Trier finds a cinematic equivalent of Hell in nature. That’s not to say I buy his highfalutin’ mysticism in full — it is not without the burden of kitsch — but his ideas intrigue in their numinous mystery. The man is not trapped inside his own head so much as he is elusive about the source of his ideas.

There is something truly romantic about the end of the world. Our minds run rampant throughout “Melancholia” as to how it will all go down, and up in smoke, but von Trier’s grandiose finish plausibly resembles what the apocalypse would be like: a burst of hot light, a brief devastation and it’s all over. “Melancholia” has the power to change our environment, as we step out of the theater, eyes on the sky, and ask, “What star is that?”