A version of this review appeared Oct. 21 during the Philadelphia Film Festival.
The prologue, or overture, to Lars von Trier's Melancholia is filmmaking at its most magnificent. Set to the stormy orchestrations of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (itself a tale of love and death), the dreamlike sequence of images - beginning with Kirsten Dunst's face, close-up and strangely blank, while behind her birds plummet in slo-mo from the sky - is trippy, momentous, apocalyptic, and just shockingly beautiful.
The Danish filmmaker's Dogma manifesto, issued with much hoopla in the mid-'90s, railed against exactly these kinds of sophisticated visual effects and symphonic overlay of sound - and to be sure, as Melancholia begins in earnest, the Danish director and provocateur returns to the jittery, hand-held, improvisatory style familiar to his legion of fans (and legion of loathers, too).
Von Trier was given the heave-ho from the Cannes Film Festival this May for his embarrassing news conference and jokes about Nazis and Jews, but the movie he came with - this one, Melancholia - was nonetheless embraced. The jury gave its star, Dunst, the best-actress trophy.
And it's easy to see why: A two-part drama revolving around (1) an elaborate wedding reception and (2) the end of the world, Melancholia is a remarkable mood piece with visuals to die for (excuse the pun), and a performance from Dunst that runs the spectrum chart of emotions. Ambivalence, dread, depression, giddiness, desire, eerie calm . . . it could have been all over the map, but Dunst inhabits this young woman - Justine, an ad agency up-and-comer - as if she has known her all her life.
Part 1 finds Justine and her groom (Alexander Skarsgård) arriving at a glamorous estate, late for their own post-nuptial bash. Justine's sister, tense and agitated, is played by the sad-eyed Charlotte Gainsbourg; their mother is the fox-eyed Charlotte Rampling, their father the gimlet-eyed John Hurt. (Actually, Hurt's Dexter is a hopeless drunk - his gimlet eyes are made of gin.) Kiefer Sutherland is Justine's wealthy brother-in-law, wed to Claire, the two of them and their little boy holed up in this impossibly grand manse.
In Part 2, with the toasting and the dancing done, Gainsbourg's Claire becomes more of the focus, but it is Justine, really, who remains at the center of the orbit.
And speaking of orbits, a planet has appeared, suddenly, alarmingly, in the sky, and appears to be on a collision course with Earth. Brace yourself.
This orb is called Melancholia, and while Sutherland's character - a man of science, the rational mind - assures Claire that scientists are certain Melancholia "will pass us by," various portents (not to mention the beginning of von Trier's film) suggest otherwise.
In a quiet panic, Claire rushes to the computer at one point and searches for "melancholia." Before she finds the site with the sphere's predicted trajectory, the camera has panned over a definition of the word: "a mental disorder characterized by severe depression."
That, in essence, is what Melancholia is about: a meditation on doom and gloom, and on people whose souls stir with darkness.
Dunst's Justine is one such person: an innately sad human being who can look into the sky and see her own death for what it is.
And we're looking into the sky along with her, in awe.