Dir. Lars von Trier
(2011, R, 135 min)

Death is the only certainty in life. I believe that’s the core idea of Lars von Trier‘s Melancholia, a breathtaking film that crept up on me slowly, and when it was over I stayed in my chair, alone with my thoughts. For a while it seemed that the director was using imminent extinction as a metaphor for mental illness – there’s a planet on a collision course with Earth called Melancholia, because calling it Clinical Depression would have been too on-the-nose – but it’s not only the depressed Justine (Kirsten Dunst) who struggles with the end times. Von Trier shows that ultimately all of us must, at one time or another. Whether this particular planet hits us doesn’t matter. One day our planet will come.

The first half of the film introduces us to Justine on her wedding day. She arrives with her husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), and they are the picture of wedded bliss. But as the night wears on she finds more and more excuses to wander away, and finds it harder and harder to return. Her smiles and joy, we discover, are just the performance of a role others expect her to play, and Dunst conveys the sheer exhaustion of faking her way through. But there are no villains in this wedding party – except maybe her contemptible boss (Stellan Skarsgard) and bitter mother (Charlotte Rampling), both of whom use the occasion to promote their own cynicism. In particular I was struck by the loneliness of Michael, who clearly loves his wife and is aware of her depression, but is faced with constant rejection when he tries to reach her; her depression is something for which no one is to blame, but which takes everyone as its hostage.

The second half of the film switches gears to her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who has a rich husband (Kiefer Sutherland) and a young son (Cameron Spurr). She does not suffer from depression, per se, but with such a mother and such a sister she suffers by association. She experiences mortal anxiety upon the discovery of a planet called Melancholia, which is nearing Earth but will only “fly by,” as scientists predict. It is when the film focuses on Claire that it becomes deeper, more mysterious, and more transfixing than a mere allegory of existential gloom. Justine is neither surprised nor afraid of the planet; she has given up on life so completely that she can scarcely rise out of bed. But what about Claire? Most of us will recognize ourselves in her more than in Justine. She fears death, as most of us do. It’s a fear that grows larger over time until we can see it peeking out at us over the horizon.

Melancholia is similar to The Tree of Life in how it considers the grandeur of the universe against small, fragile human lives, but von Trier is focused where Terrence Malick seemed to fumble in the dark for his own meaning. This film has a profound urgency and moves with grim momentum. In late scenes the director uses sound to remarkable effect, creating a steady rumble of dread that could be the very manifestation of his characters’ turmoil.

This is only the second von Trier film I’ve seen, following Antichrist, which is as bad a film as this one is good. Both take a fatalistic approach to existence, but this one has a clarity and humanity the other film lacked. Antichrist, a cruel and meaningless exercise in nihilism, was all about punishment. But although the filmmaker still shows signs of personal anguish, this time it’s informed by empathy, which is something I hardly knew to expect from him. Melancholia evolved as I watched it and may continue to evolve in my mind over time. When it begins it’s an oddity of abstract images. By the end it comes full circle as a sad testament of mortality. When all is said and done, it achieves greatness.