ON THE SURFACE, Lars von Trier's latest, Melancholia, documents the end of the world: Earth collides with another, larger planet in a massive, fiery explosion. But unlike most films with a similar premise, there is neither panic in the streets, nor is there any heroism: There are just the slow-motion reactions of a select few on the grounds of an enormous castle estate. Far from a literal apocalypse film, it's a metaphorical portrait of a hallmark of depression: that its sufferers tend to handle catastrophe better than those who feel they have something to lose. The planet that rams into us is even named Melancholia.
Von Trier is a self-described melancholic (he's stated the idea for this film came from one of his own therapy sessions), and one could draw a parallel between his post-Cannes behavior—in which his comments regarding Nazis got him banned from the festival and overshadowed the positive reception of the film—and that of central character Justine (Kirsten Dunst). Justine enters the screen immediately post-ceremony on her perfect wedding day, but a disastrous speech sets off a spectacular downward spiral in which she gradually destroys it all, to the horror of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and newly minted husband (Alexander Skarsgård). By the film's second chapter, she has gone from the happiest day of her life to being too depressed to eat or bathe herself.
This second chapter belongs to her sister, and deals with the impending astronomical event. As it draws near, Claire increasingly unravels while Justine becomes steadily stronger.
Beginning with a foreshadowing overture of gorgeous, barely moving images, von Trier takes suspense out of the equation. What remains is to watch how the characters arrive. Melancholia's triumph, with Justine boldly going to meet it, makes it a lavishly romanticized depiction of the depressive urge toward oblivion. You probably shouldn't skip your meds before seeing it.