How would you spend your last minutes on the planet? In Lars von Trier's apocalyptic "Melancholia," you'll spend them with Justine, a chronically depressed, self-involved sourpuss. "The earth is evil," she says as the minutes tick away. "Nobody will miss it."
That outlook essentially defines "Melancholia," which is filled with gorgeous, almost ecstatic images of doom: a rain of pigeons, an electrified sky, a mother clutching her son. It's a paean to hopelessness, a death-cultist's dream. Von Trier's vision may overwhelm you, but it may also force you to come up with one of your own.
The film begins as a bitter comedy, with Justine (a hollow-eyed Kirsten Dunst) moping through her lavish wedding reception while her doting husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), trails behind. She comes by her problems honestly: Her parents are a useless trifler (John Hurt) and an embittered shrew (Charlotte Rampling, ferociously good). As the guests mingle in a magnificent castle owned by Justine's wealthy brother-in-law, John (Kiefer Sutherland), minor family dramas play out, diminished by an enormous second moon looming in the sky.
It's a planet dubbed Melancholia, and Justine's sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, of von Trier's equally uncompromising "Antichrist"), keeps nervously Googling its trajectory. "You have to trust the scientists," says John, who cheerfully peers through his telescope with their son, Leo (Cameron Spurr). Justine is not exactly reassuring: Under Melancholia's blue-white light, she moonbathes nude, like an offering.
"Melancholia" will haunt you for days, maybe weeks. One reason is Manuel Alberto Claro's evocative, almost palpable cinematography, but another is von Trier's merciless pessimism. The movie focuses primarily on weak people and the futility of living -- which is certainly one way to look at things. But if it's that impending death concentrates the mind wonderfully, "Melancholia" proves that not all of us will reach the same conclusions.
PLOT An emotionally crippled young woman and her wealthy sister confront the apocalypse. RATING R (language, sexuality, adult themes)
CAST Kirsten Dunst, Keifer Sutherland, Charlotte Gainsbourg.
BOTTOM LINE Haunting and thought-provoking, though its relentless negativity won't sit well with all viewers.