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Review: 'Melancholia' is visually stunning, emotionally affecting

By Mark Rabinowitz, Special to CNN
November 18, 2011 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Kirsten Dunst plays a troubled bride in the film
Kirsten Dunst plays a troubled bride in the film "Meloncholia."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Controversial director Lars von Trier is the force behind "Melancholia"
  • The film stars Kirsten Dunst, Alexander Skarsgård and Kiefer Sutherland
  • Reviewer says the film is a "masterpiece"

(CNN) -- mel•an•cho•li•a/ˌmelənˈkōlēə/

Noun: 1. Deep sadness or gloom; melancholy.

2. A mental condition marked by persistent depression and ill-founded fears.

As the opening chords of Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" fill the theater, the images from the eight-minute prologue to Lars von Trier's elegant, elegiac and emotionally stunning "Melancholia" wash over the audience. The intro alone would make for a rather stunning short, but as it is, it's just a tease, an amuse bouche for the mind.

An "amuse de l'esprit," I guess.

The first half of the film takes place at the absurdly lavish wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), hosted by Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire's husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) who live with their young son Leo (Cameron Spurr) in a mansion, complete with an 18-hole golf course.

During the course of the film it is revealed that the star Justine sees on her wedding night (and that is misidentified as Antares by amateur astronomer John) is in fact a rogue planet, later named "Melancholia" that has previously been "hiding" behind the sun. Despite the astronomical absurdity of a hidden planet and the oddity of naming the planet after a mental illness, Melancholia soon becomes a symbol for virtually everyone in the film.

While a serious-minded and deeply emotional film, "Melancholia" is not without its sense of humor and von Trier has a famously wicked one (one badly chosen and vastly misunderstood joke in Cannes notwithstanding). The wedding itself is absurd as are many of its guests and even the wedding planner (a hysterical turn by von Trier mainstay Udo Kier) provides comic relief.

This is one of the elements that makes this such a brilliant film. Trier is no idiot. He knows his film is packing an emotional wallop, the tension building for more than two hours and to do so without lightening the load would not only be artistically single-minded, it also would simply be cruel.

Which leads me to the fact that von Trier has occasionally been accused of sadism, both personally, as in how he treats his mentor filmmaker Jørgen Leth in the exceptional documentary "The Five Obstructions" and in how he treats his fictional creations in films like "Breaking the Waves" and "Dancer in the Dark."

Whether he is or isn't, the embodiment of that trait would have to be Stellan Skarsgård's wonderfully Machiavellian turn as Justine's boss, Jack, who uses his time as Michael's best man to give a speech wherein he challenges Justine to come up with a tagline for a new ad campaign and later ties his nephew's employment to her willingness to complete the task.

Needless to say that Justine, who is in the midst of a full-blown depressive episode, is not up to the task and the scene where Jack says, "It's too bad about Tim" after firing him (and seeming to take great pleasure in the fact) is matched only by Justine's suddenly lucid reaction when she tells Jack exactly what he can do with himself.

Across the board, the performances are exceptional. I am on record as being enamored with Dunst's performance, but the rest of the cast, especially Gainsbourg as Dunst's at times equally disturbed sister Claire, are magnificent.

Alexander Skarsgård expands on his "nice Eric" persona from "True Blood" and plays Michael as a soft, tender, childlike and even somewhat dimwitted man. He is an innocent and somewhat naive character and on at least one occasion he refers to Justine's crippling episodes of depression as "when you're feeling sad." He is well-meaning but in way out of his depth.

Given the insanity and serious character flaws running rampant in Justine's family -- her father (John Hurt) is a playful but irresponsible philanderer and her mother (Charlotte Rampling) is a bitter, emotionally vacant grouch -- poor Michael is doomed from the start.

While Justine's depressive symptoms begin to lessen during her post-wedding stay with Clare and John, she begins to calmly predict that the planet will hit the Earth. Whether this is a product of her illness (delusions and hallucinations being common symptoms) or the truth doesn't matter, as Claire begins to obsess over Melancholia, becoming more and more frightened, convinced that the much bigger planet is heading straight for Earth.

"Melancholia" is at its heart a disaster film, but by no means one of those brainless-but-entertaining Roland Emmerich/Michael Bay-style romps. It's less about the disaster itself than about the people the disaster affects and their reaction to their potential impending doom.

Very much a product of its creator who has had recent public battles with depression and who has struggled with anxiety his entire life, "Melancholia" is in fact an intimate disaster film.

It is one of the most beautiful, visually stunning, emotionally affecting films I have ever seen and is truly a masterpiece. It's obviously not for everyone, and you're certainly not going to leave the theater kicking up your heels, but you might just look on the bright side and realize that this planet we live on is an amazing place and it worth tending to.

"Melancholia" is rated R. There's some nudity and the odd swear word but the real impact (pun intended) of this film is its emotional content.

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