1. Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia" is a movie about a planet that crashes into Earth, destroying all life on this planet, and how a small group of family members deals with its impending destruction. This might sound like a strange thing to say about a movie with such a compelling premise ... but I kind of think they didn't need the rogue planet. The details of the End of the World are ultimately distracting and unconvincing, particularly compared with its central story, which is about how crippling -- paralyzing really -- depression can be, how it can not only shut down its victim, but also those who care for and try to help that person. "Melancholia" portrays depression in as real, sympathetic and harrowing a fashion as any film in memory. It's just a shame that whole end of the world business that keeps getting in the way.
2. The film has two distinct sections. The first is called "Justine," and features the lush wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) at her sister's and brother-in-law's extravagant estate. (And I mean extravagant: They have their own golf course.) This is the stronger story. Despite the massively expensive (and seemingly endless) wedding her family has put together for her, Justine nonetheless walks around in a daze, randomly bursting into tears, quitting her job, devastating her husband and, ultimately, having sex with another man right off the 18th green. Justine is a disaster area, but not in a glib, "why can't she get it together?" movie type of way: She's suffering from profound depression, to the point that, when she is at her worst, she's unable to even drag herself to the shower. The movie is quite moving in showing how helpless Justine is to her disease, how she destroys everything around her and feels nothing ... and hates herself for it. Von Trier has said that "Melancholia" sprung from his own battles with depression, and you can tell: There is nothing romantic or charming or poignant about Justin's depression. She's just a black hole of nothingness, that sucks up everything and everyone unfortunate enough to be near her. Even on her wedding day. Dunst is terrific, by the way; she's had her own personal problems, and you can see her channel that in her performance. She is both irresistible and helplessly lost, probably for good.
3. It's the second section of the film, called "Claire," that's more problematic. Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, is Justine's long-suffering sister whose husband John (an oddly cast, and a little befuddled, Kiefer Sutherland) is paying for this whole wedding but knows it won't make Justine any happier. The second section begins after the wedding has ended, with Claire, John and their son dealing with a catatonic Justine at their estate as they wait for a global event: The supposed passing of a planet just past the earth, a celestial occurrence that has amateur astronomer John ecstatic. Claire is more concerned, particularly because Justine seems to have some sort of cosmic bond with the planet, including (but not limited to) planet-bathing nude in its glow. That the planet is called "Melancholia" -- groan; future astronomers of the world, please never name asteroids and planets in metaphors, OK? -- gives you a hint as to what Von Trier is getting at, and why John's cheery (and very American, Von Trier is implying) optimism is unfounded. Though you probably don't need the hint: The first five minutes of the movie are a slow motion montage of gorgeous shots of our characters running in fear, set to Wagner, and it ends with the world exploding. Probably doesn't count as a spoiler.
4. I do get what Von Trier is up to here. He spends half the film setting up a main character who walks around as if the world is about to end, and then the other half finding out what happens when it actually does. It's a provocative thought -- surely Von Trier, as a depression sufferer, has had someone tell him, "It's not like the world is ending!" and very well might have made this film just to hand to those people so they'll leave him alone -- but, strangely, the massive scale of the apocalypse almost feels inadequate compared to how effective Von Trier is at digging into Justine's depression. It feels, oddly, glib; it feels like a way to sell a small, devastating story about depression. Von Trier also loses his plot threads, too, turning away from characters we've started to care about in order to tie himself to a metaphor that keeps getting away from him. (I shan't spoil anything, but I have serious issues with the way John handles discovering the end of the universe, particularly in regards to his son.) I know that Von Trier felt he needed to something epic and grand because, well, because he's Lars Von Trier, but before that darned rogue planet gets in the way, he tells the most compelling small story I've seen him do yet. He has set up the depravity of depression and how impossible it can be to deal with ... in a peculiar way, letting the world explode in response feels like a cop-out. It feels like the easy way out.
5. It is a kick to see Von Trier, in his Von Trier way, having a little fun in the film's first half: Briefly released from his obligation to have Bjork musical numbers or scenes of genital mutilation or talking foxes or his damned obstructions, he's probably better at showing little human moments in "Melancholia" than he's ever been before. And don't get me wrong. The scenes leading up to the world's destruction, with random hail and looming blue doom, are vivid and scary: Von Trier is clearly enjoying getting his Roland Emmerich on. But this feels like one of our most talented filmmakers getting carried away with himself a little bit, letting a sad story about depression turn into an apocalyptic metaphor about death and emptiness and The Void. When I think about "Melancholia," I think about Dunst's delicate, dedicated performance, and the frustrated, tragic looks on the faces of everyone who tries to help her, and fails. Those looks, those are a lot scarier than the ones they have when they look at the planet that's about to crash into Earth and kill us all. It's the little moments that annihilate us, every day, every normal day. Days that don't end, days when the end of the world is a comfort that the sick like Justine cannot afford.