If you can't wait for your winter depression to kick in, race to Melancholia, the latest avalanche of artistic angst from Lars von Trier. This one makes Schindler's List look like High School Musical.
I say this not to mock, but in a tone of thunderstruck awe. No moviemaker I know creates psychodramas so hard to watch and difficult to forget. If we esteem Sylvia Plath, Vincent van Gogh and Samuel Beckett, Von Trier deserves our attention, too. His work is a reminder that whenever you think things can't get worse, they can. They can get much, much worse.
We know straightaway that Melancholia's characters are doomed. A sensually ravishing prologue set to the love/death theme from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde puts the stars in scenes of eerie peril before we've even met their characters. The cataclysmic final shot of this prelude shows another planet colliding with Earth. Let no one say they didn't know what to expect.
The story follows Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a new bride with deep emotional problems; Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her nurturing sister; and John (Kiefer Sutherland), Claire's wealthy, highly rational husband, who is hosting Justine's lavish wedding.
The facade of order cracks as Justine sabotages the ceremony, sensing that disaster is about to render such pledges meaningless. While Claire tends to Justine, John ponders the new planet in the heavens. Scientists dub it Melancholia and proclaim that it will be a spectacular fly-by. Each character must come to grips with the mounting evidence that the scientists are wrong.
Dunst displays new maturity in her role. Early on, she's stuck in a limousine that's too long to make a sharp turn in the road. Her delight in the comical mishap looks genuine. A few scenes later, the light in her eyes goes out like a candle. When she says, "I'm trying, I'm really trying" to regain her equilibrium, you sense her emotional undertow.
Sutherland's role is a compelling portrait of a stuffed shirt deflating in fear. Gainsbourg gives Claire pathos and gravity.
The supporting cast is top-rank, including Stellan and Alexander Skarsgård, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling and German character actor Udo Kier contributing vital comic relief as a high-strung wedding planner. The planet-crushing impact with Melancholia wipes them all away, an image of Armageddon that brilliantly represents devastating depression. This is the way the world ends, with both a bang and a whimper.