The ghost of Irwin Allen must be smiling. He produced a run of disaster movies in the 1970s (The Poseidon Adventure, The Swarm), and in 2011 the genre staged a remarkable comeback. The difference is that the new offerings are thoughtful and gripping, as opposed to junky and Shelley-Winters-starring.
This year, global catastrophes have been confronted in Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, about a destructive virus, and in Margin Call, about a destructive financial firm. Now there is Lars von Trier's science-fiction drama Melancholia, a potent, frightening film in which Earth seems to be on a collision course with a massive heavenly body, the mysterious planet Melancholia. At the same time, a woman named Justine (Kirsten Dunst) suffers crushing depression.
Dunst won Best Actress at Cannes this year for her work in Melancholia, and it is indeed a gripping performance. I don't mean to invoke a cliché when I say that it is brave. She starkly portrays a woman overcome by a mental illness, to the point that eventually she can't walk, she can't bathe, and her food tastes like ashes.
This we see only in the second half. At the beginning of the film, she is cheerful. She has just been married, and the reception is under way at the vast estate of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Justine deteriorates over the course of this long, stunning sequence. Her father (John Hurt) keeps his distance. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling) hisses insults. Claire pleads and John rages. Justine keeps wandering off, and what eventually takes place that night is a calamity - not the celestial calamity that may or may not await, but a calamity all the same.
Time passes. A helpless Justine arrives at the estate, and Claire begins looking after her. As the day of Earth's rendezvous with Melancholia nears, Claire falls apart, even as she is reassured by John, a man of science. Amusingly, Claire's panic grows most acute when she turns to that reliable source of misinformation, the Internet. Meanwhile, Justine somehow grows more composed.
This is a grim, agonizingly suspenseful film, and a lovely one. It reminds me of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its mystery, its cosmic imagery, its classical-music soundtrack. (Lars von Trier was riffing on Wagner, whose gorgeous Tristan und Isolde prelude is heard repeatedly, when he made those unfortunate remarks about Nazis earlier this year.) Melancholia also reminds me of Tarkovsky's Solaris: a despairing drama unfolds as an ominous alien planet looms nearby.
I'm chilled that Justine grows more tranquil, even serene, as the end of the world approaches. The film seems to be saying something very dark about the devastating illness that is depression. "The Earth is evil," she says levelly. "We don't need to grieve for it. No one will miss it."