"Melancholia"

Kirsten Dunst in "Melancholia," a Magnolia Pictures release. (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Lars von Trier has long rivaled Hamlet as the most melancholy of melancholy Danes. With “Melancholia,” his new film, he makes it official.

Fifteen years ago, Von Trier had his first real American success with “Breaking the Waves,” which earned newcomer Emily Watson an Oscar nomination. The best known of his subsequent works — “Dancer in the Dark,” “Dogville” and “Manderlay” — all replicated that film's template: Take a likable young woman (Bjork, Nicole Kidman and Bryce Dallas Howard, respectively) and torment her for two or three hours.

By 2009's “Antichrist,” his last and worst feature, this concept was exhausted, straining and resorting to outrageous violence and sensationalism. The new film is vastly more interesting, perhaps because of its autobiographical underpinnings: Von Trier was recovering from severe depression. (Indeed, the purpose of “Antichrist” was to lift him out of this state by forcing him to work.)

“Melancholia” opens with a visual overture — a gorgeous, stylized flashforward of still and extreme slo-mo images, which tells us up front where the film is heading … toward the destruction of the earth and the snuffing of all life in the universe.

The structure is almost perfectly symmetrical: This seven-minute sequence and the seven-minute closing credit crawl bookend two main sections, each almost exactly an hour. The first takes place at a wedding reception for Justine (Kirsten Dunst, in a deeper performance than she has ever delivered) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), at the palatial home of Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is no less impressive here than Dunst) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Throughout what can legitimately be dubbed The Worst Wedding Night … Ever are (at first) hints that something is way strange about Justine. Soon we see what's strange, as Justine's erratic behavior — the result of her melancholia — turns the evening into a catastrophe.

Near the end of this section, Justine glancingly mentions that something is wrong in the sky; certain usually visible stars can't be seen. In the second section, set weeks or months later, we find out why: A hitherto unknown planet, bizarrely dubbed Melancholia, is hurtling toward the Earth. Scientists have announced that it will pass us by, but there are rumors on the Internet that it's coming straight at us. Justine arrives, literally crippled by her mood disorder, and the film shifts focus to the anxious Claire, who is caring for her. As doom seems increasingly likely, the sisters switch roles: Claire, who has a child, grows hysterical; Justine, to whom life already is pointless, is much calmer. Unlike Claire, she has nothing to lose.

All of this is less depressing than it is horrifying, even though Justine, who claims to have special knowledge, tells Claire — without a shade of doubt in her voice — “The Earth is evil; we don't need to grieve for it.” And then removes any sliver of hope: “We're alone; life is only on Earth … and not for long.”

The movie is rich enough that there are numerous angles to view it from. My favorite is that the world does not end … that the second half is Justine's fantasy of a scenario in which her nihilism is validated. (Think of it as “Mulholland Dr.” in reverse order.) She is finally the strong one, while Claire falls apart. If the disease melancholia has crippled her with a sense of pointlessness, at least now she won't be alone. The planet Melancholia will do the same for everyone else.

“Melancholia” has echoes of the year's other most praised art-house release, Terence Malick's “The Tree of Life,” though the production dates make it clear that neither could have influenced the other. The difference is that, while Malick wants to know what it all means, Trier doesn't even see the point of trying. He feels he already knows — it means nothing.

ANDY KLEIN is film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).