How depressing are Lars von Trier’s films?  This is the man who gave us Breaking the Waves, with its fine central performance by Emily Watson, about a woman who has sex with men at the behest of her paralytic husband because she thinks it’s the will of God; and the reprehensible Antichrist, where Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg inflict emotional and physical pain on one another in a recreation of the Garden of Eden. I’ll admit now that I’m unfamiliar with the rest of von Trier’s works, if for no other reason than I just haven’t seen them.  But both of those earlier films saddened me.  They left me uneasy and full of despair.

So what was I to make of word that von Trier’s new film would deal with the end of the world?  Certainly the concept seemed right up his alley.  Seeing Melancholia, I was surprised to find the drama so absorbing.  Von Trier has referred to this film as his most optimistic.  What an understatement: compared to Breaking the Waves and Antichrist, it’s damned near jolly.

How curious to find that a film about earth colliding with a rogue planet could be so intimate.  This is essentially a two-character study of sisters who go through a painful switching of characteristics: Justine (Kirsten Dunst, in a Cannes award-winning performance), to whom Act 1 is dedicated, fails miserably at marriage before the ink is dry on the certificate.  She’s lost her husband to an indiscreet act of adultery, committed largely out of ennui, and possibly a bit of rebellion against her bickering if joyously divorced parents; that she did it on her wedding night only adds to the humiliation.  Through all of this, Justine is catered to emotionally by Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), capable if tired. She shares a vast country home with her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland), an amateur astronomer.  Justine milks the attention for all it’s worth, emotionally leeching her sister and brother-in-law dry.  Claire can barely contain her resentment.

“Act 2: Claire.”  Justine, overcome by crippling depression, arrives some months later at Claire’s home to recuperate. She can barely move or eat, her expression frozen, eyes almost catatonic.   Claire will nurse her sister back to health, if bitterly so, while shielding her own young son, Leo, from his aunt’s condition.

As Justine recovers, John makes a discovery that excites no one but him: the super planet Melancholia, previously hidden behind the sun, will emerge for a pass-by of earth.  This news unhinges Claire.  She researches the planet relentlessly, spiraling into unimaginable anxiety.  John reassures her that the planets won’t collide.  Justine tries to reassure her as well.  But things change, as sudden as a car crash: Melancholia is circling back toward earth.  How John deals with a new set of astronomical data would not be considered unreasonable if it weren’t so cowardly.  As Claire becomes increasingly unbalanced, Justine finds herself in the unfamiliar position of caring not only for her sister, but her nephew, as well.

This is such a sad film.  Here we have two women inextricably linked by blood, but separated by a chasm of emotional despair that neither is capable of crossing.  Watching Melancholia, I was vaguely reminded of Ingmar Bergman‘s great Cries & Whispers, another film about emotionally stunted sisters.  Bergman’s view of his characters was more savage, I think, but von Trier comes close in an agonizing scene where Claire, having understood her fate, hurls a series of vicious insults at her sister; even in the shadow of potential catastrophe, she feels nothing but pain and resentment. But von Trier tempers the agony with a brief glimmer of hope I didn’t expect: in a small but powerful moment, Justine, Claire, and Leo sit on a grassy hill under a tent made of sticks to watch the approach of Melancholia.

This is not a film with a payoff loaded with special effects, but one where two women who grew to loathe one another connect, if only for a few fleeting seconds.  It’s a shame they wasted so much time getting there.