A movie masterpiece is hiding in plain sight of anyone with access to video on demand — a work of genius available well ahead of its theatrical release on Nov. 11: Melancholia (2011, R, 2 hrs., 15 mins.) is Lars von Trier’s ecstatic magnum opus on the themes of depression, cataclysm, and the way the world might end. The title describes the mounting sadness and doom pressing down on Justine (an alabaster Kirsten Dunst, who deservedly took home a 2011 award at the Cannes Film Festival for her magnificent work), a mood-swinging bride on her wedding day. Justine is attended to by her protective sister, Claire (a soulful Charlotte Gainsbourg), and worried over by her bewildered groom (Alexander Skarsgard). But in von Trier’s imagined galaxy, Melancholia is also the name of a planet that is hurtling on a catastrophic collision course with Earth on the very same day — a cosmic manifestation of that same crushing sadness, discovered through a telescope’s eye by Claire’s astronomer husband (Kiefer Sutherland).
The restlessly creative Danish filmmaker behind Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and the furious gyno-nightmare Antichrist is known to have survived a black depression himself. (His recent controversial comments about Nazism suggest he still has psychological work to do.) But here he sets aside all trickster impulses of provocation to create striking visual tableaux that, in their majestic simplicity, convey a profound emotional depth that transcends words. He’s insightful, too, about the sisters — one blond, one dark — who embody the aspects of orbiting planets: As earthly (rather than emotional) chaos takes over, Justine, the fragile one, finds a strength that begins to fail Claire, the sturdy one. As the cosmos spins perpetually forward encompassing both life and death, von Trier suggests, so do our psyches — and our souls.
Melancholia imagines the end of the world. But its VOD-before-theatrical release may be a portent of the shrunken world (and screens) that movie lovers will soon face. The filmmaker blends the grand romanticism of Wagnerian music — specifically the famous prelude from Tristan und Isolde — with swooning dreamscape cinematography that magically melts sight and sound into one. (Von Trier has said that Antonioni, Bergman, and Tarkovsky are among his influences.) So please, please, for the love of movies, if you’re taking advantage of the brave new universe of delivery methods, watch this stunner without pausing, on the biggest screen available, and with the best possible sound system. It’s a giant achievement. A