DVD review: 'Melancholia' is a multilayer metaphor

This strange film from Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves,” “Dogville”), which topped my favorites list for 2011, is now available on Blu-ray disc and DVD. It's an impossible movie to categorize sensibly: One can call it “Ingmar Bergman meets Michael Bay,” which is partly true and partly ridiculous. It bounced up and down within my Top 10 but ended up in first place because it haunted my thoughts more than “The Tree of Life” or “Take Shelter” or any of the year's other deep-dish releases. It functions as a multilayer metaphor, allowing several different readings, none of them clearly “right” or “wrong.”

Trier made it after suffering a period of crippling depression — a condition that motivates (or unmotivates) Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the central character. Even more accurately, she suffers from melancholia, which — according to a doctor in one of the disc's supplements — is not a condition, but rather a character trait.

After a deliriously gorgeous visual overture set to an orchestral passage from Wagner's “Tristan und Isolde,” the movie is divided into two parts. The first takes place on Justine's wedding night, as she goes from apparently happy to hostile and self-destructive, managing to destroy her marriage before its first day has passed. You expect someone to comfort the groom with some platitude like, “It's not the end of the world” — which is true. That's in the second part of the film.

A hitherto unknown planet is careening in our general direction. Astronomers insist it will simply pass us by, but, of course, that's what they'd say in any case. Why panic the populace? That the planet has been given the absurdly unlikely name Melancholia suggests a connection to Justine's problem. Is this her dream? Is she somehow psychically linked to the planet? Did she conjure it up into the real world? The answer to those and several other possible questions is: Maybe; could be.

This is one of those movies that should really be seen on the big screen. Failing that, it really deserves the extra resolution of Blu-ray, particularly for the eight-minute overture and the final five minutes, both visually amazing. Sound and video are transferred with dazzling clarity.

The extras are relatively brief, but fairly interesting. There's no commentary track, but, in addition to the usual trailers, we get four shorts (totaling about 35 minutes), focusing on the nature of melancholia, the visual style, the special effects and the scientific underpinnings to the story. (There is also a 5-minute “making of,” produced for HDNet, some of which duplicates material used in the shorts.) Trier participates in all; ever the provocateur, he positively twinkles when he claims that the movie has the happiest ending of any of his films.

"Melancholia" (Magnolia Home Entertainment, Blu-ray, $29.98; DVD, $16.98)
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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