Lars von Trier's restless formal experimentation makes him difficult to pin down, but the Dane responsible for Dancer in the Dark and Dogville tends toward an obsession with wretchedness. The results are often insane (the fate of Willem Dafoe's poor penis in Antichrist), sometimes painfully funny (the absurd theater of The Idiots) and frequently just plain stupid (almost everything else he's touched). With Melancholia, von Trier has finally struck on a subject and a story perfectly suited to his fixation on the epically fucked; he has, at last, made a masterpiece.

A disaster movie hiding a Bergmanesque character study, Melancholia investigates the farthest, darkest edge of depression, that point at which a besieged mind begins craving obliteration. Because von Trier never met a bummer vibe he didn't want to beat to death, psychic suffering is here imagined on the largest possible scale, with the earthly tribulations of a select few humans mirrored by an impending collision of cosmic proportions. 

Von Trier begins at the end, with surreal eschatological visions rendered in extremely slow motion: Birds fall from the sky, and a woman sinks into a golf course's pristine lawn as two planets, one of them our own, move in for a potentially cataclysmic meeting. The two hours following this grandiose prologue hitch a ride to what might be Earth's final minutes with Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), fragile sisters beset by complementary bouts of crushing depression and mounting panic. Justine is a mess who manages to sabotage her lavish wedding with her sadness, while Claire's nurturing instinct morphs into bitterly obsessive worry over Melancholia, a newly discovered planet on course to barely miss crashing into our wet rock.

A planet called Melancholia hurtling toward Earth at 60,000 mph while a Wagner plaint plays the entire species off and Kirsten Dunst scowls? Ridiculous, I know. But listen: There really are soul-searing kinds of sadness that can stretch minds to cruel and impossible limits, and perhaps such states can only be comprehended with the help of something as absurd and terrifying as a new blue planet rising on Earth's horizon. What is certain is that von Trier brings us perilously close to understanding the horrible shape of utter disconsolation. It hurts to watch. It should. R.

96 SEE IT: Melancholia opens Friday at Cinema 21.