This is the way the world ends; not with a bang, but with Kirsten Dunst floating downstream in a bridal gown.

Lars Von Trier's haunting "Melancholia" opens with a wordless prelude, as several scenes (including that one of Dunst in the dress) appear in extreme slow motion, so slow they almost look like still photographs. (If you saw Von Trier's last film, "Antichrist," you'll recognize the technique.)

As Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" swells on the soundtrack, the images shown are at once beautiful and surreal, even unnerving. A painting burns into ashes. Dunst runs through the woods, gray roots tugging at her dress. A frightened mother carries her son across a golf course, her legs sinking into the grass as if it were quicksand.

Most of those images are explained by the film's end, but the famously gloomy, prickly and brilliant Von Trier isn't really in the explaining business. Instead, "Melancholia" is a rapturous, cryptic and unforgettable film about ordinary folks choosing how they will face what may be the end of the world.

The film is divided into two distinct sections. The first, "Justine," focuses on Justine (Dunst) and her wedding day at the palatial estate owned by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). The reception is deliberately ostentatious, every detail oozing money and privilege, including the wry opening shot of a white stretch limo, trying and failing to navigate its way up a winding country road.

At first, Justine and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) seem happily in love. But Justine suffers from depression, and as the reception wears on, her beatific grin is replaced by the phony, pained smile of someone just trying to get through the night. Old resentments surface between the members of Justine's family, including her flighty father (John Hurt) and bitter mother (Charlotte Rampling), Justine's mood darkens further, and the reception slides into disaster. ("She ruined my wedding!" the wedding planner (Udo Kier) rages in one of the film's few laugh lines.)

Von Trier shoots the "Justine" section with rigor and discipline, using available light, hand-held cameras and overlapping dialogue to create the sense he's documenting a real, painful event. Toward the end of the section, Justine looks through a telescope and notices a star out of place in the sky.

Cut to the second section, "Claire." Several months have apparently passed, and that star in the sky is now a planet, looming as large as the sun. The rogue planet is named Melancholia, and scientists reassure the public that the planet's path will give earthlings quite a show as it whizzes harmlessly across the sky. But Claire, usually so level-headed and calm, is growing more fearful that Melancholia will hit Earth.

A nearly catatonic Justine returns to the estate, and as Claire becomes more frightened, Justine starts to become fascinated by Melancholia. Von Trier is clearly connecting the planet with Justine's depression (which he also reportedly suffers from); not only is the name of the planet an obvious tip-off, but its pale blue color is the exact shade of Dunst's eyes.

The film's cruel joke is that the presence of a planet-killing force validates Justine's view that life is worthless. As Claire grows increasingly panicked at the thought of annihilation, Justine becomes more serene, her cool gaze seeming to say, "Welcome to my world."

It's a pitch-dark theme for a film, although we expect nothing less from the filmmaker who made "Dancer in the Dark" and "Antichrist." "Melancholia," though, feels like a more adult film than we're used to seeing from Von Trier, who restrains himself from his usual, juvenile impulses to punish his characters and lecture his viewers.

Some of the characters in "Melancholia" are broad stereotypes, such as Sutherland's boorish tycoon, who brags endlessly about the 18-hole golf course on his property (which nobody ever seems to play). But generally these feel like real people dealing with an unimaginable situation, and Von Trier gives Gainsbourg and Dunst room to create complex characters. Dunst, in particular, delivers a fearless performance, the protective layers that Justine wears stripped away as the movie progresses, leaving a hardened (but not unfeeling) core.

By the end of the film, Von Trier finds a way to give his characters a moment of grace, of the sort we're not used to seeing in his films. That feels like artistic growth, even if he had to destroy the world to get there.

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