CANNES, France (Reuters) - A cosmic collision brings the end to all life in "Melancholia," a grand cinematic vision from Danish maverick director Lars Von Trier that had the Cannes film festival buzzing with excitement on Wednesday.
The movie, starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg as troubled sisters facing imminent death, brings stunning images on Earth and beyond and sets the tragedy to the swirling music of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde."
Von Trier stunned Cannes two years ago with his sexually explicit and brutally violent "Antichrist," and the shock tactics returned on Wednesday when he told a press conference that he sympathized "a little bit" with Adolf Hitler.
Melancholia is one of 20 films in the main competition at the world's biggest cinema showcase, and judging by loud applause and the lively chatter of critics and journalists after a press screening, he is in the running for the top prize.
Asked whether Melancholia had a chance of scooping the coveted Palme d'Or for best picture, which Von Trier won in 2000 with "Dancer In the Dark," Von Trier said: "Oh yes I do, oh yes I do ... oh yes, oh yes."
In a press conference where some of the director's comments had reporters scratching their heads in bewilderment, he was also asked whether he liked his film.
"I saw it in bits and saw the stills from it, I kind of rejected it a little bit so I'm not really sure. Maybe it's crap. Of course I hope not, but there is quite a big possibility that this might be really not worth seeing."
Dunst plays Justine, a bride who cannot shake off crippling depression even at her own wedding -- a theme partly inspired by Von Trier's own battle with the condition.
"To me it's not so much a film about the end of the world. It's a film about a state of mind," he said. "I've been through some melancholic stages of my life so it's obvious to do this."
The grand wedding reception in a stately home quickly unravels, with Justine's acerbic, embittered mother played by Charlotte Rampling declaring she doesn't believe in marriage.
The second part focuses on her sister Claire (Gainsbourg) whose anxiety grows as the planet Melancholia appears to be on a collision course with Earth.
The film's fascination is not with how it will end -- Von Trier makes that clear in the opening shots -- but how the two sisters cope differently with impending doom.
Kiefer Sutherland plays Claire's husband and John Hurt appears as Justine's father, but it is the two sisters who dominate a film that deals in part with humanity's fascination with and fear of death.
The movie is likely to be compared to U.S. director Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," also in competition in Cannes, which also tackles some of life's big questions and carries viewers into outer space.
Von Trier made several provocative statements at the press conference that had Dunst squirming in her seat.
He said he planned a porn film starring his two actresses, and was later asked to expand on comments he had made during a recent interview that he was interested in the Nazi aesthetic.
After declaring he had German roots, he added: "What can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things, yes absolutely but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end.
"I think I understand the man. He's not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him and I sympathize with him a little bit. I'm not for the Second World War, and I'm not against Jews," he added, before criticizing Israel and joking that he was a Nazi.
"Oh Lars, that was intense," Dunst said as the briefing ended.
Von Trier looked set once again to be the talk of Cannes.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato