Cannes: Ears to the Ground (3)

By Robert Koehler

Surprisingly, the general critical response out of Cannes to Lars Von Trier’s end-of-the-world, end-of-a-wedding romance, Melancholia, has thus far been generally positive. In our track of the current reviews rolling out, including a few from the French press, the pros outnumber the cons 16 to 8, with very few mixed. As can be seen in the responses thus far, the views of Melancholia are frequently seen under the looming shadow of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, specifically in the two films’ contrasting depictions of the beginning and end of planet Earth. This is because Malick’s film screened Monday, while Von Trier’s screened Wednesday, and in the kind of reflective effect that frequently occurs for film festival attendees, one film in a program begins to have a dialogue with another, and both are viewed inside a joint prism which, seen in different conditions and different times, wouldn’t exist. From a programming standpoint, it may be the first interesting thing I’ve read out of this year’s Cannes, while being certain that the better films in Cannes (such as Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, one of the highest scoring films in the critics’ daily roundup at are far from the Palais.

Below is a roster of Melancholia reviews so far, with links.  But first, this word from Lars Von Trier in the film’s pressbook. Which prompted the question from a journalist at the press screening. Which, in turn, prompted Von Trier’s now-notorious “I’m a Nazi” comment. Which, in turn, prompted Festival de Cannes to label Von Trier as an official “persona non grata,” a label that may or may not mean that he’s being kicked out of his hotel room and being directed back on the autoroute back to Copenhagen. Von Trier’s statement below is where the whole kerfuffle began:

“It was like waking from a dream: my producer showed me a suggestion for a poster. “What is that?” I ask. ”It’s a film you’ve made!” she replies. ”I hope not,” I stammer. Trailers are shown … stills … it looks like shit. I’m shaken. Don’t get me wrong … I’ve worked on the film for two years. With great pleasure. But perhaps I’ve deceived myself. Let myself be tempted. Not that anyone has done anything wrong … on the contrary, everybody has worked loyally and with talent toward the goal defined by me alone. But when my producer presents me with the cold facts, a shiver runs down my spine. This is cream on cream. A woman’s film! I feel ready to reject the film like a wrongly transplanted organ. But what was it I wanted? With a state of mind as my starting point, I desired to dive headlong into the abyss of German romanticism. Wagner in spades. That much I know. But is that not just another way of expressing defeat? Defeat to the lowest of cinematic common denominators? Romance is abused in all sorts of endlessly dull ways in mainstream products. And then, I must admit, I have had happy love relationships with romantic cinema … to name the obvious: Visconti! German romance that leaves you breathless. But in Visconti, there was always something to elevate matters beyond the trivial … elevate it to masterpieces! I am confused now and feel guilty. What have I done?

And now, from some of the critics:

Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) pro: Although Melancholia, by its very title, declares a mournful state of mind, the movie is, in fact, the work of a man whose slow emergence from personal crisis has resulted in a moving masterpiece, marked by an astonishing profundity of vision.

Sukhdev Sandhu (Telegraph) pro: It takes a baffling, almost bone-headed premise, the stuff of schlocky genre movies, and from it creates a mesmerizing, visually gorgeous and often-moving alloy of family drama, philosophical meditation and anti-golfing tract.

Peter Bradshaw (Guardian) con: Once again, Von Trier has written and directed an entire film in his trademark smirk mode: a giggling aria of pretend pain and faux rapture. The script is clunking, and poor Dunst joins Nicole Kidman and Bryce Dallas Howard in the list of Hollywood females who have sleepwalked trustingly through a Von Trier production. Even the spectacle is thin and supercilious.

Eric Kohn (IndieWIRE) pro: The greatest possible expression of Von Trier’s recent “no more happy endings” edict, “Melancholia” is supremely operatic, enlivened by its cosmic sensibility, and yet amazingly rendered on an intimate scale.

Kevin Jagernauth (IndieWIRE) mixed: We continue to admire the director and his dogged commitment to films that follow his own unique vision and personality right to the bitter end. But it’s that self-indulgence that often sabotages his own works as well. “Melancholia” is a personal project in the best and worst ways. We can’t imagine any other film tackling depression with the directness Von Trier does here anytime soon, but there is a curious lack of sensitivity and even compassion in the picture that seriously holds it back. Lars Von Trier films is still his own most fascinating subject, but with “Melancholia,” it would have been nice if he had
orbited a bit more daringly outside his very comfortable sphere.

Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter) con: Lars von Trier manages to turn the end of the world into a bit of a bore in Melancholia.  A brooding cross between The Celebration (Festen) and Armageddon drenched in the tragic romanticism of Richard Wagner, this contemplation of the planet’s demise predictably provides not an ounce of comfort or redemption, nor does it offer characters or ideas with which to meaningfully engage, just ample opportunity to wallow in some rapturous images, glorious music and a foul mood.

Drew McWeeney ( pro: This is the second film in a row where Von Trier has dealt head-on with the depression that almost drove him from filmmaking, and I find it really extraordinary the way he’s taken his own suffering and turned it into art.

Wesley Morris (Boston Globe) mixed to con: This isn’t particularly daring moviemaking from von Trier, not in the way he’s capable of. It’s just severely controlled, touchingly sincere, and, apparently, the result of a conversation he had with unlicensed therapist Penélope Cruz, who opted to make a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie instead of this one. The hearty, jeerless reception the movie received suggests his vision is preferred medicated. Unpacking American movie genres has always interested von Trier (this time, it’s wedding comedies, disaster film, and psychological dramas). But “Melancholia” has much more in common with 1960s Michelangelo Antonioni. Which means that his protagonist is not, for once, a woman he wants to antagonize. It’s a woman he wants to help in whatever way he can. In part, that’s because that woman is him.

Andrew O’Hehir (Salon) pro: “Melancholia” strikes me on first viewing as something truly special, even in an exceptionally strong Cannes competition that includes several other terrific films. I’m going to invoke the magic incantation here: This isn’t really a review. “Melancholia” demands another viewing or two and some time alone afterwards, something that’s ludicrous even to imagine in this hothouse setting. For what it’s worth — which is nothing much, at this point — I think I prefer “Melancholia” to Terrence Malick’s much-debated “The Tree of Life,” but to have two new career-defining works from major film artists that can plausibly be defended as cinematic and philosophical masterpieces in the same festival is close to miraculous… There is tremendous pain in “Melancholia,” but also ravishing beauty, at a level the abundantly talented Trier has never sustained before. He’s right that it’s not a movie about the end of the world (unless the religious wackos who think that’s coming this weekend are correct). It’s about facing life and death and mental illness with as much courage and love as you could muster, and what could be more grand and romantic than that? If the depresso Nordic class clown is trying to undercut his own movie by talking about Hitler and pornography, it’s only because he’s made something tender and exquisite and metaphysical and vulnerable, and now he wants to smash it.

Mike Goodridge (Screen Daily) pro: It’s certainly his most serious film in a while and you don’t get the sense that he is manipulating or mocking the audience as he usually does. It feels like he is passionate about his material here, possibly because it’s a movie about depression and Von Trier has said openly that he battles depression himself. Although at one point in the film I was hating it, by the end I was entirely under its spell.

Peter Howell (Toronto Star) pro: He dazzled with Melancholia, his new science fiction film, premiering here, that sets a fractious family wedding amidst the impending end of the world, caused by a rogue planet colliding with Earth. Although critical opinions seemed mixed, there’s no denying von Trier is still a potent writer/director and master manipulator of images and moods.

Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline) pro: Antichrist was a scream of pain; Melancholia is more like a heavy sigh, a gasp at the horrible wonder of it all. It isn’t nearly as somber as its title would lead you to believe, and it’s so beautiful to look at that it feels decadent, almost luxurious. It’s also, for all its weirdness, reasonably accessible, as if von Trier had decided — tentatively — that once in a while it might feel good to be part of the human race instead of just railing against it. If it’s true that misery loves company, maybe this is von Trier’s way of reaching out. Melancholia may be as close as he’ll ever come to wrapping us in a bear hug.

Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune) pro: Von Trier’s “Melancholia” answers Malick’s spiritual inquiry by saying, well, it was a stupid planet anyway, with a limited shelf life. Yet von Trier, a serious man when he isn’t being the most ill-advised ironic wiseacre this side of a visiting planet, creates startling moments of beauty.

Glenn Heath (Slant) pro : Von Trier avoids antagonizing the viewer with his usual gut-punch theatrics, settling down for a story about colliding worlds, breaking façades, and shifting alliances. The relationships we carry on our shoulders are so heavy the world can literally split apart from the pressure, and there’s nothing like a gigantic blue orb to put specific burdens in perspective. Melancholia finds solace in this respect by dismantling the ways expressions of love, commitment, and family can fail. The hovering balloon lanterns incinerating in the sky, an ignored photograph of a ranch, and dismantled vows are signals of an emotional world shifting off its axis. These are von Trier’s cinematic cave paintings to a pulverizing overture of calamity. Melancholia descends calmly into the fiery red night with an unnerving grace only von Trier could conjure.

Richard Corliss (Time) mixed: Every Cannes Festival needs a Wow! moment, and the opening few minutes of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia provided the artistic sensation of Cannes 2011. Even as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, this Festival’s other big event, re-created the beginning of the cosmos, so, with similarly spectacular imagery but with a greater emotional resonance, Melancholia begins with the end of the world. It’s as if these two highly esteemed, blithely quirky filmmakers had been assigned the complementary subjects of ontogeny and eschatology, and responded with their grand, distilled visions.

J. Hoberman (Village Voice) pro: There are many differences between Melancholia and Tree of Life. The comparison is not a matter of filmmaking (although the first five minutes of Melancholia are more innovative, accomplished, and visionary than anything in The Tree of Life); it’s a matter of sensibility. (For some, Von Trier’s appalling skepticism might make Malick’s faith all the more touching.) But for me the most important difference is the distinction between art and kitsch.

Mike D’Angelo (The A.V. Club) con: fully half of the film is devoted to a portrait of Justine’s depression, which gradually overwhelms her on her wedding day. And by the time that half had drawn to a close, Von Trier had pretty much lost me.

Lee Marshall (Screen Daily) con: For all the film’s widescreen panache, the script at the heart of the exercise feels like an uncooked avant-garde play.

Dave Calhoun (Time Out) con: This is a lethargic, pretty and frustratingly empty study in ways of living and dying from Danish director Lars Von Trier. He follows ‘Antichrist’ with a more calm and restrained work but also one which feels curiously disengaged from the world and only impressive and powerful on a technical level rather than an intellectual or emotional one.

Simon Gallagher (Film School Rejects) pro: Melancholia is very much the embodiment of Von Trier’s commitment to producing a cinema of self-harm: it is a manifestation of his inner turmoil, explicated and resolved through this fantastical filmic wound, as he seeks to match the thrilling sensation of his inner melancholia (something audiences will invariably find troubling) with an exterior, artistic sensation. And it is incredibly successful in that agenda, albeit at a cost of the audience’s enjoyment and traditional sense of pleasure. But then those responses are perhaps best viewed as the rituals of cinema that Von Trier is determined to destroy.

Todd Brown (Twitch) con: Congratulations to everyone who has ever accused director Lars Von Trier of self absorption and hollow pretentiousness. You win this round. Von Trier’s Melancholia is a glossy but hollow exercise with shockingly little to say and – seemingly – surprisingly little effort put in to saying it well. Poor performances and shoddy dialogue are just the most obvious problems with this one, a film that handily wrests the ‘Worst Film Of Career’ title away from The Boss Of It All and, in the process, takes its place as the first Von Trier film that I would classify as just plain bad. Melancholia is a lot like a lottery scratch card, promising a lot under it’s shiny surface but ultimately nothing more than a wafer thin disappointment.

Peter Debruge (Variety) pro: For all the tyrannical disdain he’s shown other filmmakers over the years, von Trier once again demonstrates a mastery of classical technique, extracting incredibly strong performances from his cast while serving up a sturdy blend of fly-on-the-wall naturalism and jaw-dropping visual effects.

Brad Brevet (Rope of Silicon) con: However, as poetic as that may sound, the film doesn’t offer very much. Melancholia seems to simply come from a place of boredom and von Trier’s interest in making a film because he had nothing better to do.

Roger Koza (Con Los Ojos Abiertos) con: (Koza notes Malick’s New Age affiliations) Y vendrán los últimos 30 minutos, y el filme deriva indefectiblemente hacia un nuevo poema visual, ahora kitsch y fervientemente religioso en el que la espiritualidad New Age y un evangelismo difuso van fagocitando tanto la totalidad del film como las inquietudes filosóficas de Mallick (quien supo alguna vez traducir algunas obras tardías de Martin Heidegger).

Jean-Marc Lalanne (Les Inrockuptibles) pro: (Lalanne says, in sum, Better than Kubrick!) Certes, c’est Orange mécanique qui, quarante après sa sortie, bénéficie d’une montée des marches (Malcom Mc Dowell, la famille Kubrick…) et d’une copie restaurée. Mais le film du festival, c’est 2001 l’odyssée de l’espace. Après Terrence Malick, c’est Lars Von Trier qui propose son grand film astral. Les cinq premières minutes, techniquement assez virtuoses, prêtent même à sourire tant cette ronde de planètes sur fond de musique classique hurle le désir de Lars Von Trier de surpasser Kubrick dans le métaphysique grandiose et spectaculaire.

Isabelle Regnier (Le Monde) pro : Je passe sur les effroyables déclarations du cinéaste danois, qui m’ont violemment déprimée. Son film au contraire, est le plus aimable qu’il ait fait depuis longtemps. Extrêmement impressionnant d’un point de vue plastique, porté par deux actrices au sommet de leur talent (Kirsten Dunst et Charlotte Gainsbourg), il annonce son programme dès le prologue : la fin du monde, qui adviendra par la collusion d’une grosse planète, Melancholia, avec la terre. Si le point de vue du cinéaste est aussi surplombant qu’à son habitude, le film est plus ouvert, et plus ample du même coup, que ses précédents notamment parce qu’il ne regarde plus ses personnages de la même manière. Il leur apporte une plus grande complexité, leur laisse une chance, un degré de liberté auquel il ne nous avait pas habitués.

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