The artist of sublime faith (of the pantheistic, immanent kind) versus the artist of sublime cynicism. “Earth is heaven (and purgatory)” versus “Earth is evil.” With catastrophe and Kubrick’s 2001 lurking in the background of both…

MUBI has a good run-down of the reviews from Cannes of these two filmmakers’ just debuted films, von Trier’s Melancholia and Malick’s The Tree of Life. With the films playing  two days apart, it seems the thing to do has been to compare them. Snippets of these comparisons follow.

Screen‘s Lee Marshall:

[Melancholia's] opening pre-title section is a standalone tone-poem… For eight minutes we are presented with a series of captivating symbolic tableaux shot with dreamlike clarity: birds falling dead from the sky around an expressionless Kirsten Dunst; Charlotte Gainsbourg trudging with a young boy in her arms through grass on a golf course that seems to have turned to quicksand, and other doom-laden augurs, which culminate in a magnificently visualized planetary collision…. Melancholia‘s imagining of a lonely, internalised apocalypse, experienced, in the end, only by Justine, Claire, Claire’s young son and the horses in the stables, in a big old country house isolated from the rest of the world, does build a weirdly memorable dreamscape, for all its faults of story, script and character.”

AV Club‘s Mike D’Angelo:

[Melancholia] plays as if Lars von Trier saw The Tree of Life on Monday morning and then somehow shot a feature-length rebuttal in less than 48 hours. Conflating the personal and the cosmic with equal bravado, but focusing on the opposite end of the universal timeline, it’s clearly every bit as autobiographical as Malick’s film, though in this case the details have been shrouded in allegory….

The Village Voice‘s J. Hoberman:

“On Monday I characterized The Tree of Life as a train wreck — I was wrong. It’s Von Trier who has contrived the spectacle impossible to turn away from…. [W]hen Von Trier obliterates the world in Melancholia he also destroys Malick’s worldview, or at least puts it in perspective…. 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. Von Trier has made a movie about the end of world — when I left the theater and exited out into Cannes, I felt light, rejuvenated and unconscionably happy.”

Time‘s Richard Corliss:

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.

The rest of Melancholia, like the long middle section of The Tree of Life, is devoted to the little people in this hurtling universe, the ants under a microscope. Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Gainsbourg) are sisters: the first a depressive, or in von Trier’s preferred designation a melancholiac, and the second “normal” — though the view of this world-class eccentric is so skewed that he sees normality as a disease, perhaps an epidemic infecting the majority of the population.

[. . .]

Justine’s premonition of the planetary catastrophe at first seems a wishful extension of her world view: “The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it.” But the runaway planet looms closer; the stuffy rationalizations of Claire’s husband Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) ring false; and Justine’s fatalism begins to seem the only sensible response to the end of days. She must agree with in the old Ukrainian proverb, “Expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed,” and with the John Maynard Keynes aphorism, “In the long run we are all dead.” Justine’s neurosis has well prepared her for the arrival of the all-dead times that surprises everyone else.

Again as with the Malick film, Melancholia is a spiritual autobiography. No question, Justine is von Trier. Nils Thorsen, author of the book The Genius: Lars von Trier’s Life, Films and Phobias, writes that the director “has been haunted by anxieties all through his life, and believed that World War III was breaking out every time he heard an airplane as a boy.” But von Trier finds solace in his affliction. As he said to Thorsen: “My analyst told me that melancholiacs will usually be more level-headed than ordinary people in a disastrous situation, because they can say, ‘What did I tell you?’”… But also because they have nothing to lose. And that was the germ of Melancholia.”

Another von Trier mot: “God may have had fun at creation, but he didn’t really think things through.” The same may be said of Melancholia. It’s a big idea, the end of the world, but not particularly well realized here. In this aspect of his work, von Trier is the anti-Malick. Whereas the characters in The Tree of Life are acutely observed and allowed to reveal their souls by longing glances and their specific location in the natural world — ornery life in every corner of the frame, if you only look for it — the people in Melancholia seem stick figures for the author’s views: that logic is crippling, and disability a special gift. Don’t look up to the stars for signs of life, he says. “Forget it! Look inward.”


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