CANNES, FRANCE — The second shoe dropped — or rather exploded — this morning in Cannes. A combination of luck and programming genius contrived to have Lars von Trier's Melancholia screened for the press a mere 48 hours after the first showing of Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. 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.
There will surely be people who don't much care for either of these monumentally, even monstrously, ambitious movies — both family dramas drenched in classical music and played against the most cosmic of circumstances — but I cannot imagine there will be many who care for them equally. For when von Trier obliterates the world in Melancholia he also destroys Malick's worldview, or at least puts it in perspective.
Generically, Melancholia is a disaster film, featuring two disasters. The first half is devoted to the utter disintegration of a storybook wedding party — a fete that begins for us with the bride (Kirsten Dunst) and groom (Alexander Skarsgård) arriving some hours late because their stretch limo proves unable to navigate the turns up to the castle where her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) wait. It's a costly debacle, predicated on series of mishaps and breakdowns and accentuated by the hand-held frenzy with which much of it is shown, but it's not the end of the world. That's the second half, as the mystery planet Melancholia — a mere speck of light when the movie opens — bears inexorably down on the Earth.
One of the great privileges of Cannes is to experience a movie fresh, without the curse of critical spin. I can remember several such screenings — Southland Tales in 2007, Brown Bunny and von Trier's Dogville in 2003 — each memorable for very different reasons.
Writing this, I have no idea what the critical consensus will be on Melancholia, having rushed from the Grand Palais (and eschewed von Trier's typically inflammatory press conference, where apparently the professionally obnoxious, terminally sarcastic filmmaker stepped on his film by calling himself a Nazi) to articulate my response while the experience was still fresh.
The movie received a few loud boos and some polite applause that grew in intensity as the final credits rolled on. The response that most surprised me was the commotion in the aisles with people rushing from the theater even as it was clear the movie was building up its final moments. Probably they were hurrying to get seats at the press conference. I'd like to believe however that for some, like the characters on the screen, the tension was unbearable: They couldn't stand to see the end. The word “melancholia” describes a state of being. Melancholia is an experiential movie, wondering (among other things) how doomsday might feel.
Plenty of moments in Melancholia are painfully funny. Some moments are even painful to watch, but there was never a moment when I thought about the time or my next movie or did not care about the characters or had anything less than complete interest in what was happening on the screen.
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. 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.