In conjunction with (or at least happening as the same time as) indieWIRE's redesign, Eric Kohn is launching a new biweekly feature, "Critical Consensus." The idea: he'll be talking with two critics about films currently in theaters, and he's starting off with a bang, discussing Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar (see the roundup, updated through today) and Lars von Trier's Melancholia with J Hoberman and Amy Taubin, both of whom admire both films. All three critics compare their first viewings of Melancholia in Cannes with their second viewing a few months later under less hectic conditions back in New York. Hoberman: "I was enthralled from the first images on; when the movie ended, I was amazed that von Trier had carried it off; it was a tour de force…. I'm not prepared to call Melancholia von Trier's best work, but I do think it's up there with Idiots and Dogville as one of his top three."
Melancholia is the first of von Trier's films that Taubin has taken a liking to: "I loathe most of his movies, Dogville included, primarily for their misogyny." That's got her tangling with one "F.P." in the comments section, but that aside, she's "dazzled that the movie can be read consistently as a disaster-from-outer-space flick and a psychodrama about how people with bipolar disorder can feel depression bearing down on them and are helpless to ward it off."
"Only an egomaniac like Lars von Trier could turn the notion of a planet on a collision course with Earth into a metaphor for his own depression, and only a mad genius could make it sing," writes New York's David Edelstein. "Melancholia, which is also the name of the party-crashing planet, is a lyrical ode to the end of the world — a world Von Trier plainly loathes, in which family can't protect you, marriage is a sham, and capitalism poisons all. The vision is as hateful as it is hate-filled, but the fusion of form and content is so perfect that it borders on the sublime."
With David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, another NYFF 2011 alumnus, opening in theaters in just over a week, it's fitting that the New York Times' AO Scott pulls Freud off the shelf for a definition of melancholia — "a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment" — while Michael Guillén notes that, while watching von Trier's film, he "kept thinking of an early memory of Carl Gustav Jung's, poignantly recalled in his autobiography Memories, Dreams and Reflections: 'I had anxiety dreams of things that were now small, now large. For instance, I saw a tiny ball at a great distance; gradually it approached, growing steadily into a monstrous and suffocating object. ...I see in this a psychogenic factor: the atmosphere of the house was beginning to be unbreathable.'"
Scott: "Freud's diagnosis pretty much captures the mental state of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a young woman whose history of crippling depression overshadows her lavish wedding party and threatens to blight her chances at future happiness. In the course of a long, hectic night she comes increasingly undone, to the bewilderment of her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), and the exasperation of her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Compared with the humorless, grimly responsible Claire, Justine is impulsive, self-indulgent and charming: the flighty grasshopper to her sister's responsible, dutiful ant."
Here's what Gainsbourg tells Salon's Andrew O'Hehir: "I really had the impression, and maybe it's trying to simplify it too much, that in Antichrist I was playing Lars and Willem [Dafoe] was playing the nurse. In this film, Kirsten is playing Lars and I'm playing the nurse."
"Von Trier is always translating his spiritual autobiography into big-screen images, and, no question, Justine is von Trier," insists Time's Richard Corliss. "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, the modern melancholy Dane, 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.'"
More from Chris Barsanti (Film Journal International), L Caldoran (Cinespect), Alex Carnavale (This Recording), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3.5/4), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 3.5/5), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 4/5), Scott Tobias (AV Club, B+) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 9.5/10). And more from Cannes, where Daniel Kasman saw Melancholia, and New York.
Update, 11/12: Slate's Dana Stevens: "When I stop to think about it, my relationship with Lars von Trier may be more conflicted than with any other filmmaker now working (a fact that in itself is annoying — it accords him so much power!). I hated Antichrist so much that I don't even enjoy explaining why I hated it… And yet — and yet — there's something about the solemn, gloomy, often overwhelmingly powerful experience of watching Melancholia. I'll give it this much: This is a hard movie to forget."
Updates, 11/13: "So what's my problem with this completely unique film?" asks Vanity Fair's new critic, Paul Mazursky. "It is rapturously romantic and downright depressing at the same time — a rare feat. But sometimes it's simply too tough to decipher."