It couldn’t last. As the closing credits began rolling on Wednesday morning’s 8.30am Cannes press screening of “Melancholia,” Lars Von Trier’s elegant rumination on anxiety, the apocalypse and all those other swell things, I was stunned by how civil the atmosphere in the vast Lumiere theater was.
Enthusiastic applause greeted the film — more surprisingly, so did a distinct absence of boos. Soaking up the post-screening chatter in the foyer, I didn’t once hear the words “misogynist,” “perverted” or “clitoridectomy,” but I did pick up a bushel apiece of “moving” and “beautiful.” A number of critics disliked it, of course, but it rather seemed as if Lars Von Trier had pulled off the (for him) impossible: a film that touched many and upset no one.
And then came this.
As if aware that his measured, intellectual film wasn’t going to stir enough media-baiting controversy on its own, the Danish auteur decided to make a crack about Nazis to help things along. A misguided and not particularly coherent crack, certainly — in any context, “I’m a Nazi” are words most people should avoid using, and not only for the sake of social harmony — but one made in eccentric jest, with a droll awareness of its own lack of truth. “How do I get out of this sentence?” he asked, sheepishly, only a few seconds later.
The assembly of journalists at the press conference laughed, seemingly pleased that their favorite provocateur was still bringing the crazy after his subdued new film, and grateful for the column inches they could squeeze from this rather lame joke. Par for the course, one might say, for a man sufficiently anti-social to have the word “fuck” tattooed across his knuckles.
I watched from the press room: “Oh, Lars,” I thought, wincing slightly in embarrassment for the man, while perversely pleased that he’d secured a good few days of publicity for an excellent film. As they were wrapping things up, I dashed off (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to a screening of the Aki Kaurismaki’s Palme d’Or favorite “Le Havre,” and gave the matter no further thought.
Until today, when Cannes organizers declared themselves so unamused by von Trier’s statements that he was no longer welcome at the festival. Ever. “Melancholia” may still compete for prizes on Sunday evening, and if the jury is feeling particularly rebellious, it could well win one. Its director, however, won’t be permitted to collect any it may get. So goes their statement:
The Festival’s Board of Directors, which held an extraordinary meeting this Thursday 19 May 2011, profoundly regrets that this forum has been used by Lars Von Trier to express comments that are unacceptable, intolerable, and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the Festival. The Board of Directors firmly condemns these comments and declares Lars Von Trier a persona non grata at the Festival de Cannes, with effect immediately.
(I’m glad their meeting was “extraordinary.” I always imagined disciplinary discussions to be rather dry affairs myself.)
The Board of Directors seems to be at the tail-end of the Chinese-whispers game the internet so excels at, where the object is to strip any statement of its original wording and tone: deadpan irony is a frequent loser in this practice, as is passive-aggressive self-deprecation. (By this time, some corners of the net would have you believe that Von Trier is a neo-Nazi youth leader.)
Even if the Board did consider the context of his statements, their decision to ban him from the festival feels both rash and disingenuous. The director has been coming to the festival since 1984, enraging many ever since with his films and contentious statements alike. (This is not even the first time the Nazi topic has come up — it’s crucial to discussion of his 1991 feature “Europa.”) Cannes brass keep placing his films (good or bad) in Competition, so until now, they have either desired or made peace with the media circus he sets in motion. His latest silly gaffe doesn’t seem pointed enough to have single-handedly prompted this about-face, nor deep-rooted enough to have proven any kind of final straw. (If anything, his leery joke about making a porn film with Dunst was more bothersome.)
The Board of Directors would surely strenuously (if not truthfully) deny that they have repeatedly selected Von Trier for any reason other than his prowess as a filmmaker, so to disown him for reasons unrelated to his work sets a curious double standard. It’s all about the movies at Cannes, until it isn’t.
Asked for my opinion on the matter for a lengthier article on the subject by The Guardian’s Catherine Shoard, I contributed these thoughts:
This just amounts to fighting stupidity with stupidity – not to mention a little hypocrisy, when Mel Gibson was given the red-carpet treatment only a few days ago. Von Trier will be fine: I’m sure the ever more competitive Venice film festival will be happy to house his future works. If anything, this just proves his remarkable ability to remain the centre of attention.
In other words, he’ll keep making movies and saying curious things about them, and we’ll keep watching The Lars Von Trier Show. Even the festival could reverse its stand a few years down the line if he behaves himself — I can already see such a self-congratulatory act of “forgiveness” earning the director yet more headlines. Nothing to see here, save for “Melancholia,” the very fine film that’s getting a little lost in this firestorm. (My review of the film here — more on this subject, and many others, in tomorrow’s edition of Oscar Talk.)