How do you solve a problem like Von Trier?

Posted by · 3:10 pm · May 19th, 2011

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.)

→ 16 Comments Tags: , , , | Filed in: Daily

16 responses so far

  • 1 5-19-2011 at 3:40 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    “If anything, his leery joke about making a porn film with Dunst was more bothersome.”

    Why? He’s been interested in making ‘pornography as art’ for sometime now. Of course I take the press conference statement about Dunst as the joke it was intended.

  • 2 5-19-2011 at 3:43 pm

    Drew Higgins said...

    I agree that the banishment feels somewhat incongruous with the former Cannes/Von Trier dynamic. That said, comparisons to Gibson are really pretty irrelevant. Gibson-while more likely an anti-semitist than Von Trier, didn’t choose the Cannes Film Festival as his forum.

    And that’s the issue.

  • 3 5-19-2011 at 4:26 pm

    Fitz said...

    I’m sure that they didn’t appreciate the topic being taken from art-house films to Nazis. That’s the real cause behind all this.

  • 4 5-19-2011 at 4:33 pm

    Zack said...

    How do you break the wave and pin it down?

  • 5 5-19-2011 at 4:44 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Fitz: Then shouldn’t the journalist who asked the question be punished?

  • 6 5-19-2011 at 6:10 pm

    SJG said...

    Guy, you do realize that “extraordinary” simply means that it was “out of the ordinary” in the sense that, ordinarily, disciplinary meetings like this do not happen… right?

    Kind of like if I take a shower every evening, and then one day I take a shower in the morning instead of in the evening, then my morning shower would be an “extraordinary” shower, because it goes against my “ordinary” routine.

    In short, they mean that the meaning was a break from their regularly scheduled activities. I’m sure that the disciplinary discussion was as dry an affair as you’ve always imagined.

  • 7 5-19-2011 at 7:02 pm

    Fitz said...

    Guy: I get the feeling they won’t be invited back. But in the mind of the committee Von Trier needed to be embarrassed publicly.

  • 8 5-19-2011 at 7:13 pm

    parker said...

    Best. headline. ever.

    Well done, Guy; I bow to you.

  • 9 5-19-2011 at 8:27 pm

    PJ said...

    “We Need to Talk About Lars”?

  • 10 5-19-2011 at 8:44 pm

    Jasmine said...

    I don’t really feel bad for the guy. I was wondering how much longer he was gonna get aware with his attention whoring — in words and in his “art” — although I agree with you that the “that’s how women are” comment is a lot more disturbing and seemed less in jest than the nazi comments, clearly, were.

    In other news I’m glad to hear that Le Havre’s become a Palme favorite, although I agree Ceylon could manage to shake things up. I’m a big fan of both him and Kaurismaki.

  • 11 5-20-2011 at 1:36 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    SJG: Obviously I’m being facetious there — it’s a case of second-language English speakers missing the non-literal essence a word has acquired in general parlance. (Certainly, you could say you had an “extraordinary shower,” but it would be an undeniably eccentric turn of phrase.) Anyway, I was merely amused by it. No harm in a little levity.

  • 12 5-20-2011 at 2:41 am

    Michael W. said...

    What’s really ridiculous about all this is that the real reason for why he started talking about nazi’s and why the reporter asked the question that started it all, has basically not been mentioned.

    It’s from an interview he did before Cannes that was printed in the Danih Film Institute Film Magazine.


    Sorry for this long quote, but what he is expressing here is clearly what he was trying to say at the press conference. But for some reason failed miserably :D Maybe because he wanted to be his sarcastic self at the same time…

    ” When my mother was on her deathbed, I found out that I wasn’t a Trier after all but came from a German family. I always found Nietzsche interesting and now I’m reading Thomas Mann. The Germans have always influenced me. At one point, I was tapped to direct Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle in Bayreuth, but it turned out that they didn’t have the money for it anyway, because I was far too ambitious. I have always flirted a bit with the good Herr Wagner, and in ‘Antichrist’ we inched towards a kind of German Romantic painting. Indeed, sturm und drang and everything that followed.”

    Among everything that followed the composer Richard Wagner and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, as we know, was an anti-Semitic Austrian with an enthusiasm for Teutonic High Romanticism and a heavy-handed beat.

    “Yes, the Nazis certainly cut on the beat. They didn’t pussyfoot around. I’ve always had a weakness for the Nazi aesthetic. A Stuka will outlive a British Spitfire in our consciousness by millennia. That’s my point of view. While a Spitfire has all those rounded forms and was a very beautiful airplane, the Stuka was a revelation. A lot of Nazi design was amazing. They had such big thoughts. The Stuka was a dive-bomber that swooped down and dropped its bombs with great precision. A special feature about the Stuka was that its bombs were equipped with a little whistle, which is staggeringly cynical but also a sign of artistic surplus. Someone was thinking, ‘How can we make this bomb even worse than it already is?’ The whistles were supposed to erode the enemy’s morale. The sound of that whistle was so scary. I was talking with some Danish elite soldiers who told me that when you’re attacking a group of people, let’s say in Afghanistan, you send the first two shots into the abdominal area of those in front. It’s extremely painful to be shot in the stomach. So the ones who are hit in the stomach start screaming, and when they do, the others get scared and lose their concentration. If they had been shot in the head, they would just fall down. There’s this rule to aim the first two shots at the abdomen and the rest at the head.”

  • 13 5-20-2011 at 3:51 am

    Aleksis said...

    Trier has been showing up at their festival regularly since the early 80s acting like a spoilt child and supporting the myth that arthouse directors are all unpleasant, pompous megalomaniacs. They should have banned (or at least stopped inviting him) him ages ago.

    He got exactly what he was asking for: attention. He’s been an attention seeker ever since he added “von” between his names in film school. His work has never been good enough to get widespread recognition on its own merits so he’s built a reputation, from the very beginning, through provocation and cult of personality.

    Besides that, they’re playing him at his own game. He uses Cannes to draw attention to himself; Cannes is using Trier to draw attention to itself. “All publicity is good publicity.” Everyone “wins”, surely.

  • 14 5-20-2011 at 4:28 am

    Kokolo said...

    The title of the article is brilliant. Gave me a huge smile, and believe me I needed it. Now I won’t stop singing it for the entire day.
    And this whole situation is so ridiculously overblown it almost feels staged.

  • 15 5-20-2011 at 2:54 pm

    Plainview said...

    Well, Von Trier can simply go to Venice and he’ll be fine. Cannes loses more than he does.

  • 16 5-20-2011 at 8:46 pm

    Glenn said...

    MELANCHOLIA, a film that isn’t “controversial” at all, can now hail itself as being from a filmmaker so controversial he got kicked out of Cannes. Well done, Cannes!