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Cannes Wrap: Melancholia's Battle With The Tree of Life Overwhelms the Festival

Kirsten Dunst in "Nazi" Lars Von Trier's Melancholia

After a week at the Cannes Film Festival, I left the south of France on Thursday morning fully aware that I would likely miss something major. The world's premier showcase of top-shelf auteur cinema would go on without me for another few days, with many highly anticipated Competition titles yet to screen, including Drive, directed by Bronson's Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, from Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan — both of which were awarded prizes by Cannes' main jury on Sunday. But when I landed in Paris for a brief layover Thursday afternoon, I learned a different kind of bomb had dropped while I was in the air.

Wednesday's major event had been the premiere of Melancholia, a visionary, naturalistically performed and divinely digitally enhanced, depression-as-apocalypse epic, with Kirsten Dunst giving a fierce yet highly internalized star turn as a woman whose inability to "just be happy" first destroys her private world and then prepares her for the destruction of the entire world via Earth's imminent collision with another planet. It was my favorite film of the festival.

On Thursday Cannes released a statement declaring Lars von Trier — the writer-director of Melancholia, co-founder of the Dogme 95 movement that revolutionized and legitimized digital filmmaking, and winner of Cannes' top prize in 1999 for Dancer in the Dark — "persona non grata." This was a somewhat delayed reaction to a stream of ill-advised comments a punch-drunk von Trier had dropped toward the end of Melancholia's press conference on Wednesday.

The 55-year-old filmmaker, whose struggles with mental and emotional illness have been well documented (not least by him, within films such as Antichrist), was in his distinctly manic element at that press conference. Von Trier, who arrived with "FUCK" tattooed on his knuckles like a gutter-punk teen, reeled off a number of jokey, facetious, immature statements — including the claim that actresses Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg were begging him to cast them in a porno — before responding to a question about his "interest in the Nazi aesthetic" by acknowledging that he "sympathized with Hitler, yes, a little bit." The Danish director, speaking in his second language of English, proceeded to talk himself further into a corner while apparently trying to clarify: "I am of course very much for Jews — no, not too much, because Israel is a pain in the ass, but still ..."

Perhaps as a gesture to disprove the assumption that "persona non grata" was equivalent to "disqualified from competition," the jury, headed by Robert De Niro, awarded Dunst its best actress prize on Sunday. "Wow, what a week!" the starlet exclaimed in her acceptance speech. Indeed.

This series of events pushed von Trier even further into a Misunderstood Auteur corner diametrically opposed to the one occupied by Terrence Malick, the notoriously reclusive filmmaker whose highly autobiographical, 40-years-in-the-making epic rumination on the mysteries of the universe, The Tree of Life, won Cannes' top prize, the Palme d'Or.

It's tempting to pick a side here — Team Terry's earnest theological questioning versus Team Lars' Dogme dystopia. Despite obvious similarities between their two-hour-plus, universe-contracting, special effects–heavy emotional epics, Malick and von Trier seem to espouse polar opposite philosophies.

Malick's vision is one of eternal childhood, in which you are ever small and at the mercy of a power that created you, controls everything around you and tugs you back and forth between bliss and trauma without apparent method or reason. But the timeline is long and your skepticism is natural, and if you can ride it out, The End offers an opportunity for reconciliation.

In von Trier's, happiness is a fantasy invented by the stupid, the insecure and the opportunist. The universe exists to destroy you, and while "there is nothing to do and nowhere to hide," The End will offer cathartic confirmation that, to paraphrase Lou Barlow, the crazy people were right on all along.

Whether or not Cannes overreacted in its dressing down of von Trier, there is some kind of twisted poetry to such a grand act of self-sabotage happening during the promotion of an avowedly personal film about depression and anxiety as blocks against societal assimilation and forces of absolute destruction. It's the tension between von Trier's sometimes eye roll–inducing instinct for prankish provocation and his lived-in understanding of the invisible forces that prevent human connections that makes his best work, Melancholia included, sublime.

The one-two punch of Life's and Melancholia's premieres gave Cannes 2011 a midfest shot of much-needed ecstatic energy after a first weekend full of films mired in rape, prostitution and pedophilia. Salacious and highly salable variations on body horror, Bertrand Bonello's 1900-set brothel ensemble House of Tolerance and Julia Leigh's empty-headed would-be shocker Sleeping Beauty have their cake while gorging on it, using fetishistic pay-for-play sex predicated on power imbalance as vehicles for studies of victim politics, while also fully indulging in soft-core spectacle. In Miss Bala, Gerardo Naranjo's whirlwind through the torturous journey of an innocent beauty queen caught in the middle of the war on drugs, and Poliss, the faux-doc soap-com about child protection investigators directed by and starring former child actress Maïwenn, rape isn't glamorized, but it is both so pervasive as to become mundane and highly symbolic of the powerlessness of the law in societies spinning out of control.

These divisive spectacles — Poliss won a Jury Prize but was lambasted as the worst of the fest by a good portion of the press corps — overshadowed some of Cannes' quieter triumphs. The Kid With a Bike, the latest tale of ordinary morality and mundane spirituality from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is another in a long line of naturalistic near-masterpieces directed by the Belgian brothers, distinguished by an unexpectedly happy ending.

The discovery of the fest for me was Bonsai, the second feature by Chilean director Cristián Jiménez, a bittersweet, slyly self-reflexive elegy to first love lost, remembered and potentially resuscitated through literature.

All of which looked like escapist diversions next to Mohamed Rasoulof's spare, tense Goodbye, a matter-of-fact chronicle of an Iranian female former social-justice lawyer's attempt to leave the country, which won the directing prize in Un Certain Regard, Cannes' second-tier competition. Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi, who with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb co-directed Goodbye's de facto companion film, the Cannes selection This Is Not a Film, have been barred from leaving Iran and banned by that state from filmmaking.

I left Cannes before the premiere of This Is Not a Film, but reviews suggest that, like Goodbye, it is very much a work of reportage from a closed state, a window into the struggles of daily life on the precipice between political engagement and self-preservation, created specifically to communicate that experience to the outside world. The mere existence of these films — and the notion that they could be smuggled out of Iran through the channel of the film festival despite the fact that the filmmakers themselves couldn't cross the border to attend — constitutes an international news event. Lars von Trier being Lars von Trier? That's just another day at Cannes.

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