CANNES, FRANCE — Big news day on La Croisette: First, the only outside story with any traction here became a bit more intense when reports of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's resignation fueled the conspiracy stories to which some French subscribe: Had the IMF chief been set up by Sarkozy? The Russians? The New York Post?
Then the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi made an on-screen appearance in a 75-minute long home-movie verite essay created in defiance of the government ruling banning him from working in cinema, called quite pointedly This is Not a Film.
And finally, just as an audience of journalists was waiting for the Panahi film to begin, smartphones throughout the room began to buzz with the news that the Cannes Film Festival had suspended professional handful Lars von Trier for professional stupidity at the press conference following the screening of his new movie Melancholia.
Von Trier, an inveterate bad boy whose well-known agoraphobia and self-described depression has been complicated by a compulsion to provoke and tendency for inappropriate jokes, has a past history at Cannes of baiting the press and insulting the festival — most famously at the 1991 awards ceremony where he referred to jury president Roman Polanski as “The Dwarf.” In 2003, he seemed thrilled when Dogville was attacked as anti-American; when one journalist savaged his outrageous Antichrist in 2009, von Trier told the press he was “the world's greatest director.”
Perhaps concerned that Melancholia, a beautiful movie considered by many to be the best shown here in competition, was insufficiently offensive, von Trier used questions about the movie's German romanticism to gratuitously insult a colleague and cast himself as a Nazi. He began by cryptically referring to the fact that the man he had long imagined was his father, and who was a Jew, was not actually his biological father.
“For a long time I thought I was a Jew and I was happy to be a Jew, then I met Susanne Bier [a Danish-Jewish von Trier protégée who recently won an Oscar] and I wasn't so happy. But then I found out I was actually a Nazi. My family was German. And that also gave me some pleasure. What can I say? I understand Hitler…I sympathize with him a bit.”
As his stars Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg looked on aghast, Von Trier attempted to clarify: “I don't mean I'm in favor of World War II and I'm not against Jews, not even Susanne Bier. In fact I'm very much in favor of them. All Jews. Well, Israel is a pain in the ass but…Now how can I get out of this sentence? OK, I'm a Nazi.” Von Trier revived the joke later in the press conference. Asked if he was interested in working with bigger budgets, he replied in the affirmative. “We Nazis like to do things on a big scale. Maybe I could do The Final Solution.”
Tweeted from the press conference, von Trier's words were online in minutes. Within hours von Trier had issued a perfunctory apology. The movie's public screening was held as scheduled, and well received, but the after party was canceled. Before the evening was over, Jewish organizations were protesting von Trier's words. Today, Melancholia lost its Argentine distributor and Cannes' board of directors voted to 86 von Trier from the festival:
“The Festival de Cannes provides artists from around the world with an exceptional forum to present their works and defend freedom of expression and creation. The board of directors 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.”
Words have consequences. Von Trier made a movie about the end of the world and then compulsively acted it out. What's pathetic is that an unstable, over-indulged artist, consumed by anxiety and playing the fool, successfully martyred his own movie in full public view. Before Wednesday's press screening, a colleague told me that when he had asked one of the festival programmers about Melancholia, he was given a two-word answer: “Palme d'Or.” As of now, it's unclear if Melancholia is still eligible.