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 premiere 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 Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I'm In; Drive, directed by Bronson's Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan; and Paulo Sorrentino's This Must Be the Place, starring Sean Penn as a rock star on a Holocaust revenge mission. But when I landed in Paris for a brief layover that afternoon, I learned a different kind of bomb had dropped while I had been in the air.
Wednesday's major event at the festival 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 the best of the 21 films I saw in seven days in Cannes in a walk.
On Thursday the Festival released a statement declaring Lars von Trier — the writer/director of Melancholia, the co-founder of the Dogme 95 movement that revolutionized and legitimized digital filmmaking, and the winner of Cannes' top prize in 1999 for Dancer in the Dark — “persona non grata.” It was an unexpected censure by the fest, but what it actually meant in practice was anyone's guess.
On Twitter, it was interpreted in a variety of ways: as a semantic slap on the wrist, as a declaration that Melancholia was disqualified from the competition and an unheard of ban on a filmmaker whose work had become synonymous with Croisette controversy. The only thing abundantly clear was that the declaration had come down in response to a a couple of ill-advised comments a punch-drunk Von Trier had dropped towards the end of the press conference following Melancholia's first screening.
Von Trier, whose own 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. The 55 year-old filmmaker sat on the dais with FUCK printed on his knuckles like a gutter punk teen. To the apparent increasing discomfort of Melancholia's lead actresses Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, von Trier reeled of a number of jokey, facetious, immature statements (including the claim that Dunst and Gainsbourg were begging him to cast them in a porno) before responding to a question about his German roots by referring to himself as “a Nazi” who “sympathized with Hitler, yes, a little bit.”
Later that day, von Trier issued two statements of apology, and Melancholia's Wednesday evening gala screening continued as planned, although a planned afterparty was canceled. The Festival's Thursday disavowal came as a shock to those who had seen images of Cannes organizer Thierry Fremaux embracing von Trier on Wednesday's red carpet.
This series of events just pushes von Trier even further into a Misunderstood Auteur corner diametrically opposed to the one occupied by Terrence Malick, the notoriously reclusive filmmaker who made a fleeting, ghost-like appearance at Monday night's gala premiere of his highly autobiographical, 40 years-in-the-making epic rumination on the mysteries of the universe, The Tree of Life. It's tempting to pick a side here — Team Terry's earnest theological questioning vs. Team Lars' Dogme dystopia — because despite the obvious similarities between the two, 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.
Maybe Lars von Trier is truly an anti-Semitic asshole; more likely, it's usually a bad idea to make jokes aligning oneself to Hitler, and never more so as when speaking to the notoriously humorless, context-blind Cannes press corps. But 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.