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Watch out, Cannes: Lars von Trier is officially back.
Seven years after being declared persona non grata by the Cannes Film Festival for jokingly saying he “sympathized with Hitler,” the provocative and Palme d’Or-winning Danish director will return to the Croisette with his next project: The House That Jack Built.
After a week of rumors that the film would be added to the lineup, organizers finally revealed Thursday that the project would be part of the program of the 71st edition of the festival. Also added to the lineup was Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which had been mired in legal issues but is now set to close the festival. Meanwhile, Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney Houston doc, Whitney, and Ramin Bahrani’s Fahrenheit 451, starring Sofia Boutella, Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon, will be given midnight screenings.
Added to the official competition are Knife + Heart from Yann Gonzalez and starring Vanessa Paradis, Akya by Kazakhstan director Sergey Dvortsevoy and The Wild Pear Tree by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (a Palme winner for 2014’s Winter Sleep and noted absence from the first lineup announcement).
Meanwhile, Donbass by Sergei Loznitsa officially was set as the Un Certain Regard opener, with the sidebar also adding Muere, Monstruo, Muere by the Argentine director Alejandro Fadel and The Dead and the Others from Joao Salaviza and Renee Nader Messora.
The House That Jack Built stars Matt Dillon as the eponymous Jack, a serial killer who goes on a 12-year murder spree in 1970s America. Uma Thurman, Riley Keough and Danish actress Sofie Grabol (The Killing) are among the actresses cast as Jack’s victims. With typical black humor, von Trier has described the film as celebrating “the idea that life is evil and soulless.”
Insiders who have seen footage from The House That Jack Built describe scenes of extreme brutality and violence, comparing it to the director’s graphic and controversial Antichrist, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Defoe. Antichrist, like most of von Trier’s films before the 2011 controversy, premiered at Cannes and often came away with awards, including the Grand Jury Prize in 1996 for Breaking the Waves and the Palme d’Or in 2000 for his musical Dancer in the Dark, starring the singer Bjork. Bjork is one of three women to get Cannes’ best actress nod for a von Trier film, with Gainsbourg winning for Antichrist in 2009 and Kirsten Dunst for Melancholia in 2011.
It was at the Cannes press conference for Melancholia that von Trier made his now-infamous comments. Responding to an innocuous question about his German roots, the director went on a long, wandering riff that went from odd to offensive and landed him in controversy.
“For a long time I thought I was a Jew and I was happy to be a Jew,” he began. “Then I met (Danish and Jewish director) Susanne Bier and I wasn’t so happy. But then I found out I was actually a Nazi. My family were German. And that also gave me some pleasure. What can I say? I understand Hitler. … I sympathize with him a bit.”
Von Trier qualified that “I don’t mean I’m in favor of World War II and I’m not against Jews, not even Susanne Bier” before digging himself deeper. “In fact I’m very much in favor of them. All Jews. Well, Israel is a pain in the ass but …”
As Melancholia stars Dunst and Gainsbourg, sitting on either side of von Trier, stared at him agog, the director paused, before adding: “Now how can I get out of this sentence? OK. I’m a Nazi.”
The reaction was swift. Hours after the gala premiere of Melancholia, Cannes declared von Trier persona non grata. The festival, however, never explicitly banned his films and, two years later, also dropped the personal ban. That didn’t stop the director from wearing, at the Berlin premiere of his two-part sex epic Nymphomaniac, a cheeky T-shirt emblazoned with the Cannes logo and the words “Persona Non Grata.”
Given the subject matter of The House That Jack Built — a serial killer massacring mainly, though not solely, women — its inclusion in Cannes at the height of the #MeToo era is certain to be controversial, not least because von Trier also has been the subject of harassment allegations. Bjork claims the director intimidated and sexually harassed her during the production of Dancer in the Dark, something von Trier denies.
But Cannes, and the festival’s favorite enfant terrible, didn’t get where they are today by being scared of scandal. The House That Jack Built might not be PC, but it will be the one film at Cannes this year no one can afford to miss.
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