Critic's Notebook: Lars Von Trier, the Toxic Drug Cannes Can't Quit

Lars von Trier headshot - H Getty 2018
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Cannes' decision to welcome the "banished" filmmaker back is emblematic of the contradictions at the heart of the festival — especially when it comes to gender.

In the immortal words of Dolly Parton, “Here you come again.”

At least that’s what I imagine Thierry Fremaux, the artistic director of the Cannes Film Festival, singing to himself (“All you gotta do is smile that smile/And there go all my defenses/Just leave it up to you and in a little while/You're messin' up my mind and fillin' up my senses,”) as he picked up the phone to invite Lars von Trier back to the Croisette to unveil his latest feature, The House That Jack Built.

Back in 2011 — before the rise of Trump, the fall of Weinstein and the emergence of #MeToo — the Danish filmmaker and provocateur was supposedly banned from the festival after rambling, during the press conference for Melancholia, about having sympathy for Hitler. That banishment struck some observers as odd, a token gesture to reprimand dumb off-the-cuff remarks that in years gone by would have just been seen as a tasteless joke. Of course, by 2011, political correctness was no longer just an American thing — and in France, where Nazi atrocities are still within living memory, Hitler punchlines have a particularly stinging resonance.

What’s hard to wrap your head around is where exactly the festival, a celebration of independent thought and artistic risk-taking, draws the line between acceptable and offensive; who’s in and who’s out; private behavior and public statements; bad politics that are frowned upon and bad sexual politics that are perfectly fine.

For Cannes, gender issues are a particularly fuzzy grey zone. In a recent interview for The Hollywood Reporter, Fremaux defended the fact that only three films in competition this year are directed by women, insisting that the selection committee bases their decisions on merit alone. That said, he conceded that if faced with a choice between two films of equal merit, one directed by a man and one by a woman, they would choose the woman-directed one in the interest of balancing the representational scales.

That sort of tricky intellectual high-wire positioning permeates the festival as a whole. This is an event that celebrates international diversity on screen, but has been known to hold such fascistic fashion attitudes as the requirement that women attending red-carpet screenings must wear heeled shoes, not flats.

Perhaps that rule shouldn’t have been surprising given that Cannes is, after all, in France, where the debate around the #MeToo movement has taken on an odd tone. Expressions of dissent have emanated from the likes of superstar Catherine Deneuve, who worried that modern feminism was destroying flirtation, and director Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl), who defended Harvey Weinstein, called Asia Argento “a mercenary and a traitor” and dismissed Jessica Chastain’s criticism of Last Tango in Paris. Let’s not forget that many filmmakers and critics in France were educated in an era, from the 1960s up to the 1990s, that celebrated transgression and the challenging of convention — an intellectual tradition that revered radical literary figures like the Marquis de Sade and Georges Bataille and philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva, who deconstructed notions of “normalcy,” “common sense” and sexual identity.

It’s precisely that cultural tradition that has informed the festival’s programming, its embrace of arthouse provocateurs and experimentalists, along with its almost antithetical mandate to make sure there are also pretty ladies in skimpy dresses on the red carpet for each film. Such is the frustrating paradox at the heart of the Cannes Film Festival.

Which brings us back to von Trier, who for many years represented both parts of the equation in one neat package. On the one hand, he is an aesthetic innovator par excellence, who delights in finding new approaches — from the self-restrictive tenets of the Dogma 95 movement to testing the limits of digital photography as it evolved to even using, in 2006’s The Boss of It All, a computer to randomly assign the location of the camera. In part it was this adventurousness — and von Trier’s also not-inconsiderable gift for self-promotion — that attracted the likes of Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Bryce Dallas Howard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chloe Sevigny and Deneuve herself to work with him, thus ensuring the red-carpet eye candy that festivals, especially Cannes, also like.

The real-world von Trier appears to be a neurotic, phobia-ridden fellow of whom most collaborators speak very highly, except for Bjork, who accused him of making life hell for her on the set of Dancer in the Dark. Apart from those allegations, there’s indeed been little dirt thrown von Trier’s way in terms of his behavior. That marks a rather striking contrast to, say, Roman Polanski, whom the festival has continuously embraced, programming his films for many years (The Pianist won the Palme d’Or in 2002, and his latest, Based on a True Story, played last year), even though in 1977 he was arrested for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl (and plea-bargained the charges down to unlawful sex with a minor). The case concerning Woody Allen is more complicated: He’s never been charged, and the accounts from his family about his alleged sexual abuse of his daughter, Dylan, is a morass of conflicting views and judgments. But the shadow of those accusations didn’t seem to trouble Fremaux and company as recently as 2016, when the fest opened with Allen’s Café Society.

What’s undeniable is that von Trier has spent much of his career stirring la merde, as if he can’t stop himself from doing six shocking things every day before breakfast. For years, Cannes has happily welcomed his controversial, headline-generating work, films that have featured rape (Dogville), brutal humiliations of women (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark), arguably sadistic wallowing in female suffering (Antichrist) and just outright leering voyeurism (all of the above, but especially the last one, Nymphomaniac, which had to premiere at Berlin instead of Cannes after the scandal of the Nazi remarks).

Ironically, Melancholia, the film he was having a press conference for at the time, was his mildest work in years, and one that won a Best Actress prize at the fest for Kirsten Dunst, as Antichrist did for Charlotte Gainsbourg a couple of years before. Von Trier is often invoked in the never-ending debate over whether depicting misogyny onscreen makes a film itself or a filmmaker himself misogynistic. His latest is said to feature Matt Dillon as a serial killer who murders women over many years, and inevitably the announcement that it will premiere at Cannes has generated stumped expressions of bafflement and indignation.

Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing the film, as von Trier is one of those fascinating, infuriating, ineffable talents that always challenges me as a critic, a woman and a feminist. (I’m also a Jew, but that seems immaterial since the Hitler comment struck me more as a joke gone wrong than a genuine expression of anti-Semitism.) Like the festival itself, I imagine, I have a love-hate relationship with his work and see it as the product of an artist who definitely has dark and sometimes repellent thoughts about women and men, and the world in general, a place he imaginatively destroyed in Melancholia.

As long as he remains innocent of acting on those dark impulses in so-called real life, I’m fine with his films screening in Cannes, where we will — as we have in years gone by — debate and decry and delight as is our wont whatever latest wackitude he has to offer.