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by Howard Feinstein
May 20, 2011 2:50 AM
11 Comments
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Lars von Trier: "I will never do a press conference again."

Lars von Trier and Kirsten Dunst in Cannes Wednesday. Photo by Brian Brooks.

After its much-praised prologue of mostly stills that prefigure the film’s narrative arc, Melancholia becomes a brilliant study of how the troubled, disintegrating state of mind of one character, Justine (a brilliant Kirsten Dunst), echoes the demise of the world as we know it. With his characteristic jump cuts and ellipses, and seemingly random camera movement, augmented by rich Wagnerian music (the prologue to Tristan and Isolde), von Trier shifts from what begins at a wedding dinner as a family tale to an original approach to capturing the state of the cosmos. I had to go out of town to do this interview, to the beautiful town of Mougins, where we spoke in the garden of a well-known villa-like hotel. Going into Cannes itself during the festival, with a couple of necessary exceptions, is too irritating for a claustrophobe like von Trier who refuses to fly, so in fact has never been to the U.S. where he so often sets his projects.

[Editor's Note: This was originally published during Indiewire's coverage of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. 'Melancholia' opens this Friday, November 11 through Magnolia Pictures.]

As with many of the questions and answers we exchanged, he seemed surprisingly relaxed, as if he were taking this all in stride, and not in an arrogant way. He was very open and frank, and as you will see, doesn’t shy away from anything, even when it has to do with Nazis. The F-U-C-K tattoo on his fingers is visible, resembling Robert Mitchum’s “love” and “hate” tattoos on his hands in "The Night of the Hunter."

Melancholia is divided into two parts, “Justine” and “Claire.” Part One takes place on Justine’s wedding night, when she and new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) are being honored at a post-nuptial dinner at the sprawling mansion-cum-hotel owned by her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland). Justine is radiant, but as the evening wears on, evidence of her failing mental state, which her family has been trying to mask, becomes more and more apparent. (Claire is the one totally in control.) She is pretty isolated by the end of the evening; even her new spouse departs.

Part Two begins with a completely dysfunctional, nearly catatonic Justine returning to Claire’s home for nurture. At the same time, more and more information comes out that the planet Melancholia just may come out from behind the sun and smash the earth. The roles reverse: Depressed Justine displays some seer-like qualities; her mental state has some had some benefits. Claire’s cool façade cracks, and she panics. Justine takes over as they and Claire’s young son await the imminent catastrophe.

Why do you think your comments have caused such a huge reaction?

Well, if I had said it in Danish, it would have been much more nuanced. I was naive and stupid. I had thought, especially after I saw Bruno Ganz in that film about Hitler, that there is a little Hitler-like man inside of all of us. It's like with Mao and Stalin, sometimes there is a no-go zone.

I was extremely stupid, but on the other hand we should worry about not being able to talk about certain things. At the press conference, I was in a good mood. It that room, with so many people and tv cameras, it was like a big blank audience; I was talking to the world. Here I am not, sitting with you, and I can see your face. It's totally different. As my aunt used to say, "You can't wash your hands in ink." (laughs)

What about the festival's declaration that you are persona non grata?

As far as I'm concerned, I still have two good friends here, Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux.

Do you think that you hit a nerve in France, given its history of anti-Semitism and collaboration, and specific laws created to punish for expressing it, that we do not have in the U.S. or Denmark?

Yes (nods). I think this was not the best place to do it.

What is it about you that allows you to say what you yourself term "stupid things?"

The force in me that makes me say and do stupid things--I get overexcited--also allows me to make my kind of films. I can tell you one thing: I will never do a press conference again.

Do you think this will affect your planned remake of "The Five Obstructions" with Scorsese?

I don't know. I haven't been in touch with Marty.

Did you know that (fellow Danish filmmaker, also in competition with "Drive") Nicolas Wending Refn said he was repulsed by what you said?

I've known him since he was a kid! Fuck him.

Will you come back to Cannes?

It's up to Cannes now. I'm not allowed to come within 100 meters of the Palais.

What do you think about political correctness?

It's dangerous, but one doesn't have to be stupid about it like I was.

Let's talk about the state of melancholia. You have said many times that a severe bout of depression you suffered was the genesis of the project. In the film, Justine, a depressive, has special gifts that others don't possess, sometimes almost like a seer.

It was believed in the old days that melancholic persons can do more than ordinary people. The film is based on psychologists' findings that in a crisis like the one in the film, a melancholic person would act in a more practical manner, because they've been there before. I have some relatives who have experienced melancholia in their lives, and they said the film hit them as correct.

In German Romanticism, for example, melancholia is associated with a profound sense of longing.

Melancholia is kind of a sweet pain, like falling in love. That's what the clash between the planets Melancholia and Earth symbolizes.

I know that you had a change in actresses when Penelope Cruz became unavailable.

When there is a schedule change, I just can't wait. I don't know what to do with myself. You've done the script, so you have nothing to do.

So you ended up casting Kirsten Dunst, who gives a great performance. Had you seen her in something like "Spiderman"?

I have seen her in several things, but I had had a long discussion with Paul Thomas Anderson years ago about this project, and he suggested her. And she was available.

I have heard that she has firsthand experience with depression.

I don't know how severe a depression she has been in, but she understood it very well. We could talk comfortably and easily about depression.

Is her name Justine a reference to the Marquis de Sade?

Yes, definitely.

"Melancholia" is divided into two sections.

All my trilogies are two films, so in that sense, this is a trilogy! (laughs)

You have a new cinematographer, Manuel Alberto Claro. You didn't use Anthony Dod Mantle as you had in earlier films, like "Dogville" and "Antichrist."

For "Antichrist" I would have preferred more roughness. I was happy with Anthony, he was more theatrical, and he wanted to show me he could do it. Normally I can say what I need 10 times, but at the time of "Antichrist," because of my condition, I could only say it two times. He kept buying me gifts, and I told him I didn't need that. So there was tension.

Some people say you are moving more toward the mainstream.

There are parts of Melancholia that I wish had been less commercial. But mainstream? I was irritated, even angry when Gilles Jacob wrote in his book that I came to Cannes for the first time in a leather jacket and the next time in a tuxedo.

What ever happened to Pussy Power, your attempt to produce porn films for women directed by other females?

No female directors were interested in doing it.

Doesn't your next project involve female sexuality?

Yes, if some of the financing doesn't fall out after all this outcry. It's called "The Nymphomaniac". It's a discussion about the word itself. It's about the erotic evolution of a woman from the age of 12 to the age of 50. If you know the works of the Marquis de Sade, it's partly sex, partly intellectual thought.

Is it porn?

Because I'm a cultural rebel, I couldn't make a porn film without a dick and a condom. So it will have to be soft-core.

You use the Prologue to Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde" to strong effect.

I'm a big fan of many of his operas. When I was younger, I read the first half of Proust. They are discussing the perfect work of art, and "Tristan and Isolde" was the answer.

Weren't you involved with a production of "The Ring"?

I worked on it for two years, then pulled out. I was being shown around by Wagner's grandchild. Then on the internet I saw photos of him leading Hitler around. And the singers were all like this (does a physical mockery of pretense) I felt like a concentration camp prisoner that was allowed to come to the party. Maybe you shouldn't write that. (laughs) Isn't it strange how all this relates to what happened at and after the press conference?

11 Comments

  • Jacob Leeds-Needleman | April 2, 2012 2:59 PMReply

    I'm not only Jewish but related to people who died in concentration camps, and I'm astounded at Cannes' knee-jerk reaction to LVT's comments. First, Trier is joking about reverence in a way that is clearly devoid of any anti-Semitic agenda. You might as well call "Springtime for Hitler" anti-Semitic. Second, he's pointing out that Hitler was human, and he can empathize with him in the way that one can with the vilest characters one writes. To be a good fiction writer, you have to be able to see things from all of your characters' perspective and not just the morally defensible ones. To write about a mass murderer, you have to become them, which means empathizing to a tremendous degree. If you're male, you have to become your women characters as well -- does that make you a practicing transvestite? If you're a woman, are you suddenly Brandon Teena?

    Refn's major limitation so far -- and I say this after having seen four of his films -- is that his approach is reverent to the point of single-minded. Clearly, his films are descendents of the 70s action/noir/gangster flicks with arty touches. Even Raging Bull is far more nuanced than Drive (yet Drive manages to distill what was great about a 70s-early 80s how-to action flick like Mann's Thief without simply replicating the flaws of the period). Renf knows how to leave the obvious, and how to avoid unnecessary exposition, and he uses these to great effect -- the pacing in Drive is superiod to Bronson, I think. Unfortunately, the subtext in a Renf film is written in shaky blood lettering on a mirror. He has awesome consistency, but he can be as subtle and empty as a heavy metal guitar solo.

  • Ari Wilson | January 17, 2012 3:41 PMReply

    Both Nicolas Winding Refn and Lars von Trier are nothing but propagated retards.

  • arelius | June 6, 2011 4:11 AMReply

    LARS VON TRIER SAID THAT HE UNDERSTANDS HITLER EVEN IF HE WAS NOT A GOOD PERSON AND I MAKE A QUESTION.
    THE LAST PERIOD WHO IS REALLY GOOD ON PLANET EARTH;;;;
    I AM VERY CURIOUS TO MEET REALLY GOOD PEOPLE AND POSITIVE.
    FURTHERMORE HE APOLOGIZED BECAUSE HE HAD GERMAN ROOTS
    ALL GERMANS TOOK THE SIDE OF HITLER;;;
    OR LIBYANS TOOK THE SIDE OF GADHAFI;;;
    ALL AMERICANS TOOK THE SIDE OF BUSH JUNIOR;;;;
    SO ALL THIS ABSOLUTION TO A STYLE OF APOLOGY DOESNT SUIT ON GERMANS.
    IN ANY CASE WE MUST DISTINGUISH ISRAEL AS A STATE AND JEWISH
    ISRAEL AS A STATE MADE TERRIBLE MISTAKES . DOES ANY JEWISH IN EUROPE OR USA WANTS TO LIVE THERE;;;i condemn the decision of the french to declare him as persona non grata. the man expressed his opinion about hitler , jewish. thats it nothing more nothing less.all these reactions are hysterical etc http://www.arelis.gr

  • Kane | May 25, 2011 7:40 AMReply

    He was joking saying "I'm a Nazi" and when he said he sympathized with HItler he was trying to make the point that Hitler was human as well. And this means we are all capable of such evil being a human being - so humanity has to watch itself as to not repeat such atrocities. Anyway he was trying to make the point in a pretty muddled way, but he is definitely not a Nazi. This whole thing got blown way out of proportion.

  • Alfred | May 24, 2011 10:03 AMReply

    He is a King!

  • Tony | May 22, 2011 4:19 AMReply

    Art used to be exempt from censorship, remember when. This is another example of the complete gayness and shallowness of interacting with rich people. So the guy's arty and nazi. big deal.

  • Viviane Vives | May 21, 2011 2:04 AMReply

    I agree with Zachary, Lars does not think like most people do, he;s always exploring, questioning... it was an idiotic comment, but he was just saying he "could" try to understand him, wear his shoes for a second, no taboos, just try. His English is poor, and he was joking, he has no political correctedness... but a nazi he is not... quite the opposite... !!!

  • Mette | May 20, 2011 9:31 AMReply

    The real reason revealed why he does not like Susanne Bier. He was offended by her disinterest in Pussy Power films.

  • Zachary | May 20, 2011 6:17 AMReply

    No one who's seen Bruno Ganz play Hitler in "Downfall" can deny feeling sympathy for the man.

    But what I think is key: This situation with Lars cannot be adequately judged in black and white. Refn's remark and Cannes' decision to declare him persona non grata -- they're calculated and precise in a way that Lars is not (in either his work or in his public performances). His work notoriously navigates gray areas. He prods, he explores, he feels out a subject. In this way, he expels the concept of black and white. The world we live in, which moves at high speeds and allows us limited time to give thought or care to any one event or idea, detests what cannot be explained in a sentence. Sound bytes have become three words in quotes: "I'm A Nazi." The press and much of the public will not tolerate the time or care it takes to consider the complexities of any given situation. So Cannes responds in a way that there can be no doubt of their stance; as does Refn, as do some others. They understand how they will be perceived. They know not to include a single false word. They know not to meander in their response to Lars' comments. Get to the point, is the point. And look good.

    Lars doesn't operate this way. Those who are seeking to understand why he would say these things, are finding the human inside him. Those who are reading the headlines and watching the three-minute clip, and posting Facebook statuses about him being an "asshat," well... They believe the person is the sound byte, the sound byte is the person. And that, to me, is tragic.

  • Dan | May 20, 2011 5:03 AMReply

    Send him to bad joke jail.

  • Keil Shults | May 20, 2011 4:39 AMReply

    I'd be willing to believe the "it was a joke" defense if I hadn't seen the video. Sure, the Israeli and Susanne Bier comments were amusing, but how can saying that you "understand and sympathize with Hitler" be intended as a joke? Where's the punchline? His delivery of these so-called jokes was horrible, as well. It's no wonder I found Antichrist an outlandish bore if this is how its director gets his ideas across in the English language. I personally don't care what the guy believes, but he's obviously either a social misfit, an anti-Semite, or a mindless provocateur. I mean, c'mon. Even when he attempts to cast Hitler in a negative light he falls alarmingly short, almost as if it pains him to have to admit anything negative about the former German leader. The whole incident was just unnecessary, ill-timed, and stomach-churningly bizarre. An episode of UK's The Office with no laugh at the end of the agony.

    I will say, however, that it's hypocritical to make Mel Gibson and Polanski feel welcome, while also banning Von Trier.

    Either way, I still look forward to Melancholia.