While the Cannes Film Festival will not include five Netflix films, there was another notable omission when the festival unveiled its 2018 slate: Bad boy Danish auteur Lars von Trier will not return to the Competition with his latest “dark and sinister” film “The House that Jack Built” (IFC Films), starring Riley Keough, Uma Thurman, and Matt Dillon as a serial killer who narrates the story, Ripley-style — with humor. (Trier’s 2014 feature “Nymphomaniac” played Toronto and other festivals.) Von Trier was banned from the festival seven years ago, and while Cannes has suggested that it might invite him back, so far that hasn’t happened.
It’s possible that Trier could still make his way to Cannes, as artistic director Thierry Fremaux hinted at the end of his press conference. The head programmer has reportedly been talking through this possibility with Cannes’ influential board of directors, which represents a range of major film organizations in France. Among them: La Société des auteurs, réalisateurs, producteurs, which is represented by filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, and Le Syndicat français de la critique de cinéma, represented by Isabelle Danel. If that group can reach a consensus in the next few days, we’ll know for certain whether or not Trier will return to the Croisette.
Of course, the last time didn’t go so well. Trier visited Cannes way back in May 2011, when he gave his notorious “Melancholia” press conference, during which the puckish writer-director offended just about everybody by calling himself a Nazi. Sitting next to him was his squirming star, Kirsten Dunst. In the days to follow he apologized repeatedly for the “stupid, idiotic” comments that led to his banishment from the festival. “It was completely stupid, completely stupid,” he told me on his last day in Cannes, “but I am not a Nazi.”
At the quiet haven of the hotel Le Mas Candille in Mougins, I was Trier’s last festival interview before he went off to have dinner with Dunst to try and repair the damage he had done to their relationship: “It was probably harder on her than anyone else,” he said.
The next day, she accepted the best actress Palme d’Or, thanking the festival for allowing “Melancholia” to stay in Competition, and afterwards said that she should not have been punished for Trier’s “inappropriate” comments. “Melancholia” might have had a shot at the Palme d’Or won by “The Tree of Life” had it not been overshadowed by Trier’s misbehavior.
After that, Trier refused to give any more press conferences. “Maybe that’s not a bad thing,” Dunst later told me, laughing.
“I don’t want to do these press conferences,” Trier said. “Because if I had said ‘I’m a Nazi,’ while we were talking, you would say to me, ‘what the fuck do you say? What do you mean by that?’ Then we would discuss it and there might come some sense. That doesn’t happen.”
Speculating about his future at Cannes that day, Trier hoped they would eventually let him back and accord him the same status as Terrence Malick–no press conference required. “Let’s talk about some other film that was politically incorrect, but was a brilliant film,” he said. “Should that go in competition, should it not, should you choose the films by the chance that this idiot would say something stupid at a press conference? It’s an interesting question, if you have a film festival. That’s why I said to them ‘do whatever you need to do that gives you the less trouble.’”
Would he submit a film to Cannes again?
“I don’t know if I’m allowed to. So far, I am persona non grata, I’ve been told. The words are funny, and something a rebel like me can treasure. I’m not proud of the circumstances of how it happened, not at all. I said a thousand times that I would not hurt anybody, that was not the idea. I like provocation, this is not a good provocation, it was not something I wanted to do. Sometimes I provoke because there’s meaning behind it. This time there was no meaning. It was a mistake…
“The same people that can communicate with the world in a good way with the right films, it’s two different talents. One is to talk to the world in the right way, which you do when you talk at a press conference. I’m not good at that. So I’d rather talk through my films.”
Trier filled me in on what he was actually talking about. The whole story, in his words:
The real story, and that’s where all the Nazi nonsense came from, was that Trier is a Jewish name, and a very big Jewish family. I added the von, maybe to get away from that, but that was first of all because it was forbidden for me to do it in the film school. You know if something is forbidden it’s kind of attractive to me. But it was also Von Stroheim and Von Sternberg, they added it also, because they came from Germany, and they said, ‘how do we do it in Hollywood?’ and of course we put a von in there, and they were suddenly noblemen, which was complete nonsense, they were not at all. And I like crooks somehow. I like the idea of that, so I put that in.
But I took it very seriously that I was from a Jewish family. My family was, as I found out later, not considered to be a fine Jewish family because they didn’t go to the synagogue, they were very much atheistic, and my father was very much against Israel, but he was very Jewish. But people can be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic, of course. This was very important to me. Then my mother died and on her deathbed she told me that my father was not my biological father, which is very common I believe, and probably has happened in royal houses anywhere where the name is important.
And then I said this is in a stupid way because I was feeling good and relaxed. Then I have this stupid unprofessional thing that I need to entertain a little. This is the last one of these I’ll do at Cannes. Because I get carried away. Then I say that I found out I was not a Jew but a Nazi, which meant I was on the other side of the fence. It was not nice to say, especially to the Germans. That’s ridiculous and stupid. It was kind of the Danish way of being idiotic. And I regret that. I don’t think I was really anti-Semitic, because that would be extremely stupid. All my four children have Jewish names, I take it very seriously.
The real father, he was a German. That’s why I said I was a Nazi. He was not a Nazi, he was a freedom fighter. Yes, I met him, he was an asshole. It was ridiculous, my mother said to me, ‘you will like him so much, he is such a fantastic person.’ Then I met a feminine man, he said, ‘I was sure that your mother would protect herself.’ He said to me, ‘If you want to discuss more, it should be through my lawyer.’ And he was 78.
And I had imagined this kind of slow-motion thing. And he said, ‘I have never accepted that child.’ And he said that to me. It was completely awful, but that did not make him a Nazi, not at all, he was a freedom fighter, and very respectable in every way. I just didn’t like him. But then I got some siblings, who I see. That’s fine. The only thing that was funny in the story was that I was not Jewish, I was half-German. From there it went wrong.
The other issue that has come up for Trier in the #MeToo climate is Björk’s claim of sexual harassment on the set of his Palme d’Or winner “Dancer in the Dark.” Björk accused a “Danish director” of touching her on a film set: “Dancer in the Dark” is the only example. Trier denied this. “But that we were definitely not friends, that’s a fact,” the director stated. Other workplace allegations have been aimed at Trier’s cofounder of Zentropa, Denmark’s largest production company, former CEO Peter Aalbæk Jensen. Current CEO Anders Kjærhauge promised to make changes to the workplace culture. Last November, 685 Swedish female actors, including Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, co-signed an open letter calling out sexual abuse in Swedish film and theatre.
Eric Kohn contributed to this report.
The Cannes Film Festival runs May 8 – 19.