When the Cannes Film Festival announced its Official Competition in early April, one notorious auteur was absent from the lineup: Lars von Trier. This wasn’t a total surprise, even though the Danish filmmaker had an upcoming movie, “The House That Jack Built,” because he’s been deemed persona non grata since his controversial remarks about being a Nazi during the Cannes press conference for “Melancholia” in 2011. However, one week later, the festival announced that “The House That Jack Built” would play at Cannes after all — out of competition.
This decision overturns von Trier’s status at Cannes while avoiding one of the biggest challenges his new work presented at the festival, where the competition will be judged by a female-dominated jury led by jury president Cate Blanchett. A rep for the actress denied one rumor circulating in recent days, that the actress refused to consider von Trier’s film as part of the competition. However, it would have been difficult to imagine a scenario in which this year’s jury would have felt comfortable considering the movie as a contender.
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Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux and festival president Pierre Lescure had been reportedly arguing with the Cannes board of directors in recent days about von Trier’s status, and the out of competition slot provides a strategic compromise — von Trier comes back to Cannes, and the jury doesn’t have to worry about judging him. It also means that he will likely avoid the firing squad at a press conference, since typically only competition films have them.
“Cate had nothing to do with this decision,” Fremaux wrote IndieWire by email. “She didn’t even know before today that we might have Lars in the Official Selection … only Cannes and I decide the lineup, not anyone outside of the selection committee.”
The iconoclastic figure’s reputation has been tarnished in several ways, including accusations of sexual misconduct by “Dancer in the Dark” star Bjork that the director has denied and other complaints against the workplace culture at his production company, Zentropa. In a year in which the Cannes competition jury is comprised primarily of women, von Trier would enter the race for the Palme d’Or as a loaded entity, and every member of the jury would face questions about his qualifications. This dicey publicity minefield dwarfs last year’s jury controversy, when remarks by jury president Pedro Almodovar led to the misperception that he didn’t want to consider the Netflix films in competition for the top prize.
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Meanwhile, the selection of five high-profile women on this year’s jury raises a broader question: Only one woman director, Jane Campion, has won the Palme d’Or in the festival’s 71-year history. Could this year’s group change that? In addition to Blanchett, the jury includes Ava DuVernay, Lea Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, and Burundian songwriter Khadja Nin.
Seydoux herself technically won the Palme in 2013, when the jury headed by Steven Spielberg determined that she and “Blue is the Warmest Color” co-star Adele Exarchoupolos should share the prize with director Abdellatif Kechiche. DuVernay, meanwhile, has been one of the most prominent champions of women filmmakers in the film industry. She made history as the first black woman to direct a $100 million studio movie with “A Wrinkle in Time,” and has made a conscious effort to hire (and promote) women directors on OWN show “Queen Sugar.”
If the jury does favor women directors, it won’t have many options. There are three women filmmakers out of 21 in the competition this year — the exact same number as 2017: France’s Eva Husson (“Girls of the Sun”), Lebanon’s Nadine Labaki (“Capernaum”), and Italy’s Alice Rohrwacher (“Happy as Lazzaro”). Only Rohrwacher has been in competition before, with 2014’s “The Wonders,” which won the Grand Prix at the festival.
The jury will face the media on at least two occasions during the festival — once on its first day, before the competition begins, and again immediately after it awards the Palme d’Or. While all jurors are expected to attend for the duration of the festival and see all the movies in competition, there are no official rules determining how jurors choose to vote on the winning film. That means the conversation about whether this year’s jury will award the Palme to a woman for the first time since Campion’s “The Piano” in 1994 will likely remain a talking point throughout the festival. “There will be a push towards that,” said one longtime Cannes insider. “If all the women are united on that, they could do that. I would think that probably Thierry, Pierre Lescure, and others will be happy about that. They’ve been criticized not to take enough women in competition.”
The 2018 Cannes Film Festival runs May 8 – 19.