Terrence Malick won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2011 with “The Tree of Life,” a drama that’s widely considered one of the best Cannes winners in history. However, it turns out Malick’s magnum opus was not the original frontrunner among the competition jury members. Speaking to the French publication Liberation (via The Film Stage), Olivier Assayas confirms it was Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” that most won over the jury’s heart. Assayas served on the jury alongside Robert De Niro, Jude Law, Uma Thurman, actress Martina Gusmán, producer Nansun Shi, writer Linn Ullmann, and filmmakers Mahamat-Saleh Haroun and Johnnie To. De Niro was the jury’s president, and Assayas said the actor was “rather unfamiliar with international cinema.”
According to the “Personal Shopper” and “Clouds of Sils Maria” director, only Jude Law and himself believed from the start that “The Tree of Life” was worthy of the Palme d’Or. The majority of jury members favored “Melancholia,” which Assayas had no complaints over because it’s a “magnificent” film. What led jury members to switch from team von Trier to team Malick? The answer is von Trier’s infamous “Melancholia” press conference.
“The other scandal was the press conference where Lars von Trier made an anti-Semitic joke,” Assayas said. “Everyone got on their high horse. My position was to say that I was not engaged as a morality judge, and that ‘Melancholia’ was magnificent. There were consequences on the record, as he was a serious contender for the [Palme d’Or]. At first, there were only two of us, Jude Law and I, who thought that Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ could also claim the highest prize. The reason other members joined our cause was because they had lost their favorite.”
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Von Trier made international headlines during the “Melancholia” press conference for joking about how he “understood” Hitler and could partly sympathize with the Nazi dictator. The press conference led Cannes organizers to declare von Trier a “persona non grata, with effect immediately,” temporarily banning the filmmaker from the festival. Von Trier returned in 2019 to premiere “The House That Jack Built,” although it did not play in competition.
Assayas’ jury ended up giving the Palme d’Or to “The Tree of Life,” but they were still able to honor “Melancholia” by awarding Kristen Dunst the Best Actress prize. Dunst said at the Cannes awards ceremony that von Trier’s comments “shocked and angered” her but maintained they were still friends. Speaking to IndieWire last October, Dunst recalled how she “got dragged for something somebody else said.” IndieWire named Dunst’s performance one of the best of the last decade.