Going to Cannes… is actually a pretty bad idea, Lars von Trier says.
It’s May 6, we’re at Hvidovre, just outside of Copenhagen. In twelve days his new film will have its world premiere – in Cannes. Yes, Lars von Trier seems to be in a good mood, jesting and making jokes, in the sort of fox like fashion we are used to from so often before.
But his sentiments about being invited to the most distinguished event in the world of film are not altogether ironic. This will be his tenth time since 1984, having been invited to the festival with films such as The Element of Crime, Europa, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville. If anybody in recent years deserves the title Mr Cannes, it should be him. If Lars is there, the festival is pretty much guaranteed to offer excitement, exceptional filmmaking, and an air of provocation.
Reluctantly, he admits to being aware of the buzz.
– Statistically speaking I must have brought with me some pretty bad films; I haven’t really won anything much through all these years. Yet they invite me again and again, so much so that it is commonly believed that I have some sort of a corrupt relationship with Cannes, which means that I’m always invited back.
And this is really starting to annoy him.
– If a film of mine won’t be invited one year, that would have to mean that it’s even worse than usual. To be fair, this spring I’ve been worried about them declining! And I really don’t want to live that way. I want to make the films that I make – with or without Cannes. In many ways it would probably be a good idea to stop going there some day…
That day is not today. Today the sun is shining on the south-west of Copenhagen, where Filmbyen has been located since Lars von Trier together with producer Peter Aalbæk in the late 90’s moved into the old garrison of Avedøre with their production company Zentropa.
The looming Cannes festival – to which Lars von Trier was indeed invited – puts its mark on the atmosphere, but for the moment there is something else calling for his attention. Tonight there will be a joint birthday party for Lars and Peter, a k a ”Ålena & Kvalstret”, who were both born in April 1956 and who for the last 20 years have been Denmark’s most notoriously dysfunctional pair of filmmakers.
– We’re equally stubborn, Trier says by way of explaining how their relationship has lasted so long. And working with him is so uncomplicated: if he tells me to do something, I'll do the opposite. And that works out.
He has just turned 55, this film-making and film-shaking enfant terrible. Gone is the new wave look he cultivated in the 80’s, mostly through his beloved and constantly worn leather jacket (”inherited” from film school buddy Åke Sandgren), which has since been stowed away in the closet. No longer fitting into his mythical tuxedo, once worn by film maestro Carl Th Dreyer and seen in the spectacular commercials for his tv series The Kingdom, that trademark garment too has been abandoned. Today he’s sporting a plain t-shirt and thermal outdoor trousers, which he seems comfortable with. A pair of horn-rimmed glasses have replaced his steel-framed ones (which he apparently crushed in frustration over one thing or another that Aalbæk supposedly concocted). As his most trusted means of transportation, he’s driving a used golf cart.
We enter his office/writer’s den/dorm. Lars setttles down on a worn leather sofa, and soon enough he has slipped into a well and truly comfortable position. In light of his current status as a formidable digintary of world cinema, the mood is really quite relaxed. It takes me back to the late 80’s when I first met with Lars von Trier. At that time us students in Lund regarded him as a soul mate who made films we wanted to watch, someone who reclaimed the aesthetics of heroes like Orson Welles, Fritz Lang and Tarkovsky, someone who set the bar above and beyond what everybody else was doing and who instead went straight for the holiest of film mythology. The fact that he, as a Scandinavian, had the stomach to do this, amidst all the kitchen sink realism prevailing at the time, was somehow incomprehensible to us. But Lars was very real. As he was in person, when he visited us at the Filmstudion and happily shared his visions with us. At once he came across as a great buddy.
Of course, that Lars does not exist anymore. Although sometimes you can still catch a glimpse of him, not least when he’s explaining himself, ever so heartwarmingly. As I meet him again I share this somewhat naive piece of nostalgia.
– Oh, that’s really nice, that you have that memory of me! The trouble is, nowawdays I feel I have to protect myself, he confesses.
Since then he has changed religion, ruined one of his marriages, learned that his biological father was somebody entirely different form who he had thought, making him go from being of Jewish to being of German decent overnight. Since then he has also been smitten with a string of phobias and bouts of depressions. And since then he’s won the Palme d’or. Among other things.
– Travelling to Lund sounds like it should be easy but it would take me three days just thinking about it. Each time I’m doing something which hasn't been planned it tends to become overly complicated. There are many ”small” things that surface along the way, but to me everything tends to become overwhelming. So there’s only room for the really big things, like Cannes, for instance. But it’s very nice that there are some people who still regard me that way.
– Have you seen the film?, he asks me.
I answer him that it would probably be easier to break into the Pentagon than to cross the heavily guarded bridge that ”Lars’s people” have set up so that nobody will be able to see it before 8.30 at the Grand Théâtre Lumière on Wednesday May 18th and not one second earlier. Fair enough?
– Though you’ve probably seen the trailer? It’s online.
Yes, I’ve seen the trailer, the wedding party with Kirsten Dunst and Alexander Skarsgård, with John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlotte Rampling and Stellan Skarsgård among the guests. I’ve heard the voice-over of a boy speaking about a planet hidden behind the sun, now on its way towards Earth. I’ve heard Dunst, playng Justine, saying that life exists only here and only for a short time. It takes place on castle grounds with huge lawns where people ride on horses. But Justine doesn't seem very happy. The voice of the boy says he fears that the planet is on a collison course with us. Music by Wagner is blasting. Cuts to shots from outer space. On top of a a black and white sign by Per Kirkeby it says LARS VON TRIER, and below that MELANCHOLIA. The end. It’s 118 wonderful seconds of a film about a group of people who are living under the threat of a strange planet about to collide with Earth. It effecively sets your imagination going.
As always, Lars von Trier has done thorough research and listened to feedback from leading experts. Author and science journalist Tor Nørretranders has helped him gather evidence that we are indeed alone in the universe, seeing as we should otherwise have already heard something. One professor of astronomy gave him his word that a planet colliding with Earth was not just feasible, but that it could actually happen as soon as tomorrow.
– Oh, that’s good to hear, I told him. That means we won’t be needing any science fiction design. Research beats fiction.
Within the world of fiction, Melancholia does have a couple of role models, though not the ones I thought I picked up from the trailer, such as On the Beach by Neville Shute, a deeply melancholic and dystopic novel which is also about a group of people in a contemporary setting waiting for the end of the world. No. Rather, Trier says he has ”ripped off” The Night by Michelangelo Antonioni and, rather interestingly, the classic romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story, the movie with Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart and Cary Grant in swept in sweet Hollywood magic anno 1940, which has passed the test of time. Nevertheless, it sounds like an unlikely influence in this context, does it not?
– I thought it could be fun to have some comic elements in the middle of a disaster. At least I’ve tried to capture some of the tone of the Hepburn movie, we’ll see how it turns out. I went for Antonioni mostly for the look, for instance the many huge golf tracks, among other things.
We found a fantastic castle in Sweden, Tjolöholm, which was built by some wealthy Scots.
Super kitschy, Tudor-style, insured for a billion, as everything is hand-made, every little circuit switch, made to look like small birds or whatever.
One thing that struck me is how ordinary the film looks. There’s no Dogma-style, no computerized Automavision and no 100 assembled minicameras. And no white chalk lines.
Instead interiors, exteriors, special effects, animlas, music and a full ensemble. That’s unlike any Lars von Trier for film for… many, many years?
– That’s true, it looks like an ordinary movie, he agrees. I dwell on that in my Director’s Statement for Cannes, where I criticize it – harshly, of course! – for being a truly creamy film. It’s made in what I believe to be a German romantic style. We’re using the ouverture of Tristan and Isolde throughout almost all of the film. Normally, of course, I have almost no music whatsoever, and Wagner is sort of the godfather of film music as such. The images are romantic and slick and people wear beautiful clothes. It really does look like a mainstream movie. When I saw the poster for the first time, I asked ”What film is that?”. ”But it’s yours, Lars”. ”I really hope not”, I said. At least I hope that it’s a better film than I think, and I hope that we’ve taken the romanticism one step further.
And the Earth really does perish, he insures me.
– That’s made clear from the beginning.
Our conversation will soon have to be over. Once again we’re talking about Cannes, now reminiscing about the Antichrist-uproar in 2009, when an angry British journalist stood up and asked – no: demanded – of Lars von Trier that he explained how he could make such a scandalous film. He assures me that the journalist was not on Zentropa’s payroll.
– He might as well have been. But that was a truly terrifying press conference, very agitating. And that always makes me aggressive and makes me say something stupid. I’ll do that again this year. I hope.
Almost twelve days have passed. Lars von Trier has now celebrated his birthday with Aalbæk (who played drums on the party), he has driven down to the French Riviera in his camper, pre-occupied with his new Dr Dre-headphones and a couple of Marcel Proust tomes (his wife Bente and the children took the plane) and checked in to his hotel up in the mountains (he has finally ditched Hotel du Cap, saving him 100 000 Danish crowns).
And we have finally had a chance to see his film and the following press conference.
Melancholia lives up to the expectations set by its trailer. It is a beautiful film about the end of the world. Almost an intimate chamber play, regardless of its theme, the castles and golf courses and all the Wagner. The acting is superb, the images are poetic and the ending is moving. It’s a complete work of art by a complete filmmaker.
Lars von Trier, 55, also seems more matured on the press conference. Sure, he’s making some jokes about his alleged upcoming porno film, but many of his answers are intreresting and intellectually stimulating. I catch myself thinking that this role really suits Trier. Long live film art, never mind the provocations, on with an era of great artistry with room for intelligent conversations with the press! Once again I remember the great buddy he came across as in Lund.
”Final questions”, the moderator says. A journalist from The Times asks a question about German romanticism and the Nazi aesthetics which Trier has professed a weakness for. He starts by explaining his complicated family background.
– For a long time I thought I was a Jew and I was happy to be a Jew. But then I met Susanne Bier...
Soon enough this little piece of good natured collegial humour has got the mocking, fox like Trier going. He goes full throttle.
– But then I found out I was actually a Nazi. My family were German, called Hartmann. And that also gave me some pleasure. I understand Hitler. Not that he was a good man, and I don’t mean I’m in favor of World War II… But we were talking about their aesthetics. I like Albert Speer. Not God’s best child, but he had a certain talent… Hmm, now how can I get out of this?
He delivers his punchline with a touch of Woody Allen’s or Lenny Bruce’s comic sensibility.
– Ok. I’m a Nazi!
– My next film will be ”The Final Solution – of the journalist question”
The humour is ironic, dark and slippery. And nothing he hasn’t exhibited before. Trier’s typical way of describing his background has surfaced in many interviews over the years, as has his artistic preferences.
But in Cannes the media frenzy has already given birth to countless articles and commentaries. Hollwyood Reporter’s headline – ”Lars von Trier Admits to Being a Nazi, Understanding Hitler” – clearly indicates the direction. Various Jewish organizations have condemned his statements. In an official comment, the festival conveys an apology on Trier’s behalf and adds that it does not endorse such behaviour. The restaurant where the party for Melancholia was to be held suddenly and decidedly closes its doors, ”for ethnic reasons”. All this happened within hours of the press conference.
For us who were there and who heard it all in context and witnessed the whole spectacle it was easy to see how everything snowballed out of proportion. Legend became fact. No surprise, then – certainly not for Lars, who has himsellf passionately worked by this motto – which one was printed…
I meet him again shortly thereafter, at a small Scandinavian press meet, where the events of the press conference are hard not to mention. He assures us that at least Susanne Bier ”will love it”.
– She’s going to put on Fiddler on the Roof and dance around and think it can’t get much better.
I thought the press conference was nice and respectful this year. Did it bore you?
– Absolutely not. It was very good and sincere with serious questions. Maybe I just steered away too far with the whole thing about the Nazis, and the point was sort of lost. That was a bit unfortunate. I was just in a good mood…
Won’t it steal the attention away from a film with significant qualities?
– No, I’m not afraid of that. If the film is good, people will want to see it, if not then they won’t. I’m not at all worried. I’m afraid of a lot of things, but not of that.
He will have to swallow those words. Today, the board of directors of the Cannes festival issued a statement naming him a persona non grata. They based their decision on him using the festival to express comments that are unacceptable and contrary to the ideals of humanity.
He was asked to leave the festival, but Melancholia will still be left in the competition. If the film is rewarded with the Palme d’or on Sunday; Lars von Trier will not be allowed to collect the prize. The festival still has not decided whether the director will be able to return in the future.
Going to Cannes proved a bad idea this time.
Translation: Ludvig Hertzberg