After walking for 15 minutes up a hill that leads in a northeasterly direction away from central Cannes, I happen upon a pair of large grey gates. I push the bell. They creak open to reveal an enormous poster for Lars von Trier's already much reviled The House that Jack Built. If it were a good deal colder – it's boiling, of course – I would think myself Jonathan Harker at the beginning of Dracula.
Von Trier looks to have positioned himself as far from the official face of the Cannes Film Festival as possible. That makes sense. Seven years ago he was expelled and declared persona non grata for making an ill-judged gag about Hitler at a press conference. The House that Jack Built, a serial-killer provocation starring Matt Dillon, has provoked theatre walkouts and biblically outraged notices. Welcome back, arch-provocateur of Danish nihilism.
Inside the Zentropa Villa (named for Von Trier’s production company) the atmosphere is comparatively buoyant. The bald man drinking tea looks familiar. It’s Gaspar Noé, the almost equally controversial French director, who has dropped in to say hello. Figures.
Eventually I am ushered in to the Von Trier presence. Speaking very slowly, leaving immense pauses between sentences, he looks straight ahead and keeps his hands positioned in noticeably shaky parallel throughout.
“I am actually fine,” he says. “I am just tired because I have given a hundred interviews. I don’t know how much I have to say. I decided I would do a lot of answers like: ‘No comment’. But I haven’t done any yet.”
That comes as relief. The answers are dragged from a deep place, but they get here without any obvious evasions. Let's start by discussing his semi-triumphant return. In 2011, when discussing the relatively sedate Melancholia beside an unnerved Kirsten Dunst, he muttered some gibberish about understanding Hitler and thinking himself a Nazi. The jokes fell flat. Thierry Frémaux, the head of Cannes, and his people quickly issued a condemnation and, in an absurd turn, he was forced to make his way to nearby Nice for the duration.
“I thought that this was forgotten,” he says. “But Thierry has been fighting for me. There was this agreement that the film would be out of competition. That is quite nice. At a certain point there were a lot of American films that wouldn’t go into competition because it’s a loss if they don’t get a prize. But that window at Cannes suits me. I was very touched by the audience. They were very nice to me.”
Well, some were and some weren't. Set in a typically Von Trieresque version of the United States (a country he has never visited), The House that Jack Built has the eponymous killer severing nipples, chopping off a duckling's foot and generally treating women like filth. The stream of exiting punters in the screening at the Palais ebbed and flowed, but it never fully halted.
“That is fine with me,” he says. “It is important that a film divides. I am disappointed that it was only 100 people that vomited. I would have liked 200 people to vomit.”
He once said he liked to think of his films as a stone in the viewer’s shoe.
“Yes, but this is kind of like a bacteria in your stomach,” he says proudly.
You won't need to be told that Von Trier sees The House that Jack Built as less a misogynist film than a film about misogyny. The distinction is not an outrageous one. He has always been hard to read when it comes to gender politics. Awful things happen to female leads in Breaking the Waves (the Von Trier film his harshest critics are most likely to tolerate), Dancer in the Dark, Nymphomaniac and Melancholia, but, unlike too many male directors, he does write giant, juicy roles for women. Uma Thurman, one of the driving forces in #MeToo, is among the murdered in his new film.
What’s going on? Why does he put female characters through such hell?
“It was something I stole from Carl Dreyer,” he says with a shrug.
I can sort of see what he means. After all, Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc – among the most acclaimed films in the medium's history – spends much of its duration preparing its eponymous hero for fiery immolation.
“There were always women and they were always suffering,” Von Trier says. “I thought: if it works for him … Look, I just thought I was home free here because I had done my duty with female leads. So I could now have a man as a lead. But, yes, the women are still suffering. I know. I blame Disney because, as a boy, I was reading the Donald Duck magazine. All the stories are cliches. Even though I try and avoid the cliches, I can’t avoid them. The women will be suffering.”
So there you have it. The two major influences on Trier’s cinema of distaff torture are Carl T Dreyer and Donald Duck.
No such excuses worked when Von Trier got caught up in the ongoing controversies concerning the mistreatment of women (actual women, not characters modelled on Daisy Duck) in the film industry. The Me Too scandal came for Von Trier when Björk, star of his bizarre, Palme d'Or-winning musical Dancer in the Dark, described harassment by a thinly veiled "Danish director". No other candidates in the Icelandic star's brief filmography fit that description.
“Ninety per cent of the journalists I’ve talked to were sure that I did something wrong to Björk,” he says in the same flat monotone. “I said straight away that it’s not true. She thought I was touching her in a sexual way. I wouldn’t be able to direct anyone without touching them somehow. You have to protect them if you want them to go far into the emotions. She did a wonderful job. We had a tough time in private. But the working time together was a blessing.”
He comes uncharacteristically close to diplomacy when discussing the general effect of the Me Too movement. I wonder vaguely what he makes of how it has changed the business.
“Probably a good effect,” he says. “The idea is very good. That is what the internet should be used for. The problem is that it can be misused also. Very easily. The internet is a little no-man’s land. It is the parliament of the street, which is something a democracy is trying to avoid.”
One finds oneself furrowing a brow at most of Von Trier's answers. His odd life story generates further, deeper confusion. He was raised just outside Copenhagen and took the second bit of his surname from his mother's husband – who was not his actual father, as he once believed – and later added the "Von" as an affectation. He studied film at the University of Copenhagen and plugged away in his 20s before scoring an underground hit with The Element of Crime in 1984. Europa from 1991 won the Jury Prize at Cannes, but it was Breaking the Waves – starring Emily Watson as the sexually frustrated wife of a paralysed oil rig worker – that pushed him above ground. The film won the Grand Prix at Cannes, and Watson secured an Oscar nomination. Von Trier was now a personality.
He resisted the offers from Hollywood. He tells me he didn’t even read the scripts.
“I hate this thing where you follow a director and he does these very good films and then he goes one step too far,” he says. “He’s bought a house that’s too big. He’s got a car that’s too big. He’s got three ex-wives. Then in order to please his wallet he starts a decline. I am trying to hold on. I don’t want that to happen.”
Meanwhile, Denmark's profile in the cinematic community swelled. He launched the back-to-basics Dogme 95 movement with such directors as Thomas Vinterberg and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen. Acclaimed compatriots such as Paprika Steen and Susanne Bier soon joined up. Danish crime TV was picked up by channels throughout the Continent. The country is a model for smaller nations hoping to develop their screen industries.
“It’s strange. I wouldn’t look to Denmark,” he says gloomily. “We have quite a few directors who work in England and the States. ‘Oh, little provoking Lars has done something?’ They tend to say: ‘We want something Danish, but we don’t want Lars.’ Casting this film, all the actors I addressed would ‘give their right arms to work with me’ but ‘not on this script.’ ”
They wanted to be in something like the less distressing Melancholia?
"Yeah, Melancholia was what they wanted."
Fear of being flown
It can’t help those professional conversations that he has yet to shake off his phobia of flying. He has, to attend Cannes, made his way all the way from Denmark to the Côte d’Azur without taking flight. His “American” films tend to be set in the Pacific Northwest because that area of the US looks the most like Scandinavia. Lars puts his fear down to claustrophobia. Recently, he actually managed to pilot a helicopter for half an hour.
“If I could actually fly the plane, it might be different. Though it would be very stupid to do that,” he says.
I never quite know if Von Trier is joking. Like his films, he exists in a half-light of irony and creative evasion. The grimmest stuff is perhaps meant to make us laugh. The gags are usually deathly serious.
Gaspar Noé has shuffled off. Cars are arriving at Castle Zentropa for the evening festivities. Von Trier has batted away another batch of questions with his customary perversity. As I’m heading out the door, I turn and generate the biggest laugh of our meeting. Is he still a pessimist about life?
“Oh, yes, yes, yes. Oh yes! Ha ha ha!”
I’ve never seen a miserable man look so happy.
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