There was a time -- only a couple of days ago, in fact -- when this year's Cannes Film Festival was about the movies, when the names on festival-goers' lips were Malick and Dardenne and Leigh and Hazanavicius.
Then came Lars Von Trier, and suddenly the entire festival was hijacked by a purposefully transgressive Dane and his ill-considered comments about Hitler and the Nazis. Condemnation from the festival quickly followed, and then an apology, a ban from the festival, and an interview that didn't make things much better.
But the movie part of the festival has managed to go on even though everybody's talking about Lars. So we'll get to those other movies in a minute – though first, a few updates on the charming Mr. Von Trier.
Steven Zeitchik journeyed outside of Cannes to speak to the director, who struck a fairly conciliatory note when he said, "I'm really sincere when I say I don't really know what hit me."
Calling his press-conference comments "very sarcastic and very rude, but that's very Danish," he added, "I must say that I believe strongly that the Holocaust is the worst crime against humanity ever, and I do not sympathize with Hitler one second."
Among other von Trier tidbits: "I don't deserve to win [the Palme d'Or]," and "I'm just an idiot that should just say home in Denmark and never talk to anybody."
He might find that Manohla Dargis would agree with that last statement; in her New York Times roundup of the "surreal turn" she says the festival has taken, she wrote, "I don’t believe Mr. von Trier is a Nazi; he’s just stupid and unthinking … an extremely awkward man who has always enjoyed playing the provocateur, riling up audiences and journalists who bait him."
Those comments came in a piece that also detailed Thursday's out-of-competition premiere of "This Is Not a Film," a document of a day in the life of Iranian director Jafar Panahi -- who is currently in prison serving a six-year term, and who has been banned by the government from making films for 20 years.
The film was shot (on consumer-grade equipment and a cellphone) at Panahi's home before he went to jail; Dargis says it lasts "a fleeting but rich 75 minutes," and finds echoes in the film of von Trier's 2003 film "Dogville," which she calls "a Brechtian look at terror that … now rings even more hollowly next to Mr. Panahi's anguished movie."
The earliest reviews have started to come in for another Danish director, Nicolas Winding Refn, whose "Drive" has its official Cannes debut on Friday evening. The film stars Ryan Gosling as an unnamed getaway-driver-for-hire, and it's reportedly full of high-octane car chases; FilmDistrict has American distribution rights.
At indieWIRE, Eric Kohn compared the film to an '80s-style "Fast and Furious" movie if that franchise had downplayed plot in favor of action. (What, it didn't?) "Combing a memorably gritty Ryan Gosling performance with the breakneck tempo of the getaway cars his character handles for hire, Refn churns out a hyperactive love letter to road rage with unapologetic glee," he writes. "It’s a total blast."
And "Drive" isn't the only recent Cannes film to be something of a genre exercise. Takashi Miike's "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" is a remake of a 1963 Cannes Jury Prize winner from Masaki Kobayashi that has received mixed reviews.
"It's possible to admire Miike's newfound classical restraint while also wishing he'd put a more singular stamp on the material," writes Justin Chang in Variety.
The biggest Thursday debut, meanwhile, was Pedro Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In," which will be released by Sony Classics later this year. A creepy thriller that the director says was influenced by the Georges Franju's "Eyes Without a Face," the film stars Antonio Banderas as a plastic surgeon using a human guinea pig to perfect a form of artificial skin.
"It’s a thriller indeed because it fits in with my life at present,” Almodovar said (through a translator) as his Cannes press conference, according to a report from Brian Brooks.
For the most part, reviewers were appreciative, even if few thought it was top-drawer Almodovar. "'The Skin I Live In' isn't quite as el sicko as I'd hoped it would be, but the depraved gleam in its eye its nonetheless irresistible," said Stephanie Zacharek.
In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw was more enthusiastic: "Almodóvar brings something hypnotic to the surgery-porn aesthetic of his operating theatre of cruelty: the latex, the scrubs, the cold steel, the exquisite yet appalling contrast between wounds and young flesh. It is twisted and mad, and its choreography and self-possession are superb."
After the gala screening, the director threw a party -- and from the sound of a tweet from the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Eugene Hernandez, it was quite the shindig. "Almodovar always has the best #Cannes parties," he wrote. "You know it’s a good one when Michel Gondry is dancing to Lady Gaga."
Finally, one more look at the big fest controversy: An indieWIRE poll asking if "Melancholia" should remain in competition has drawn overwhelming support for not disqualifying the film. A full 76.1 percent of the respondents chose "of course, no question," with only 8.3 percent opting for "No. Lars Von Trier should be made an example of."
The second-place choice: "Honestly, I don’t care," with 10.7 percent.