Lars von Trier is an Idiot, and Other Lessons We Learned at Cannes

A final roundup of the art, the money and the outrage of Cannes 2011

It started out as a festival dominated by the return of Terrence Malick, turned into a festival hijacked by the mouth of Lars von Trier, and ended up celebrating Malick.

It screened about 50 movies in various official capacities, while buyers hawked 4,000 more in an adjacent marketplace devoted as much to schlock than art. 

Cannes winners with Robert De NiroAnd it proved to be a fertile ground for deals, even though the commercial chances for most of the films that screened at the festival are minimal.

(Photo of jury president Robert De Niro flanked by acting winners Kirsten Dunst and Jean Dujardin by Paschal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

The 64th Cannes Film Festival, which ended Sunday night in France with an awards ceremony that crowned "The Tree of Life" the Palme d'Or champ, followed by a screening of Christophe Honore's film "Beloved," was 12 days of cinema and controversy, an almost-fortnight that taught Cannes-goers and festival observers a few things.

To tell you the truth, we already knew most of these things. But they were reinforced in Cannes over the past two weeks. To recap:

Lars von Trier and Thierry Fremaux1. Lars von Trier is a stupid loudmouth (who makes good movies).

Let's face it: the problem is not that von Trier is a Nazi, because he's not. The problem is that he approaches press conferences with provocation and mockery in mind, and his default setting is a kind of deadpan facetiousness in which he makes outrageous statements that we're supposed to know not to take seriously.

(Photo of von Trier with festival chief Thierry Fremaux by Georges DeKeerle/Getty Images)

You can get away with that approach, I suppose, when you take the fact that you're interested in making a soft-core porn movie (which von Trier apparently is) and inflate it to the point where you claim to be making a four-hour, hard-core porno with Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

It becomes a little more problematic when, with your actors sitting beside you, you imply that Stellan Skarsgard and the absent Kiefer Sutherland are drunks and that Dunst suffers from depression.

And it turns completely untenable when "I found out I had German, not Jewish ancestry" turns into "I'm a Nazi," and leads into a discussion of how you understand and, oops, sympathize with Hitler.

Anybody who saw the brilliant German film "Downfall," as von Trier said he did, could legitimately claim to take away some understanding of (if not sympathy for) Hitler. And plenty of artists drawn to the dark side, as von Trier is, have talked about finding the monsters within themselves in their work.

But digging yourself a hole with an ill-conceived and entirely unconsidered monologue, delivered in what isn't your first language, and then thinking you can squirm out of it with a flippant "Okay, I'm a Nazi," is just plain idiotic. 

Plus, it did an enormous disservice to von Trier's movie, which is by all accounts a gripping work that deserves to be more than a footnote to its director's big mouth.   

Also read: 'Melancholia,' Baby

Melancholia2. Sanctimony cuts both ways.

Did anybody really come off well in the von Trier mess? The director said stupid things, then apologized, then undercut those apologies with comments about how he likes being persona non grata and thinks the real problem is France's own history of mistreatment of the Jews.

The festival declared him persona non grata and banned him from the festival, wading into muddy waters with a sanctimonious press release that began, “The Festival de Cannes provides artists from around the world with an exceptional forum to present their works and defend freedom of expression and creation," and then added that von Trier's comments were "unacceptable, intolerable, and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the Festival."

In other words, Cannes defends freedom of expression as long as they don't find that expression unacceptable.

Meanwhile, von Trier's defenders wasted no time in throwing around names like Cannes attendee Mel Gibson (whose own offensive comments were not delivered on Cannes grounds at an official festival event) and Roman Polanski.

Missed in the outrage over the outrage over the outrageous comments was the fact that the festival response was actually pretty measured. It didn't ban his film from competition (Kirsten Dunst was named the festival's Best Actress, maybe partly for having to sit next to von Trier during his outburst), and it didn’t extend beyond this year.

All it did, really, was to call him a name and tell him that he couldn't set foot in Cannes buildings or attend the awards ceremony. And since von Trier didn't think his film deserved to win (or maybe he was just kidding about that, too) and was staying at a hotel well out of town, it was hardly a draconian punishment.

Still, the guy created a big mud puddle, and everybody ended up getting dirty.

Also read: Cannes Film Festival Bans Lars Von Trier After Nazi Comments, Von Trier Responds

3. Hey, Terrence Malick is capable of finishing a movie!

"The Tree of Life" was originally talked about as a potential late-2009 release that could figure in that year's Oscar race. When Malick didn't finish it in time, it was presumed to be a 2010 Cannes entry – and the presumption, from all reports, was coming from both Cannes-watchers and Cannes organizers alike.

But once again, the painstaking director wasn't ready. You could argue that his delays impacted two consecutive Oscar races and the planning for two consecutive Cannes lineups, and led to Bob Berney's departure from Apparition, a shocker that took place on the eve of the 2010 festival and eventually led to the shuttering of that company. (If Malick had been ready to show "Tree of Life" at Cannes that year, I have to think that Berney would have stuck around to shepherd the film, which at that point was to be an Apparition release.)

Jessica Chastain and Brad PittBut Malick finally finished his movie, and the result was grand enough to steal the Cannes spotlight back from Lars von Trier. 

While other Palme d'Or competitors like "Le Havre" might have been more universally admired, nothing else had the scale and ambition of Malick's movie, which may have given it an exta boost with the jury.

I would love to know the differences between the version of "The Tree of Life" that screened at Cannes, and that Fox Searchlight will release this Friday, and the version that was not quite ready a year ago – because my guess is that the differences were minimal, and that a year of tinkering probably only made minor changes to a movie that could well have beaten "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" for the Palme d'Or last year.

But we'll never really know, because Malick certainly isn’t talking.

Also read: Outside of Cannes, 'Tree of Life' Remains Magnificent and Maddening

4. Cannes is as much a publicity opportunity as a film festival.

Of the 20 movies that completed for the Palme d'Or, half currently have U.S. distribution. Of those, "Drive" seems commercial, the Weinstein Company might just turn "The Artist" into a left-field success,  "The Skin I Live In" and "Melancholia" and a few others could conceivably push a bit out of the arthouse niche, and "The Tree of Life" is a big, bold wild-card whose commercial prospects are a huge question mark.

But most of the competition slate – the official Cannes movies – will never make it to American shores, and most of the ones that do probably won't make money.

Antonio Banderas and Salma HayekSo the reason American companies pay so much attention to Cannes – the reason that Disney gave "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" a gala premiere, and DreamWorks Animation hyped "Kung Fu Panda 2" and  flew in Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek for "Puss In Boots" (right) – is that the international entertainment press has descended on Cannes, and the international entertainment press does not live by arthouse cinema alone.

That's also reason that the vast  majority of the deals and casting choices and project starts that are announced at Cannes have absolutely nothing to do with the kind of movies that actually screen in the festival: as much as the Cannes Film Festival is a showcase for some of the best (and artiest) of international cinema, "Cannes" itself is just a huge platform for announcing stuff that'll get more attention if you can put that word in the press release.

Weinstein gets U.S. rights to the Meryl Streep film "Iron Lady" … Jim Jarmusch and Neil Jordan decide to make films about vampires … "The Amityville Horror" gets another sequel … Lee Daniels is making an erotic thriller … Jack Black has lined up a new comedy … Summit buys a Dwayne Johnson movie. And on and on and on.

None of 'em with the slightest connection to Cannes the festival, but all of 'em part of Cannes the international publicity opportunity.

Also read: Marche du Film Project Announcements

Cannes wine glass5. The lessons that we say we learned aren’t the important thing about Cannes.

I'll leave this one to Sasha Stone, who helped cover the festival for TheWrap, as well as at her own site, Awards Daily. From the end of her final dispatch there;

"I am part of the media, real or imagined, and I’m here to tell stories as they really happened. But the real storytellers are the filmmakers themselves. Even though we’re reporting from Cannes, we are always thinking about those ideas, the ones the artists had. And Cannes is a place for ideas. Everything else it is may evaporate over time. Those ideas, they’re worth coming back here for."

(Photo by Sasha Stone)