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While his outspoken views may sometimes overshadow his work, with movies like Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist and Melancholia, there’s no doubt that Lars von Trier is an uncompromising director. We meet the filmmaker behind the headlines…
Given events at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it seems apt that Lars von Trier took a film about the end of the world. The Danish director’s Melancholia is a ravishing work, set around a family wedding on the eve of a planetary apocalypse. Kirsten Dunst rightly won the festival’s Best Actress award for her work as Justine, the bride who slides into a numbing depression. But all this was overlooked after the 55-year-old von Trier lived up to his reputation as a provocateur by expressing Nazi sympathies at the press conference. A former Palme d’Or winner for Dancer in the Dark, the festival declared him persona non grata. movieScope gives him the chance to explain himself.
You caused a furore in Cannes with your joke comments regarding Hitler. Can you explain yourself?
Of course I don’t sympathise with Hitler. I can see a human being within him that I can feel for. But [I] detest what he has done to the world. And the Holocaust, as we all know, is the cruellest and most barbaric crime to humanity for many, many, many years. There should be no question about that. Actually, the only excuse I can say is that I’m a little bit afraid of conflict. In the sense that when I am at a press conference, and it seems like nobody has anything to say, then I start to perform.
You were labelled ‘persona non grata’ by the festival. How did that feel?
The persona non grata is a pity because I’m close to Gilles [Jacob, festival president] and I’m close to Thierry [Frémaux, festival artistic director]. They are very good friends and I miss them. On the other hand, the expression ‘persona non grata’ fits me extremely well. I’m very happy for that. It’s like an Order, right? I have a French Order, which they will probably take away from me now.
When you made Antichrist, you were suffering from depression. Are you still this way?
No, but the problem is before that I was drinking a lot. And I had no energy. And now I’m not drinking, I’m healthy! And that is what happens! So don’t stop drinking; it can be so dangerous.
Melancholia deals with depression and the apocalypse. What inspired you?
To me it’s not so much a film about the end of the world. It’s a film about a state of mind. I’ve been through some melancholic stages of my life. Suddenly little things become very hard. For me, if you’ve been through stuff like that, then the scene where Claire [played by Charlotte Gainsbourg] is giving Justine a bath is quite touching. Also, it says a lot about sisterhood.
Yes, both siblings do seem to be constantly bickering…
I think that’s very common among sisters. Even at the end of the Earth, they’re still discussing things! My mother had a sister, and even after she was dead, she was still criticised by her sister. My mother was lying in the coffin and my aunt said something stupid. I said ‘You can stop now. She is dead. You don’t have to go on and lecture her.’
In your director’s statement, you said Melancholia “looks like shit”. Did you mean it?
You have to understand that the provocation will always bear a little bit of truth. And when I write a statement as a director, if I have some doubt, I should put it there. Especially after seeing it so many times it’s difficult. And I have a problem; I am a little ashamed that it looks a little too much like a commercial here and there.
Do you often feel this way about your films?
Normally, I’m very happy—especially just after I’ve done it. There are films that I’m very proud of. Dogville, for instance, I’m very proud of.
You’re noted for changing styles. Is that what you admire in other directors?
I like very much people who stay with their own stuff, like Ken Loach. For a long time Ken Loach was out of fashion; nobody was interested. And then because he’s stubborn and still follows his own track, it becomes interesting again.
Compared to the females, your male characters are rather stupid. Why?
That is because I’m clever. I know if I did it the other way around, so the men were interesting characters and the females were stupid and cowardly, like all the men are in my films, I would have a lot of shit from the women, right? So I changed it around. Now the interesting parts are the females and the men are too soft to say anything like ‘listen, the men are caricatures’. They would never do that. It’s just politics. It’s just being clever.
What are you working on next?
The next film will be called The Nymphomaniac. This will be a story about a woman’s erotic development over 50 years. It’s going to be half-porn, half-philosophy. Which makes it a very, very narrow audience that will see it. I will make a hard-core or a soft-core version, otherwise we can’t finance it. And it will be extremely long. Both will be long, like in the old French films.
You’re also planning a repeat of The Five Obstructions with Martin Scorsese. Will you be tormenting him as much as previous director Jørgen Leth?
It will be much more difficult with Scorsese than with Jørgen Leth, because Scorsese is working in so many very different ways. So it will be difficult to restrict him into something that he hasn’t done already. But I look tremendously forward to it. Though now I have been such a bad boy, I think nobody will touch me…