After a 7- year hiatus, Danish film director and screenwriter Lars von Trier is to return to the Cannes Film Festival this year for his new film. He received a 1-year ban from the festival in 2011. This ban was inflicted on him because, in promotional interviews after the screening of his film Melancholia, he joked that he was a Nazi and claimed ‘I understand Hitler’. Understandably, there was a vast media uproar in response to his anti- Semitic remarks and he immediately issued an apology, claiming that he was intoxicated. This does not excuse his remarks. The content of Von Trier’s more recent films is often equally provocative; sometimes dealing with violent sexual behaviours and sadomasochism. Von Trier also released a ‘Depression’ Trilogy which includes films called Antichrist and Nymphomaniac.
It is problematic in this instance that Cannes have invited Von Trier back to the festival for his latest film: The House That Jack Built. A film about a serial killer shown from the perspective of the serial killer. Is this film needlessly provocative or a genuine artistic movement? It remains to be seen.
Cannes, however, has been no stranger to controversy. Just last year they decided to screen Roman Polanski’s latest film Based on a True Story. Polanski remains a fugitive from the United States government for his rape of a 13 year- old girl in 1977. He plead guilty to this accusation in 1977 but quickly fled the country, the legal case remains open today. Cannes choice to screen his film was considered a much- derided decision and was seen as a defiant move by the organisers. Also, in 2017 Polanski was elected to preside over the César Award, the national film award of France. Although a largely honorary and inessential role which he eventually declined, this is yet another example of institutions and academies shining their spotlights on unsavoury artists.
Of course, it is an unfair comparison to draw between von Trier and Polanski, Polanski really should have been imprisoned years ago and become a figure of history rather than someone still working within the film industry. Perhaps a fairer comparison would be between Lars von Trier and Austrian director and screenwriter, Michael Haneke. Both directors prove controversial but von Trier faced a 7- year excommunication from the film festival circuit whilst Haneke continues to be welcomed with open arms. Haneke’s films often deal with very violent themes and other obscenities. Earlier this year, Haneke spoke out against the #metoo movement, denouncing it as ‘Man- Hating Puritanism’. Often controversial yet a critical darling, Haneke continues to have his films debut at these prestigious film festivals worldwide.
Is it possible to honour filmmakers who make controversial art and have views that differ greatly from our own? In a post- #metoo environment it is more important than ever to call out abusers and deviant filmmakers, but at what point does this become censorship? It is it possible to ethically consume and praise filmmakers and their films? There is no objective answer to these questions but the debate must be had. To find an answer to these questions is important as consumption of art cannot be done in a vacuum, there is always a creator. One must think and talk about the films they are watching and the filmmakers responsible to be an ethical consumer. Filmmakers like Polanski can become a relic of history as far as I’m concerned, but directors who haven’t done terrible things but have rather said and made unsavoury things such as Haneke and von Trier can still be honoured, their actions and the content of their films must be discussed thoroughly.