Cannes loves outrage. People love outrage. We are drawn to it, as uncomfortable as we may be to admit it. The Cannes Film Festival probably would not exist without it, without the weird competition selections and controversies. To take the moral busybodying out of Cannes would be to take away its whole purpose: it bears the flag of a ‘serious competition’, but it is just as much of a spectacle as the Oscars or the Grammys or the MTV Music Awards are, albeit with a shinier, more European veneer. Plus a turtleneck.
This is why Danish director Lars von Trier and Cannes make a pretty good couple. In his work as in his public appearances, he embodies that mix of controversy and artistic seriousness Cannes feeds off of. He’s a maverick-prankster-auteur, both an outsider to and a definer of the culture. A troll with a Palme d'Or.
This week, von Trier returned to Cannes amidst a jumble of jeers, applause and scandal – his first time in attendance since 2011, when he was banned from the competition for joking about sympathising with Hitler. The cringe-worthy nature of the incident more or less exemplifies my own reaction to some of his films, from the misogynistic Breaking the Waves to the patience testing The Idiots. Lars’ confrontational and provocative nature provokes disdain from most, even from people like me, who would like to say they like his work. Patience wears thin though, and von Trier’s latest offering, a brutal yarn centred on the career of an American serial killer, called The House That Jack Built, has prompted mass walkouts by critics and attendees. The most reviled scenes involve child murder, taxidermy, the mutilation of animals, women being brutalised. The apparent point is to engage through a level of extreme discomfort, to disturb and thereby enrapture.
Most audience members though understand pretty plainly where the borders of good taste lie. Life beyond the cinema screen is already full of miserable experiences and harsh truths. Not everyone is a masochist. The important thing however is that the reaction of the man on the street is not what drives the culture of outrage in Cannes. The man on the street does not phase Cannes. Cannes is its own separate ring, its own establishment seeking only to serve itself. Boos are common at Cannes because the culture accepts a kind of mob-driven rebuke of divisive work as par for the course. Pulp Fiction was booed at Cannes, as was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. At the same time festival favourites are given a pass in consideration of past work – Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme was praised by many seemingly because he directed Breathless fifty years before. Michael Moore's Farenheight 9/11 recived a twenty minute standing ovation.
The point is that Cannes is, well, Cannes. It is as much of an establishment as any, with clearly exposed pressure points. Von Trier’s continual messing with these points just highlights how parasitic a relationship it really is. Cannes and its attendees want that provocation – they are stimulated by it, and, refracted through it, they come out looking like the upstanding, progressive artists they so desire to be. The same is the case for von Trier: he claims to want freedom in his work, but at the same time his projects premiere bearing the scent of a director who revels in opposition. The two feed off of each other, like a volatile married couple, on the cusp of endangering one of their kids.
This is where the real moral failure of Cannes is to be found. Lars is back in spite of the accusations made against him by Icelandic singer Björk, namely that he sexually and emotionally abused her on the set of his film Dancer in the Dark. I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that Lars is back not because he’s been on his best behavior, free of scandal for the past seven years, but instead because it benefits those who profit off of the spectacle he brings, and the trail of bodies he leaves behind. Cannes represents the resistance and apathy of the European film business to mount any kind of worthwhile reaction to the #MeToo movement, and in that, it shows itself to be just as cannibalistic and hypocritical as its more American, Weinsteinian counterparts.
This is not to forget the hypocrite in me. I’m still paying attention to von Trier and his antics, despite everything. I don’t know how I will react to The House That Jack Built. I hope it will be a sort of underground American Psycho with all the Huey Lewis and the News songs taken out, but I’m afraid that Lars’ abrasive personality and questionable relationship with women will remain more with me than the gore or the handheld cinematography. The more I watch him, the more I see him as a drain, a misogynistic tick I’m too complacent to shake loose.