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Cannes 2011: Terrence Malick and Lars von Trier, Cannes contrasts, strangely united

May 22, 2011 |  2:30 am


Among all the plot lines the Cannes Film Festival has offered over the last week, none has been as compelling as the tale of two directors -- each highly acclaimed, each inscrutable in his own way. One said too much, and one said nothing at all. One got kicked out of the festival midway through it; one never appeared in public in the first place.

And yet for all the differences between Lars von Trier and Terrence Malick, they shared the stage in these May days. They each furnished drama at a press conference, of all places, causing reporters to drop their pens -- Malick when producers declined to acknowledge there was anything wrong with his absence; von Trier, in a more morally problematic vein, when he made his infamous Nazi comments.

Ironically lost in the separate yet parallel stories of these two filmmakers are their movies, which have a surprising amount in common. Both "The Tree of Life" and "Melancholia" make generous use of grand cosmic images, set against soaring classical music, while focusing  tightly on the dysfunctions of one family amid the astral pomp. If you asked a blind focus group to pick out the two movies among the 21 in competition with the most commonalities, a good number would choose "Tree" and "Melancholia."

And yet. There's something telling about Malick's use of cosmic images to portray the world's creation and Von Trier's use of them to show its end. The Texas auteur is fascinated with the origin of all things and Von Trier, ever the nihilist, constantly wants to tear them down.

As interesting as it has been to hear speculation about why Malick declined to show up for his premiere, it's been that much more fascinating, if frustrating, to hear the speculation about Von Trier and his motives. He is either the second coming of David Duke, a horrible and inexcusable racist, or a simple and misunderstood talent, the Manny Ramirez of the international film world, whose missteps are proof of nothing more than his quirkiness. In truth, the reality probably lies in between; he does not really embrace the Third Reich, but his comments also can't be explained away as mistimed jokes.

When we interviewed Von Trier, as his critics were circling and the festival was preparing to eject him, the director had a simple response to all. "Terrence Malick is a clever man -- he knows that it's good to stay home." He seemed to be saying, in that moment at least, that he wished he was Malick. The rest of us could only wish for something more obtainable: that Malick spoke a little more, and Von Trier a little less.


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With Ryan Gosling’s ‘Drive,’ a different Dane gets his moment

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Lars von Trier. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency

Comments () | Archives (3)

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The best writing on this year's Cannes festival. Like the comparison of the two movies and the concept behind it. Great critique!

Just a correction. Malick did indeed attend the premiere. He came in at the end of the film, but was not officially photographed. There is a still photo of him embracing Brad Pitt. Pitt then skipped the big afterparty and hosted a small dinner with Malick, so, he was there, just not in your face. Smart move.

Well put. However it must be said that Von Trier did not just joke around in his nazi statements, he spoke his mind, though in a very vague and unclear fashion. He IS fascinated by the aesthetics of the third reich, and his biological father was out of a German family, hence the sarcastic resignation "Yes, I'm a nazi". He is, of course, a typical leftist european intellectual with NO racial bias what so ever, but he also sees himself as an artist with capital A - if he wants to parallel the nazi extremist behavior to his own extremist behavior of no compromises, he'll do so, without feeling bad


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