For those of us who paid even marginal attention to this years Cannes film festival, there were two non-surprises that were somehow engineered to be received as stunners. First, and probably less surprising, was the banning of Lars von Trier, the famously badgerlike Dane; second was the victory of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life over the other highfalutin shoo-ins from other directors who have become Cannes mainstays. Both directors came out on top–though for drastically different reasons.
I welcomed the news of von Trier’s expulsion from the festival: what else is there for him to do? When a formerly radical artist–even radical in von Trier’s vein–becomes an accepted member of the cultural institutions he so desperately wants to shit on, the only thing left for them to do is really make a fool of themselves. For von Trier, this seems like a testing of his cultural limits: can I still be banned? Am I still that relevant? It would appear so.
Nothing reveals this more than von Trier’s recent response to the Iranian Minister of Culture, who, apparently, was on von Trier’s side. When he critiqued the festival for its actions, the director responded by reminding everyone that, in his opinion, “Freedom of speech, in all its shapes, is part of the basic human rights,” but continued, “my comments during the festival’s press conference were unintelligent, ambiguous and needlessly hurtful.” What this amounts to, basically, is a redirection of this debate to its appropriate subject, which is not freedom of speech, but simply the continued relevance of von Trier. Even he has no questions about his statements. No, no, he says, I really earned this one. And not even the Iranian Minister of Culture can take it away from him.
For Terrence Malick, the festival ended in a victory, though we’ll never know what he thinks about it or even what he thinks he thinks about it. This is just the kind of lifetime achievement award he never needed. Despite his supposed genius, I’ve never had much patience for Malick’s films: I think he’s the stuff of taste, and taste is frequently tawdry. His selection is a pleasant choice for the American contingent, though, at the hands of Robert DeNiro. It solidifies him as a talent to be reckoned with, a director to be respected, as opposed to a self-serious obsessive who can’t help but make every film he’s already made again, letting enough time lapse between them for it to really feel important when he releases one. Memories are short, and Malick makes sure of it: his movies are so hypnotic as to avoid question, they leave the audience in a stupor where everyone’s shrugging and saying, Well wasn’t that great. This year, I guess, it was great enough.
Between Malick and von Trier, I think I’ll take the latter–his victory angrier, and more divisive, than Malick’s. His position, too, was solidified–far from the mainstream of acceptable society. Just as he wanted.