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Lars von Trier and the cowardly lions

On Sep 3 Babylon held a two-hour in-person Q&A with the notorious director. His first significant public appearance since the Cannes fiasco, Giovanni Marchini Camia lets you know whether there was any bite.

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Props to the Babylon for setting up an excellent retrospective of the work of one of today’s most gifted cineastes, Lars von Trier, and more laudably still, considering his post-Cannes press embargo, for getting him in person for a two-hour Q&A.

One would have thought that his new film, Melancholia – an epic, highly stylized and characteristically apocalyptic meditation on human virtue – together with the media furore he provoked at Cannes a few months back, would have served as more than adequate basis for a stimulating session with the limelight-savvy von Trier.

Sadly, the three pundits for the occasion – Babylon director Timothy Grossman, author Friedemann Beyer and Die Welt’s film editor Hanns-Georg Rodek – as terrified as they were of his proclivity for gross impropriety, squandered a great opportunity.

Melancholia, still unreleased in Germany (hitting cinemas proper on Oct 6) and shown in two exclusive previews the night before could easily have been discussed at length even without bringing up that dreadful N— business.

Even so, it must have seemed excessively imprudent (it was, after all, while discussing the film that the ineffable happened), as it received as good as no mention.

The questions were almost exclusively anecdotal, inquiring on well-trodden terrain such as the fake ‘von’ in his surname, his time at film school, his relationship with his mother and biological father, and the Dogme 95 manifesto.

Not information wholly lacking in interest, to be fair, but stuff that anyone willing to pay €12 to hear the man speak is sure to know and anyone else can find in neatly summarized form here.

It truly is a shame, as von Trier wasn’t unreceptive and seemed delighted when he saw the turnout – the hall was packed, with every seat taken and dewy-eyed fans lining the walls and walkways.

However, he grew visibly frustrated with the insipid questions and after repeatedly pleading for some “concrete” ones, he told his hosts to “pull [their] fucking acts together!” (Setting off an explosion of cheers and applause from the audience.)

As this failed to happen, the audience took over control of the remaining half hour by shouting in their questions and interrupting the pundits mid-sentence – an overdue change of course the guest of honour did not discourage.

This allowed him to elaborate on his much-disputed regard for women by discussing his next film, Nymphomaniac, a hard-core exploration of female sexuality from birth to middle age.

It turns out that while conducting interviews as research for it, he discovered that a large number of sexually experienced, middle-aged women (his primary source of reference for the film) actually hold him as a champion of feminism, encouraging him to be far more explicit in his treatment of this subject he holds so dear. He didn’t reveal how he would trump Antichrist’s self-circumcision.

It would have been impossible for his Nazi gaffe not to be the elephant in the room the entire evening. The director was of course the only one to utter the forbidden word, throwing it in a handful of times and prompting nervous giggles from his hosts and a hasty change of subject.

The one time Cannes was brought up by an audience member, the crowd readily booed the fool down – clearly, on this point, they saw eye to eye with the men on stage.

Yet, when von Trier had explained his belief in provocation being one of the most effective tools for stirring people out of inertia and stimulating discussion, everyone nodded approvingly.

Here you have a highly intelligent artist that loves to provoke and is just begging to be taken to task – can it be a coincidence that he chose the former Reich capital to hold his first significant public appearance since the scandal?

It was evident from the atmosphere in the room (and from the price of the ticket) that anyone present was a great admirer of the Danish director.

How can a cinema full of people who supposedly love his work – films whose very essence lies in their ability to provoke and fuel debate – not jump at the opportunity of taking his challenge rather than placing him on a pedestal and allowing him to grow bored there?