Lars von Trier famously doesn’t take planes – they scare him – so he travels everywhere by road. Which means the trip back to Copenhagen from the Cannes Film Festival last year must have felt even longer than the 900 miles it was. The festival had booted out von Trier and declared him persona non grata for making a joke about the Nazis at a press conference. The 55-year-old director drove home to Denmark with one of his sons and was dreading seeing his wife. ‘She was so angry with me,’ he remembers. ‘My wife is very sweet, but she just kept saying to me: “Lars, didn’t you think about the children?”’
As he recalls this, he’s laughing a little, nervously, and his hands are shaking. It’s four months since Cannes and he has had time to think. We meet in his work bungalow in the grounds of Zentropa, the company he runs out of an old barracks on the outskirts of Copenhagen. He’s wearing dark trousers, a black T-shirt and a leather jacket, and he comes in an electric golf buggy to pick me up from the canteen, where awards hang high above an old drum kit. There’s a Banksy-style stencilled sign on the wall that reads, ‘No artistic integrity beyond this point.’
The film that von Trier was showing in Cannes last May, and iwill be out in UAE cinemas next week, is Melancholia, a pristine but lethargic work that unfolds over a few days at the country-house wedding of a woman called Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst. She’s a depressive and the impending end of the world is only making things worse. There are Dogme-style shakycam episodes illustrating her absurd wedding, where actors including John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland and Charlotte Rampling join the ensemble. There are quieter moments too, in the days that follow as Justine and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) react differently to the apocalypse.
Von Trier is prone to dismiss Melancholia, which he says was ‘a bit rushed’. When I ask if he’s happy with the film, he sighs and lets a moment of silence pass. Then another sigh. ‘It’s a little difficult to answer.’ A pause. ‘I feel ashamed a bit because I take the easy way out with this film.’ He lunges for a gardening analogy and explains how the stick should always be higher than the flower you want to grow up it. ‘The stick I used for Melancholia was maybe not high enough.’ He looks agonised and then perks up suddenly. ‘But I had a lot of fun doing it.’ That’s okay, then, I say. ‘No, that’s not okay.’
I suggest to von Trier that both Melancholia and its predecessor, Antichrist, are painterly, which is unusual for a man who stripped cinema bare with his Dogme film The Idiots and his two Brechtian tales, Dogville and Manderlay, each shot on bare soundstages with chalk markings to denote walls. In contrast, if you look at some of Melancholia’s shots, you could even call them – dare I say it to a film-school punk like von Trier – beautiful. ‘Which I’m not proud of,’ he says. It hasn’t happened by accident, I say. He sinks into the sofa. ‘It’s just I have other… ideals.’
At the time of the release of Antichrist in 2009, Von Trier spoke about how he made the film during a depression. Has he put it behind him? ‘Yeah, I think so. It takes a couple of years.’ He explains that as awful as depression was, it gave him a release from anxiety. ‘It was building up and the depression is a break from it. And it’s a good thing. It’s terrible for the family, of course, and all the children think it’s their fault and don’t know what’s happening. But maybe it’s good that they see this side of life.’
At the time, many people scoffed at Von Trier’s explanation that Antichrist had emerged from a depression. It was just another stunt, they said. Yet listening to him talk, it’s hard to deny his suffering was genuine. Now, however, he looks as though he’s having a good time. And yet there’s that shaking of the hands, those frequent slips into the depths of the sofa and those groans that remind you that, for von Trier, with pleasure comes pain.
Melancholia is in cinemas from August 23.