Witch hunt or wise move? Cannes ponders expulsion

CANNES, France Thu May 19, 2011 1:31pm EDT

1 of 2. Visitors stand on a balcony at the Festival Palace during the 64th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, May 15, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Christian Hartmann

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CANNES, France (Reuters) - Witch hunt or wise decision? That was the question on the lips of movie-goers, critics and executives at the Cannes film festival on Thursday after the sudden expulsion of Danish director Lars Von Trier.

The annual cinema showcase is the world's biggest and well-known as a haven for provocative voices like Von Trier's. But organizers clearly decided the 55-year-old director had overstepped the mark when he jokingly told the world press on Wednesday that he was a Nazi who sympathized with Hitler.

And while the festival cracked down on Von Trier within 24 hours, revoking his accreditation, reaction was more divided from the crowd on the famous palm-lined Riviera waterfront.

"I'm against the decision. Everyone here is on two hours' sleep and anyone can say something stupid at a press conference. He apologized and that was enough," said 20-something filmmaker Christophe Monsourian.

At Wednesday's bizarre press conference, Von Trier, in Cannes to talk about his movie "Melancholia," launched into a rambling monologue about his Jewish/German heritage before making the remarks that forced his exit.

He jokingly said he was a Nazi, sympathized with Hitler "a little bit," deemed Israel a "pain in the ass" and muttered the phrase "the final solution for journalists."

Once Von Trier's words made headlines in newspapers and websites the world over, the Cannes board of directors hastily convened for a "tense" meeting at which it was decided to throw him out, ending a hitherto happy relationship with the festival.

His film Melancholia remains in competition, however.

The news, announced in an emailed statement, quickly spread and has dominated the May 11-22 event as it reaches its climax.

Opinions varied widely as to whether the festival had done the right thing or not.

DON'T JOKE ABOUT HOLOCAUST

Jason Solomons, chairman of the Film Critics' Circle in London, said in Cannes that he supported the decision, and argued that organizers should have gone further.

"I think the film should have been thrown out as well," he told Reuters.

Solomons said there was a tendency to look at the art not the artist, but that in this case the two things were inextricably bound.

"You can't really joke about the Holocaust, you have to take these issues seriously," he said. "I'm not offended on the level of being a Jew, I'm offended on the level of semiotics, not Semitics."

Others took the opposite stance, saying that the issue had become overblown.

"It's very hypocritical," said Francois Peyroux, a cinema student at the FEMIS school in Paris.

"They have a hard time with what he said because it was not politically correct, but to me it's no less objectionable than yacht parties and the money being thrown around here."

Cannes normally thrives on controversy and scandal, as when Von Trier brought his ultra-violent, sexually explicit "Antichrist" to the festival two years ago that prompted jeers at the press screening.

"Von Trier is a genius, he has completely upset every convention in cinema and we need filmmakers like him at Cannes," added Monsourian.

Moments of controversy are a key ingredient to a memorable festival along with great films, A-list celebrities and non-stop parties along the palm-lined Croisette waterfront.

But this year, what has been hailed as a vintage festival where star power has matched the quality of competition films, Cannes is in danger of being remembered for one thing and one thing only -- Von Trier's ignominious exit.

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White and Nick Vinocur, editing by Paul Casciato)

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