"What about Harvey?" the Danish director wondered in an interview Wednesday, alluding to the former Cannes regular Harvey Weinstein, whom the festival did strongly condemn. "What I've done is far worse? I got trapped in a joke."
Seven years ago, when von Trier premiered his "Melancholia" in Cannes, he was asked at a news conference about discovering his family's German heritage in addition to his Jewish roots. While his mortified star, Kirsten Dunst, watched in horror, von Trier meandered until eventually stating that he "understands Hitler" and "I am a Nazi."
Seven years later, von Trier has returned to Cannes after the festival deemed his punishment sufficient. But he has not come back quietly, brimming with remorse. Instead, he has detonated "The House That Jack Built," a 2½-hour serial killer drama nasty enough to spark dozens of walkouts at its premiere.
Some critics called it a quintessential von Trier film about the nature of art and the reaches of empathy. Others called the film, which features scenes of child murder, female mutilation and piles of frozen corpses, "repulsive" and "irredeemably unpleasant."
Matt Dillon stars as Jack, a discontented architect with obsessive compulsive disorder and a virtually total lack of sympathy for others. His killings, separated in five chapters, are in their own way works of art. Von Trier is laying out how, to his mind, art is unbound by moral decency. To illustrate the point, he even inserts clips from his own films and, naturally, of Hitler.
"I sympathize with Jack to a certain degree," von Trier said, sitting alongside Dillon at a villa on the Cannes hillside. "The theory that mass killings can be seen as installations is of course true. Anything can be seen as art. But, thank god, I'm not in the killing business."
"The House That Jack Built" played out of the competition at Cannes, meaning von Trier did not have to return to the spotlight of the festival's press room. Von Trier, 62, is moving slower (it took him three days to travel here, he said) and his hands shake visibly — a result, his publicist said, of medication he takes for chronic anxiety. The director has long been frank about his own battles with depression.
"If you look at life on Earth, it really stinks, right?" said von Trier. "At the top of the cake are human beings that know they're going to die. If there's a god, which I'm sure there's not, he's the bad guy. I know there are very cruel pictures of the dead people from the concentration camps, but somehow I had to make Jack an artist that just has no limits."
Asked if the same wasn't true of him, von Trier chuckled. "I have limits," he said. "I have a lot of limits." The film co-stars Uma Thurman, Riley Keough and Bruno Ganz. But the biggest risk taken is by Dillon, who shoulders the film.
Dillon said he was invigorated by the rehearsal-less production, and he deeply trusted von Trier. Their process frequently involved von Trier urging the actor to take his performance down 50 percent — or more — to a deadpan.
"The highest it went was 125 percent. And I would laugh, and one time he fired me. But it was good," said Dillon. "Lars encouraged me not to judge Jack from my perspective. So for example, the scenes I did with Riley were difficult scenes. It's like we talked about Jack being born a sick person. At one time I said to Lars with understatement, 'This is a pretty bad guy.' And he shook his head, 'Well, you can't be worse.'"
Last year, Bjork accused von Trier of misogynistic bullying while making their Palme d'Or-winning film "Dancer in the Dark." Von Trier has denied it. Danish authorities also recently investigated the behavior of von Trier's producer, Peter Aalbaek Jensen, and the workplace environment of their production studio, Zentropa.
Von Trier said he was drawn to writing "The House That Jack Built" for the simple story line of a serial killer going victim to victim. Later, he added the Dante-like dimension of a trip into hell. "Then it became an arc," he said, before making a pun alluding to an architecture segment in the film. "An arch."
That some might disagree with him or his films has never been a major concern for von Trier. But he will argue for his freedom to say what he wants to the end. "Everybody has different layers. A great, great artist can be an a------," von Trier said. "I will defend my right to say that (Nazi architect Albert Speer) was a good architect, or anyway an interesting architect, no matter how he was politically."
AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP