When Lars Von Trier launched into his infamous tirade in Cannes, distributors who had the rights to his latest pic, “Melancholia,” may have despaired — but in fact, the film is doing good business. The question is: Could it have done better?

Long-time students of this self-proclaimed anarchist and mischievous provocateur, who now insists he is not really a Nazi and was only kidding, would have been justified in exclaiming, as does Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film, “What did you expect?”

Anyone who thought Von Trier’s distribution partners, many of whom have stood by the director since his breakout hit “Breaking the Waves” in 1996, would turn against him, will be disappointed. Cannes may have declared Von Trier to be “persona non grata,” but his film, which opened in the U.S. Nov. 11 and grossed $257,174 from 19 screens over its opening weekend, has been given a warm welcome by many film critics, fellow professionals and cinemagoers. Several of the movie’s distribs have already signed up to release Von Trier’s next film, erotic drama “Nymphomaniac,” and last week the European Film Academy rewarded “Melancholia” with eight nominations in its annual awards.

The film’s box office gross stands at $14.4 million through Nov. 13, a figure that is likely to rise substantially as the pic is still running in theaters in several territories, and has yet to open in many others. With video and TV sales added to the pot, production company Zentropa is likely to easily recoup its investment on the film.

But still the thought remains: It could have been so much better if he’d just kept his mouth shut.

“When I saw the film, I thought it was fantastic; really powerful. I was so impressed that I thought it could win a major prize in Cannes; perhaps not the Palme d’Or, but the Grand Prix,” recalls Regine Vial, head of distribution at French indie Les Films du Losange. As it was, the film had to make do with the actress award for Dunst.

Vial opened the film in August and is glad she did. Although many people in France go to the beach for most of that month, there was little competition in the arthouse market, which gave the film a clear run in the press, and time to build its audience through word of mouth. Vial was even invited to appear on radio shows to talk about the scandal, which gave her the opportunity to shift the focus onto the film.

In the two months between Cannes and the opening, she had vigorously promoted the film through preview screenings at locations where the chattering classes gather. These included a theater festival in Avignon and a film festival in Corsica.

“We wanted to show the film straightaway in as many place as possible to let people see that this was a fantastic piece of filmmaking, and allow word to spread,” Vial says.

“Melancholia” has taken $3.4 million in Gaul as of Nov. 13 — more than any other territory — and it is still playing in theaters there, but Vial believes it could have been even more popular if Von Trier hadn’t have run his mouth, and the film had won one of the top prizes in Cannes.

Before the festival, Vial had hoped the film would achieve a box office of around $4.2 million; she now expects it to end on about $3.8 million.

Antonio Medici, general director at Italy’s BIM Distribuzione, is also dismayed about the fallout from Von Trier’s rant in Cannes. He says some theater owners declined to take the film, and although others took their place, he feels the outburst distracted from the film’s undoubted quality, and led some people to avoid it.

“Melancholia” had a poor opening weekend in Italy on Oct. 21, but has recovered slightly since. Medici estimates that the box office, which now stands at $638,164 as of Nov. 13, will end up between $676,000 and $744,000, which is about 30% below the company’s estimate in the run-up to Cannes.

Medici blames the shortfall on the controversy, which was covered in primetime news shows on all the main TV channels in Italy.

“Some months had passed, but I believe there were still people that didn’t want to watch a movie from a man who made such a statement,” Medici says.

Ivo Andrle, acquisitions head at Aerofilms, the film’s Czech distributor, had a more positive experience. He opened the “Melancholia” immediately after Cannes, and has banked $192,000 and finished its run; this is 57% more than the $109,000 he forecast before the festival. He says the controversy created an appetite in the media for news about Von Trier, which he then fed with tidbits about the film itself.

“The media attention started with the scandal, and grew rapidly, but they just talked about the scandal and not about the film. So we tried to follow up and give them further topics to include in their coverage,” he says.

So, how do you solve a problem like Von Trier? Well, the director may already have supplied the answer himself, when he declared last month he had sworn a vow of silence. His pics’ distributors hope that in the future he will allow his films to speak for themselves. n