Antichrist - Lars Von Trier interview
As his latest film testifies, Lars Von Trier is a man in need of a reaction. Allan Hunter meets him
Lars Von Trier makes films that defy consensus. He is a showman provocateur in search of a reaction, however extreme. The shrugged shoulders of indifference would be his definition of failure. With this in mind, Von Trier can only have been delighted with the heated response to the first Cannes press screening of Antichrist; amidst the jeers and booing could be heard significant pockets of sustained applause and fierce enthusiasm. Indifference was simply not an option. Critics who denounced it as torture porn with an arthouse sensibility were opposed by others who defended it as a visceral, stream of consciousness exploration of primeval guilt.
Antichrist is an intense, almost inexplicable journey through the grief and self-loathing that follows the death of a child. It invests the sombre world of a Carl Dreyer psychodrama with the gruelling bloodletting of a Hostel. A couple, known simply as He and She, are making passionate love at home when their infant son falls through an open window to his death. The mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) seeks solace in an insatiable hunger for sex. The husband (Willem Dafoe) is a therapist who encourages her to face her fears. Together they retreat to their mountain cabin in rural Eden where overwrought emotions lead to a psychological warfare expressed in extreme violence, genital self-mutilation and death.
53 year-old Von Trier has long wanted to make a gothic horror film. Antichrist was designed to fulfil that ambition but also represents a comeback for Von Trier after a number of abandoned projects and the disappointing reactions to his experimental The Office-style comedy The Boss Of It All (2006). Antichrist was conceived in response to a lengthy period of deep depression spent lying in bed staring at the wall. In some respects it may even have been a form of therapy. ‘It’s more the routine of making a film that is therapy,’ he says after a moment’s pause. ‘The routine of getting up every day, going to work … that helps. I don’t think that for this subject – I don’t think it could cure anybody. I’m not trying to say any message. I have been much more clear and mathematical about other films, as logic has been a bigger part of it. This is more like a dream put into a film.’
Von Trier is perfectly capable of explaining his films and defending his work but Cannes seemed to bring out the worst in him. Sensing his critics baying for blood, he greeted them with a tolerant smirk and a blithe manner, stoking their anger by declaring himself to be ‘the best film director in the world’ and then stubbornly refusing to engage with attempts to better understand his inspirations.
‘I don’t think I have to excuse myself,’ he says. ‘You are all my guests. It’s not the other way around … I work for myself, and I’ve made this little film that I’m now rather fond of. I don’t do it for you or for an audience. So I don’t think I owe anybody an explanation.’
Von Trier does admit that Antichrist takes some of its inspiration from his fascination with the life and work of August Strindberg and it also has echoes of themes and preoccupations from his earliest films, including the notion of ‘the danger of nature’ from The Element Of Crime (1984). He dedicates the film to Andrei Tarkovsky, a move that felt like rubbing salt in the wounds of those who hated Antichrist. ‘Tarkovsky, now, he’s a real god,’ he says with rare enthusiasm. ‘When I saw The Mirror for the first time on a small TV set, I was in ecstasy. If we talk about religion, this is a religious relationship. I’ve seen his films many, many times. I know he saw my very first film, and violently hated it, which I feel is an honest reaction. He’s the generation before me. I feel related to him. I felt related to Ingmar Bergman also – he didn’t feel related to me. If you dedicate a film to a director, then nobody will say that you’re stealing from him, so this was the easy way out.’
Antichrist is steeped in topsy turvy religious notions of a couple’s fall from grace that leads them to an Eden that is a form of hell on earth. A fox feasting on its own entrails informs us that chaos reigns underlining Von Trier’s view of the natural world as a primitive place steeped in suffering and death. Some images could have come from a Heironymous Bosch painting. On a simplistic level, it is also a battle of the sexes that pits the cool rationality of man against the unruly emotion of woman.
Von Trier’s career has been dogged by accusations of misogyny. Breaking The Waves (1996), which he shot in the north west Highlands of Scotland, and his Cannes Palme D’Or winner Dancer In The Dark (2000) are built around female characters whose destiny is achieved through pain and self-sacrifice. Dogville (2003) seemed to represent a breakthrough for him as Nicole Kidman’s Grace ultimately refused to accept the role of victim and responded to her tormentors by burning down their town and ordering their execution. Revenge in the cinema had rarely tasted so sweet. Antichrist is sure to reignite the debate about Von Trier’s motives, as Charlote Gainsbourg’s character is shown to be a human embodiment of the primitive elements in nature – she may have failed to save her child from his fatal plunge and once again can only achieve a form of peace through self-sacrifice.
Von Trier’s take on events in Antichrist is far less clear cut as he explains: ‘Whether the film illustrates the battle between the sexes or not, I don’t know. I don’t see him as the proto-man or her as the proto-woman. If anything I can see myself in the portrait of her. He is more of a caricature; she has more human facets.’ Charlotte Gainsbourg won the Cannes Best Actress prize for her performance and told one interviewer: ‘I find it unjust when people say he hates women. I really have the impression that I was playing him, that he was the woman, that he was going through that misery, the physical condition, the panic attacks.’
Von Trier is famous as a man of many anxieties. His fear of flying means that every trip to Cannes has been a five-day journey via camper van from Copenhagen. His family background is the stuff of Freudian nightmare. He has recalled being bullied as a schoolchild. Shortly before her death in 1995, his mother confessed that her late husband was not his biological father, an event he has described as ‘a bombshell that is still exploding’. A year later, Von Trier had divorced his first wife and converted to Catholicism. It is hardly surprising that critics feel obliged to search for autobiography in his films and that Von Trier is reluctant to satisfy their hunger for easy answers.
‘Truthfully, I can only say I was driven to make the film, that these images came to me and I did not question them. My only defence is: ‘Forgive me, for I know not what I do.’ I am the wrong person to ask what the film means or why it is as it is. It is a bit like asking the chicken about the chicken soup.’
Antichrist is released on 24 Jul.