The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan has a long, fascinating interview with Lars von Trier about his latest film, the controversial “Antichrist,” which spurred heated debate at Cannes earlier this year and opens in the UK next week on July 24. In the sometimes strange interview – which O’Hagan, who confesses to worrying about von Trier’s mental state, repeatedly likens to a therapy session – the Danish director discusses the crippling depression he experienced while making “Antichrist,” toys with the notion of making a film about the “human side” of Hitler, speaks about his experiences taking “shamanic journeys” into “parallel universes,” and opens up about his dysfunctional relationship with his parents.
“It crosses my mind that everything Lars von Trier does when dealing with the press might be part of one long continuous performance, part self-protection, part provocation,” muses O’Hagan during the interview. “But there is something honest and open about him, too. At one point when I ask him who, apart from Tarkovsky, are his prime influences, he says, ‘Mum and Dad.’ Then, giggling, he adds, ‘Thank God they are dead.’
“It’s shocking, funny and sad all at once – more so when he talks about how he found out from his mother on her deathbed that the man who raised him was not his biological father. ‘This,’ he says, quietly, ‘is a bombshell that is still exploding.’ I sit and brave out the silence that ensues, like the good therapist I have fleetingly, surreally, become.”
And also from the piece: “‘One of my techniques,'” von Trier says, “‘is to defend an idea or a view that is not mine. So, for instance, it could be that I make a film about the human side of Hitler. That would be very interesting to me.’
“I tell him that I can’t wait. He nods, either ignoring, or not registering, my sarcasm. ‘I mean, to try to defend Hitler’s actions,’ he says, excitedly, ‘this is a difficult one even for me.’ When the giggles have subsided, I ask him if, underneath all the provocation and liberal-baiting, he is, in fact, a political filmmaker. ‘Perhaps. You know, I really do have some morals. I do actually care about people. And I do have a political standpoint.’
“Could he define it? ‘Well, my father said that the way in which a country treats its guests is the way you can judge its moral life, it’s moral state. Right now, this country is in a terrible state. It is so rightwing and against the minorities. You know about these cartoons, of course?’ he asks, referring to the row that blew up after a Danish newspaper published insulting drawings of Muhammad. ‘This is a rightwing paper who pretend to be for free speech when they just wanted to do damage to a very weak minority in this country. I’d never do a thing like that. If you want to provoke, you should provoke someone who is stronger than you, otherwise you are misusing your power.'”
And, finally, the director on where the idea for the talking fox that appears in the film came from: “‘From my shamanic journeys,’ he replies, without batting an eyelid. ‘All these animals come from a practice I did 10 years ago. It’s a Brazilian technique where you enter a trance through this very powerful drumbeat. There are no drugs involved so it is very safe but very powerful. It’s not really that difficult to enter the parallel world.’
“And this is where you met the talking fox – in a parallel universe? ‘Oh yes! When I first went there, I met the fox that you see in the film. It was biting itself and I was very shocked. It was unpleasant to watch so I travelled on until I saw a family of silver foxes, very Disney-like, all the young ones and the grown-ups, running around. Happy foxes.’ I nod. What happened, then? ‘Well, of course, I go up to speak to the man of the family and – this is where it gets really interesting – he said to me, ‘Never believe in the first fox you meet.’ Fantastic, yes?'”
The star of the film, Charlotte Gainsbourg, is interviewed in recent piece in The Times Online. In the interview, Gainsbourg addresses the long-standing criticism that von Trier’s films are misogynistic. “I don’t think he’s misogynous at all. I think he shows his fears and his provocation about women. When I first met him he did talk about his mother and his divorce and I thought he did have a negative outlook on those two women. And I did ask myself if he was vicious or brutal. But then during the shoot he was such a sweet man and I trusted him completely. He was very generous to me, very respectful. I had the impression that I was playing him, that he was my character. The panic attacks [in the film] were his, so I felt a link to him as a man. And I think there was a link from him to me as a woman.”
Gainsbourg’s reaction to the film’s divisive critical reception: ““I didn’t think it would be as angry as that. People are affected by cinema, but that anger was something else. It was like being asked to justify a crime. It was very exaggerated.”
A smattering of those reactions, which range from outright disgust to profound admiration:
“Von Trier’s film goes beyond malevolence into the monstrous. Never before have a man and woman inflicted more pain upon each other in a movie,” wrote Roger Ebert following the premiere. “Torturers might have been capable of such actions, but they would have lacked the imagination. Von Trier is not so much making a film about violence as making a film to inflict violence upon us, perhaps as a salutary experience. It’s been reported that he suffered from depression during and after the film. You can tell. This is the most despairing film I’ve ever have seen.”
The A.V. Club’s Mike D’Angelo in an open letter to von Trier: “I’m pretty sure I kind of despised your new movie, Antichrist, but that doesn’t remotely matter. Thank you. Thank you for having the guts to make something as insane and offensive and wholly uncompromising as this. Thank you for not caring whether people laugh at you, and for smacking the international press corps with a much-needed dose of cognitive dissonance. Most of all, thank you for lighting a bomb underneath the perfectly respectable, largely forgettable efforts of your fellow Competition entries. You may have whiffed huge this time, but movies like yours are what the Festival de Cannes should ideally be about.”
Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells in a piece titled “Antichrist = Fartbomb” called it “easily one of the biggest debacles in Cannes Film Festival history and the complete meltdown of a major film artist in a way that invites comparison to the sinking of the Titanic.”
Daniel Kasman in the Auteurs Notebook: “Hip-hip-hurray for Lars von Trier’s ‘Antichrist,’ a ballsy B-movie riff off Bergman and Tarkovsky by way of ‘Evil Dead’ that treads over the whole gamut of art-house clichés, was clearly improvised day in and day out, and emerges from this morass of portentousness and pretentiousness as a hilarious, fucked up and unqualifiable experiment in make it so cinema. It moves faster and with more surprises than any movie in Cannes—and this despite rehashing only the most overdone of horror and art-house conventions—requires no certain belief in its rationale or plausibility, and jumps from one barely formed idea—visual or conceptual—to another with the reflexive awkwardness von Trier espouses through his ad hoc camerawork and face-slapping jump cuts.”
“Antichrist” will be released in the US on October 23 by IFC Films.
Watch three clips from Antichrist here.
The trailer for “Antichrist” on YouTube.