The notoriously travel-shy Lars Von Trier beamed himself into our basement via Skype last week to talk about Antichrist (out this week), which should give you an idea of how important this film — the inspiration for countless scandalized reviews ever since its Cannes premiere earlier this year — is for the reclusive, multiple-award-winning Danish provocateur. Von Trier’s films have always courted controversy and provoked accusations of misogyny, despite featuring some remarkable female performances. Still, nothing could have prepared the film world for the explosion of outrage provoked by Antichrist, whose portrait of a grieving husband and wife’s graphic psychosexual meltdown in the woods seems aimed directly between the eyes of the filmmaker's critics. We spoke with the upbeat Dane about the inspirations for Antichrist and his own depression, and even got him to respond directly to some of his reviews.
Antichrist has provoked a lot of extreme reviews on both ends of the spectrum. Did you expect it to be so divisive?
Not really. It’s always difficult to know how an audience will respond to your film, so I never try to predict it, because I don’t want to get unpleasantly surprised. But it’s okay that some people like it and some people don’t.
It reminded me a bit of something by Edvard Munch, as if it was an attempt to make concrete the most primal, irrational side of human nature.
Fantastic. I love Munch. But for Antichrist I did look at some Japanese horror films, like The Ring, Dark Waters. I began by wanting to make a horror film. And I don’t know if it is in the end a horror film, but as a genre it’s always good inspiration.
You’ve said elsewhere that you were depressed when you made the film. People who are depressed often regress back to the things that made them happier when they were younger. And Antichrist feels at times like something from the late sixties and early seventies — like a Bergman film crossed with European art-sploitation films, like Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter or Pasolini’s Salo.
[Laughs] Well, I like both of those films very much. [Silence.] Wow. I’m sure you’re right. It’s nothing I’ve thought about, but it’s true. If you are not feeling well, sometimes you go back to stuff you liked when you were young, like certain music or whatever. It’s a conservative way of working. I love The Night Porter. I gave Liliana Cavani a lot of lilies once when I met her in Paris. She was extremely pissed off, and said it was only some commercial shit she did once.
So, I’d like to read excerpts of some of the reviews you’ve gotten for Antichrist
They’re probably right, all of them. Let’s do one of the bad ones.
This is from Slant Magazine: "Von Trier has always seemed unfazed by the accusations of misogyny that have been routinely — and not unrightfully — flung at him since Breaking the Waves, but something seems to have stuck in his festering craw, and with Antichrist it defensively explodes out into the open in a noxious blaze of unbridled contempt."
What this person is saying makes perfect sense to me. But I don’t think showing contempt in a film is a bad thing. Not in my book, at least. I would add though that within the whole thing there is some love and joy, also. Even something like The Night Porter has a lot of poetry in it, and I hope that even though my films are about dark subjects they still contain something more than just contempt. That said, contempt is not bad. I wish it was true that I could show my contempt in the film.
This is from Variety, which has not been kind to your last few films: "The blood-smeared sensationalism smothers what serious thoughts the script serves up in passing, just as the sexual interludes detract from the film by playing peek-a-boo and making you try to figure out what's real and/or how it was faked."
That’s, of course, not very good. If you’re distracted by these sorts of things, then you are not buying the film at all. Not even I would think that’s a good thing. But I do think some people just didn’t buy this film from the start, and didn’t give it a chance. Especially this film.
So here’s a good review, from the Telegraph: "The intellectual frameworks, psychological tenets and medical language that the husband uses to cure his wife are portrayed as mind control, mere cant at best. The wife’s brutality is eye-watering, but also, we may speculate, an attempt on behalf of women across the centuries to avenge the cruelty meted on them by men.”
Look, I’m sure these are all very clever people who are writing these. But what they end up discussing mostly is the point of view of the film. And what would normally be discussed in a review are the qualities and lacking qualities in a film. When I look at other artists, it’s more important to me not so much what they think, but how they express what they think. But for some reason with my films the discussion becomes more about what I personally think and how I see the world.
You’ve been accused of trying to shock your audience with Antichrist. But I wonder if maybe you were trying to shock yourself instead?
To a certain degree, I was provoking myself with the story itself. But the things that I think the people are shocked over are more like the blood and the sex and violence or whatever, and those things do not shock me. Since it is a film about sex and violence, I thought it would be a lie not to show the sex and the violence.
But maybe I’m not trying to provoke myself so much as I’m trying to provoke my late mother. She was the chairman of the Danish Women’s Lib movement. If she hadn’t been cremated, she’d be turning in her grave right now.
That brings up an interesting question about the accusations of misogyny leveled at you, even as you’ve directed some of the most powerful female performances ever committed to film.
This notion of my being anti-woman is nonsense. I make a lot of films about women, and that is because I am interested in women. If you make a film about a crime a man commits, it doesn't mean that you hate men. It doesn’t make any sense.
Did you ever consider giving the two characters in Antichrist proper names? When you call them He and She, people become more likely to read them as representative of their respective genders.
Yes, I can see how by not giving them names, it becomes even more symbolic. It was an exercise in doing a film with only two characters in it. I had always wanted to try that. It was like that from the beginning. That was the exercise.
It’s interesting you say that. You’ve always liked to set rules and limitations for yourself when making a film. Is your recent turn towards genre an attempt to establish new rules for yourself? Your previous film, The Boss of It All, was ostensibly a lighthearted comedy.
Boss of It All was for me an attempt to make something light that maybe also had more to say, like The Shop Around the Corner or The Philadelphia Story. But absolutely, genre is something I enjoy very much, and I like to see how I can use it. Same with women! [Laughs]