Exorcising demons within

By Sean O'Hagan

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars von Trier's Antichrist, a performance for which she won best actress at the Cannes Film Festival. Photo / Supplied by NZ Film Festival
Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars von Trier's Antichrist, a performance for which she won best actress at the Cannes Film Festival. Photo / Supplied by NZ Film Festival

A strange thing happens 10 minutes into my interview with Lars von Trier. I am sitting in an armchair in his office, a spacious cabin on the edge of his sprawling Zentropa studio complex. Von Trier is sitting opposite me on a couch. He is talking about his latest film, Antichrist, which he began during a bout of debilitating depression.

"There was no pleasure in doing this film," he says, "I made myself write 10 pages of script every day. The only way to get out of bed was to make this decision and stick to it. When it came to filming, I was not mentally capable to hold the camera and shoot. I was helpless like an old man in a wheelchair. It was a humiliating way to work."

As he talks, von Trier shakes off his shoes, lies on the couch and closes his eyes. I sit and take notes. It all feels very strange: the interview as therapy session. Von Trier, though, seems perfectly relaxed. It is only when I begin questioning him about the sadistic horrors that he visits on the audience in Antichrist - a penis spurting blood, a graphic depiction of female genital self-mutilation - that he suddenly sits up straight again and looks uncomfortable.

"This does not feel good," he says. "There are some things it is not good to explain or analyse. And, also, my explanations are always banal and stupid."

This sounds suspiciously like a cop-out from a man dedicated to the breaking of cinematic taboos. Von Trier was, after all, the first film-maker outside hardcore porn to show full penetrative sex.

In Antichrist he does it again, this time in slow-motion close-up, during the poetic bout of marital sexual intercourse that begins the film. The abandoned lovemaking is intercut with a scene of the couple's infant son falling to his death from an upstairs window, all played out to a heartbreakingly sad aria from Handel.

I can think of no other director working today who could pull off such a bravura - and disturbing - opening sequence.

Even that scene, though, does not prepare you for the scenes of graphic Ballardian sexual violence that follow. I tell von Trier that, having sat through his film, I was genuinely worried not about Charlotte Gainsbourg's character's mental health but his own. He, of course, finds this funny.

"You're right to worry," he says, laughing, "but it is not good to worry about something you cannot do anything about. 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'."

This precipitates a bout of giggling. "I am really the wrong person to ask what the film means or why it is as it is," he says finally, "It is a bit like asking the chicken about the chicken soup."

Lars von Trier is one of life's great gigglers. This, among other things, surprises me. I have come to Copenhagen to interrogate contemporary cinema's brooding, depressive, misanthropic maverick but he keeps metamorphosing into a naughty schoolboy. There is something infectious about his sudden outbreaks of jollity.

You can see why the staff who wander the Zentropa grounds and populate the huts of this old army camp seem both reverent towards him and protective of him. Though he has a reputation as a bully, he comes across as childlike and oddly vulnerable.

Like David Lynch, whose cinematic presence is palpable in the early, eerie scenes in Antichrist, one of von Trier's singular gifts is that he can convince actors to do things they would never dream of doing for anyone else.

Nicole Kidman, Hollywood's reigning ice maiden, spent what seemed like hours dragging a dead weight around the Brechtian set of Dogville.

In Antichrist, there are only two characters: Charlotte Gainsbourg's "She", driven to the point of violent derangement by her grief for her dead child, and Willem Dafoe's "He", her infuriatingly rational psychoanalyst husband. Both possess that strange, slightly detached intensity that has always made me wonder if, in fact, they are simply bad actors.

In a strange way, though, this works in the film's favour. Antichrist is so disturbingly bonkers, you wonder if their woodenness is all part of von Trier's deranged masterplan. Be warned, though, the violence is relentless and nasty.

Antichrist will certainly do nothing to dispel the notion that von Trier is a misogynist, though Gainsbourg, for one, thinks this reading is too simplistic.

"I really trusted him," she said recently. "That's also why 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."

This may be nearer the mark. Von Trier is, as he gleefully admits, a slave to his anxieties, his myriad neuroses. He won't fly and famously travels from Copenhagen to the Cannes Film Festival by camper van. He tries to exorcise his demons through his films, though Antichrist, interestingly, brought him neither peace nor catharsis. "It was," he says, "a kind of hell."

He describes it, in a phrase borrowed from his hero, the Swedish dramatist (and misogynist), August Strindberg, as his "inferno crisis". He also insists it is "the most important film of my entire career", a view not altogether shared by critics at Cannes, many of whom hissed and booed their way though the festival screening, though Gainsbourg emerged from the festival with the best actress prize.

Was he hurt, though, by the chorus of outrage at Cannes? "No. But what hurts me is when people carry on during the screening with their negativity and mocking laughter. Yes, this hurts. For sure." He lapses into silence again and I notice that his hands seem to have a permanent tremble. "No matter how ridiculous it might seem," he continues, "the film, like all my work, is made from what I would call a pure heart. I am not ever trying to, as you say in England, take the piss."

Nevertheless, von Trier's talent to provoke seems as effortless as it is extreme. He made his name with the austere and emotionally draining Breaking the Waves (1996), the first part of what he called the Golden Heart Trilogy, in which "good women are overwhelmed by a bad world". To many of his detractors, though, the essential problem with the trilogy was the fact that the female actors were overwhelmed - emotionally and physically - by von Trier's directorial cruelty.

The accusations of misogyny began in earnest with i(2000), a warped musical that starred Bjork as a blind simpleton-come-saint. During filming, she was reportedly driven to the edge of her sanity by von Trier's bullying, and, at one point attempted to eat her costume in protest - which, ironically, is exactly the kind of overwrought scene one might see in a von Trier film. Bjork later accused him of "emotional pornography". He giggles when I remind him.

By the time Dogville came out, von Trier's so-called misogyny was almost overlooked in the chorus of outrage that greeted his supposed anti-American stance. Like The Idiots, it is a hard film to watch in one sitting.

Kidman's character, Grace, on the run from her gangster father, is initially given shelter by the good folk of Dogville, then exploited - first as an unpaid menial worker, then as a sex slave. She is fitted with an iron neck brace and bell, and shackled to a dead weight.

Dogville is protracted and unwieldy but, like all von Trier's films, it is not without its moments. "One of my techniques," he 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 film-maker. "Perhaps. You know, I really do have some morals. I do actually care about people. And I do have a political standpoint."

Nevertheless, the distance between Lars von Trier's intentions and his finished films often seems huge, no more so than with Antichrist. It starts off as a creepily Lynchian meditation on the destabilising power of grief, flirts with the tropes of the Nordic fairytale, the occult mystery and the horror film, throws in a pretty basic critique of psychoanalysis for good measure, and then suddenly, bafflingly, sails way too close for comfort to the relentless and deadening torture porn of genre films such as Saw and Hotel - which, incidentally, he claims not to have seen.

As if to bait his detractors even more, he then has the nerve to dedicate this bemusing, deranged but somehow brilliant mess of a film to the memory of Andrei Tarkovsky, the great Soviet director, whose film, Mirror, von Trier cites as his single most informative influence.

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. "What was really unsatisfying, though, is that I could not talk to the guy who was not my real father but whom I had spent my whole childhood with because he was already dead and gone," he continues, shaking his head. "And then, of course, I am in a big excited state to make contact with my biological family but, when I do that, it is like a foreign family. You do not really get close." He says, sighing. "It is all very badly unfinished."

It is not hard to see where Lars von Trier's confusions - his anger, pain and undiminished desire to provoke - come from. He is one of the walking wounded, forever trying to expose, and somehow exorcise, his deepest anxieties, through the mad, and often brilliant, bad films he makes.

As I am leaving, he says, "There is this one very funny line in a Meryl Streep film where one of her girlfriends says, 'My mother is dead'. And she replies, 'Hey, that's tough, but you will be so much happier later'. I always feel a little bit like that."

So, he does sometimes feel happy, then? "I would not go that far," he says, giggling.

LOWDOWN

Who: Lars von Trier, maverick Danish director

Key films: Europa (1991), Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005), The Boss of It All (2006)

What: Antichrist, screening NZ Film Festival today 9.30pm Skycity Theatre, tomorrow Civic 8.30pm (R18)

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