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CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS
In Lars von Trier's latest film, Antichrist, the Danish auteur abandons the video aesthetic of his recent films to explore the horrors to be found in marital relations.

By Scott Macaulay

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG IN ANTICHRIST. PHOTO COURTESY OF TRUST NORDISK AP5.

It can be difficult to consider a new Lars von Trier film as anything other than the latest provocation by that most fascinating and infuriating Danish auteur, but let's try for a moment to discuss it as it was originally proposed: that is, as a horror film. Seen in this context, the cries of outrage that rippled through the blogosphere from the Salle Debussy in Cannes seem quite tinny indeed. The film's brief shots of self-induced clitoridectomy and testicle mashing have nothing on the gynecological horror of Alexandre Bustillo's and Julien Maury's Inside, and if you want to talk about the latest in female-directed cinematic sadism, you'll still be discussing Pascal Laugier's Martyrs long after Von Trier has moved on to his next film.

So, in terms of gut-wrenching sensation, Antichrist may not win a battle with the bleeding edge of contemporary horror, but that's not to say it's not a deeply unsettling and, yes, horrifying picture. Recalling at times films as diverse as Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, Rob Reiner's Misery, Andrzej Zulaski's Possession, and, particularly, Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, Antichrist is a film about a marriage. He (there are no character names) is a therapist, She is an academic, and we are introduced to them mid-coitus as their young son tumbles out of his next-door bedroom window to his death. She is wracked by grief, and when it fails to subside — and transforms itself into a series of crippling panic attacks — He takes her out of the hospital, off meds, and to the location She's identified as a source of her fear: the secluded mountainside cottage she spent the summer prior with her son while writing a dissertation on 18th-century witch hunts and other forms of institutionalized misogyny. And then, midway through the film, Von Trier springs a twist that's right out of a Roeg or Dario Argento film: We believe Gainsbourg's madness is a result of her grief, but it's not; it began before the movie started, and may be the product of either genuine psychosis or actual possession. The film's final act scrambles the film's possible meanings further, throwing in everything from Fatal Attraction-like "kill the bitch" moments to an eerie J-horror coda.

Willem Dafoe plays the husband, and his smothering rationalism and belief in talk therapy is both highly icky and instantly dread-producing. Charlotte Gainsbourg, in a performance that won her Best Actress at Cannes, is absolutely fearless as the wife. And Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, working in a precisely defined palette of blues, grays and greens, has brought an astonishing, dream-like beauty to a film that is itself about what may not be able to be contained by language and discourse. I spoke to Von Trier via Skype from his home in Copenhagen.

IFC Films will will open the film in late October.

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG AND WILLEM DAFOE IN ANTICHRIST. PHOTO COURTESY OF TRUST NORDISK AP5.

Good morning. How are you doing? I'm okay. I'm okay. It's good to see you. It's good to see somebody when you talk, you know? It's better.

Do most people only have avatars or — No, with most people we just do telephone interviews. This is good.

Okay, so I'd like to start by asking you what you see as the relationship of Antichrist to the horror genre? Well, it's a very good [way to begin making a movie], to choose a kind of film genre. I was not very familiar with horror films. I've seen some that I liked. In the old days I liked very much Brian De Palma's Carrie. I kind of liked The Shining. [laughs] I actually talked to Stephen King on the phone once, and I said, "Yes, and thank you very much for The Shining." He said, "That rubbish film!" [laughs] He really hated it. So I know some of the old films, and then I saw some of the new Japanese ones: The Ring and Dark Water. They were exciting because you could see that they were from another culture. I think that the genre [is such] that you can put a lot of very, very strange images in a horror film, but this is probably not a horror film. It's like when I tried to make a musical, it didn't really become a musical. That's how I am, it seems.

What makes it not a horror film for you? I think that it's not so horrific. [laughs] You know, the best horror films are extremely traditional. Remember the ending of Carrie? I was working in a cinema and showing films [when Carrie was released]. There's this last [scene] where Carrie's hand comes up from the grave, and you could see [at every screening] the [audience's] shock. It came at a point when people had almost put their coats on. [With Antichrist], we didn't try so hard to do shocks, and that is maybe why it is not a horror film. I took [the horror genre] more as an inspiration, and then this strange story came out of it.

I have to ask you about one scene, one moment because for me it's the scariest moment in the whole film. It's the photograph of the child who's had his shoes placed on in opposite directions. There is something very disturbing to me about that image. Where did that come from? It's kind of cruel, but it all comes from some material I [wrote] when I was much younger. I read a lot of Strindberg at one time, and he always had nasty women with strange, sadistic ways, even though, you know, he probably loved them very much. I think that this idea somehow comes from him, even though I don't know where it was written [in his work]. Maybe it's all coming from when you are a father and you are distracted — this could easily happen one day, right?

ANTICHRIST WRITER-DIRECTOR LARS VON TRIER. PHOTO BY CHRISTIAN GEISNAES.

Let me stay with horror for one second. The horror that exists in the film, do you think it's based in nature or in culture or in both? That's a very interesting question. [laughs] Typically I would say that the horror lies in nature, but I'm quite sure that you're right. [laughs] The real horror is maybe in culture. That's a philosophical one.

There's a point about 15 minutes before the end of the film when it seemed to me that it could have ended in many different ways. I initially thought that you had ended the film in the most traditional way. But, I suppose there's another way to look at it, which is that the values of Willem Dafoe's character, his belief in rationalism and the ability of language to cure psychological problems, is what is defeated. What does the ending mean to you? Well, there's, as you know, also another ending to the film, the appendix. My idea was that he should have taken over part of her anxiety and that he should be influenced by this place. I actually had a lot of very clever endings, and then I ended up doing one that was very banal, the one you saw. Because somehow.... [sighs] It's not the point of the film so much, you know, the ending. I don't know. I did my best. [laughs]

Why do you say it's not the point of the film? I think that for me the whole film is about anxiety. If [the woman] survives or does not survive — nobody survives as I see it in this film since we have this other ending also. Somehow for me the ending was not so important. The black and white [appendix] is a little bit like the ending in Breaking the Waves where there are bells ringing up in the sky. It's far out and too much, but it was important for me to put it there.

Speaking of Breaking the Waves, both films deal with women who are sacrificed in some way. What's your attraction to this kind of story? [laughs] What is my attraction towards it? I can't tell you. At a certain point I was looking at a lot of Carl Dreyer films, and he lived off suffering women. And then I tried it in Breaking the Waves, and it soothed me really well. [laughs] It's a little difficult to tell you why, but one thing is for certain: that the characters become believable. No, let me put it another way. You know, there are a lot of female parts that are not very interesting in a lot of films, but when you give [actresses] the suffering parts, then they tend to live quite another way. I like to make good parts, good female parts, and I don't think it has anything to do with hating women, if that was the question.

No, it wasn't. Okay. I have lots of respect [for women]. Sometimes I hate a certain woman. You can hate certain women. But, you know, hating women altogether doesn't make sense. I don't know if this is right, but I believe that I somehow portray myself better in women maybe because I always was the tiny guy in the school who couldn't fight, who couldn't do anything. So maybe it's kind of my big female side that is being portrayed. I don't know. But the men in these same films are always idiots for some reason, which is also a side of me that I understand. The men are typically representing civilization, in some form, and women are then representing nature. And this is very banal, but somehow it makes sense for me. It works well for me.

How do you talk to the actors in the beginning of the movie about their roles? Because you just said something very succinct and direct about the women and the men, and I'm curious... Yeah, that I never said to anybody before, it was just... [laughs]

Did you tell Willem that his character... Is an idiot? No. No. No, I wouldn't do that. You know, it's very important to, I think, allow the actors to defend the character. They always have to defend the character somehow. He's a clever man, Willem, so of course he would know that he would probably be an idiot like the rest of the men [in my films]. But you have to defend him somehow also, and allow [the actor] to defend him. That one represents nature and one represents civilization is nothing that I would ever talk to actors about. We would talk about much more practical things, like Charlotte [Gainsbourg] would ask me what it is like to have an anxiety attack, what is the physical [sensation]?

She never had an anxiety attack? She might have, but I'm an expert. I've had them since I was six. [laughs]

How did Charlotte defend her character? I don't know. [laughs] I don't know how she defended it, but she certainly did. You know, I think that she defended the film maybe more than the character because she was very keen that every word be there. She didn't want to make changes [to the script]. And she was extremely brave. She did a lot of things that I wouldn't allow my daughter to do.

Did her character change from what was in your mind when you wrote the script? I think she was trying to portray me a little bit, actually, which I think was logical enough. She just thought that I had written her part with myself in mind. Which I think I did.

You've talked about suffering through a period of depression before making this film. But in a depression you want to be very solitary, to cut yourself off from the world. Film is the ultimate act of communal art making in that to make a large-scale narrative film you need to have so many people. Yeah, but I think that was a good thing because that is kind of the cure: to get out of bed, meet some people, and, especially, have a plan for your day. That is very important because what you want to do is look into the wall and just stay in bed. So yeah, it helps to work. And I think especially film work since, as you said, there's a lot of other people that you have to communicate with.

So did you make the film despite your depression? Or had you already worked through the depression when you were making the film? No, I started the film a little bit before, and then everything stopped. And then it was, yeah, it was me getting back. At that point I was not sure if I could ever make a film, you know? Not so much the writing of one but more just physically being there on a set. It was out of spite, I would say, that I did the film, but the subject of the film was there before the depression, so it's not that it came out of it. Even though it is a depressing film like all of them.

After doing several films that were shot on video, that referenced theater, and that perhaps weren't as concerned with their own beauty, you've made a visually gorgeous film. The palette is precisely defined, the cinematography is excellent, and it felt to me that you were reembracing the values of expressive visual filmmaking. Why on this particular film, when you were coming out of a depression, have you embraced the full cinematic arsenal again? This is the film that I might have expected you to make with a tiny crew and a video camera. You know, when you've made Dogville and Manderlay, it's difficult to get further in that direction. I go to some extremes [in my filmmaking], and then I have to back up and kind of go somewhere else. But also I think the depression allowed me to enjoy myself a little more in the terms of, you know, taking a camera that goes a thousand frames [a second] out into the nature with some wind. You don't have to be very clever to do that. It will just be a beautiful [image] straightaway.

Let me change topics and ask you about Dogme 95. What is the legacy of Dogme 95? Did it change the world of film on a more lasting level, or was Dogme really just about that particular moment? I think that, to be realistic, the success of the Dogme thing was a mistake. In the rules it says that [films had to be shot on] 35mm film and they had to be Academy format [1:1.33]. And then we had a discussion. Of course, I wrote the rules, but when you have more people together then you have to listen to each other. And they said, "You can't [handhold] a 35mm [camera]." And then I said, "You know, the rule is there...." Then the other people decided that [the rule meant that 35mm] was the format of distribution, which was, of course, 35mm at the time. So there was already some cheating. But what I wanted to say is that we started [shooting on] video at exactly the right time when these small cameras [became] so good. I think the people looked at Dogme as [representing] cheap films, which originally was not the idea at all. The rules were intended to force Thomas Vinterberg and me to do other things than we had done before. It was just to have some rules to work within. I often do rules to stop me from doing things that I think are too easy.

In Cannes a lot of press was generated by you leaving the theater before the credits finished at your premiere. And there often seems to be almost an aspect of performance that accompanies the debut of each of your films. Is this type of publicity something that you feel you need to generate to maintain your profile in the marketplace, or is it just a natural thing that happens to you? Well, I can tell you what happened in Cannes after the projection of the film. We had a very definite idea of when the lights should come on. The idea was that as soon as the credits started, then the lights would come on, and then we could kind of get out of there. We talked a million times to the projectionist. Then I could see people were kind of applauding, [the lights hadn't come on] and I knew that there were going to be seven minutes of credits, right? I thought, this is ridiculous. I can't stand being here. It was really embarrassing. And then I went out to take a quick pee, and one of the French guys that took care of the PR said, "It would really be an insult to the people if you leave now." And you know, no Frenchman is going to tell me that. It was too much. I didn't feel well at the screening, it was extremely hard for me, and there was all this confusion.

Okay, but to follow up, do you feel that because of the current state of film marketing that you need these either scandalous occurrences or surprising proclamations about a film's intent in order to give people like me things to write about? [sighs] I don't think they are necessary.... I have a very simple theory about these things. I think that I'm just a very emotional person and I do emotional things like leaving the cinema, like being provoked by this guy in the press conference. Things that I have to defend myself [against]. I do and I say what I feel, and I don't think these are things you can put on as an act. I really don't. I think that you have to judge [behavior like this] by the success of the artists, and if artists do something of quality then it is because they are also sincere in the way they act towards the press. I believe that is so.

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HOW THEY DID IT

PRODUCTION FORMAT: 1:2.35

CAMERA: Red, Phantom digital cameras (Phantom camera used for the Ultra High Speed shots - 1000 fr/sec.).

EDITING SYSTEM: Avid Media Composer, Editing in DNxHD.

COLOR CORRECTION: Grading in Filmmaster v.3.6. Film-out via ARRI laser recorders onto Fuji RDIneg. Pring to Fuji Pos. VFX: Compositing in Nuke and Flame, 3D in XSI. Conform: Scratch Assimilate.


GO BACK & WATCH

DON'T LOOK NOW
Nicolas Roeg’s iconic 1973 thriller plays with the psychological overload a couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) experiences when they travel to Venice to escape the emotional aftermath of their child’s death.

REPULSION
In his first English-language film (1965), Roman Polanski explores the violent reactions that sex brings up for a woman who has attempted to repress her own desires.

HOUR OF THE WOLF
Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 horror piece isolates a married couple on a island and in an emotionally wrought drama of debauchery, decadence and uneasy dreams.

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