The film Antichrist dominated the Cannes film festival this year. Lars von Trier's horror movie divided opinion like no other. It received some cheers but mostly boos when it played on the Croisette. Yet, for days after, it was the only thing that people could talk about, it dominated conversation and arguments, and could not have been more divisive. Some believed it to be just another example of the Danish director's misogyny, others that this was his most anti-male film. Personally, my initial reaction, and it's a conviction that grows stronger everyday is that this is the director's masterpiece. Indeed, since it played in the middle weekend of the festival, I have not been able to stop thinking about it.
For my money the funniest and most interesting moment of the festival occurred at the press conference for Antichrist. One reporter was standing up and visibly shaking in his boots repeatedly shouting, "How can you justify this movie? You bring your film to Cannes, you have to defend it!" With admirable calm the 53-year-old replied: "I don't have to excuse myself. You are all my guests, not the other way around. I made this little film I'm now quite fond of. I don't need to apologise for it." When the host of the press conference tried to pacify the situation, the director said of the compulsion to make the film: "I don't have a choice. It's the hand of God, I'm afraid. And I am the best film director in the world. I'm not sure God is the best god in the world." From that moment on the press conference was a great farce.
My reaction to the director could not have been any more different. Far from wanting answers, there seemed to be an honesty in this film that was beyond anything the Dane had done before, and this despite it being made within the confines of the horror genre. So much so that when I met with the director at the famous Hotel du Cap I felt an urge to give him a hug. I told him this and before we said anything else I found myself standing on a wooden veranda of a hut overlooking the vast expanse of water, hugging a man I'd only been introduced to 45 seconds before but had spent years admiring from afar.
There is no denying that von Trier is a provocateur. He describes the device as "a tool". Saying he's the best director, making challenging films, creating a furore has been his way of getting what are essentially small-budget films from Denmark noticed.
The title of his new film, Antichrist, is yet another example of the director toying with the audience. In the movie there is no obvious reference to religion, which led some to wonder why it was even called Antichrist. However, there doesn't need to be any religious discussion, because he uses the title in the same way that Federico Fellini used the helicopter carrying the statue of Christ over Rome at the start of La Dolce Vita, as an indicator that the power and reach of religion has an influence on every life, even those who see themselves as atheists, or, like Marcello and his Roman friends, live a hedonistic modern lifestyle in which there seems no space for religion. Von Trier, for all his foibles, is definitely no fool and the secular characters are clearly in keeping with the perceived reduction of influence on religion in everyday life in Europe. Von Trier simply says, "I started with the title."
It's important to understand the state of mind of the director when he came to make the picture. We still live in a world where depression is a subject that is almost taboo to talk about, with statistics highlighting that many more people than most of us suspect are on medication to combat depression. However, the director is unusually honest about his condition. The admission that: "Two years ago, I suffered from depression. It was a new experience for me. Everything, no matter what, seemed unimportant, trivial. I couldn't work. Six months later, just as an exercise, I wrote a script. It was a kind of therapy, but also a search, a test to see if I would ever make another film. The script was filmed and finished without much enthusiasm, made as it was using about half of my physical and intellectual capacity."
He then goes on to say,:"I read Strindberg when I was young, I read with enthusiasm the things he wrote before he went to Paris to become an alchemist and during his stay there ... the period later called his 'Inferno Crisis' – was Antichrist my Inferno Crisis? My affinity with Strindberg?"
Von Trier says of his relationship with Strindberg, "I think I am very close to Strindberg. He loved women very much and was always investigating the relationship between men and women. I consider him to be very serious, but very funny as well." The Dane could be talking about himself.
Antichrist is a two-hander starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. The action starts with a black-and-white sequence that looks as beautiful as a perfume commercial. The ethereal quality of the image compliments the action on screen as we see the husband and wife in several passionate clenches. There are the occasional graphic moments that could have come out of a porn film. It's so perfect it seems unobtainable. And so it proves. A baby is introduced to the sequence. The first thing we notice that is wrong is that the child's shoes have not been put on properly, the left shoe is on the right foot and vice versa, and then the illusion is shattered as the child steps out of a window falling to a terrible death.
At the funeral the image is far more grainy and realistic. The bereaved mother faints during the procession. The action then jumps forward a month with the husband watching over his wife in the hospital. She doesn't know what day it is and has been put on medication. It is at this moment that her husband, a therapist, reveals that he wants to help his wife. She retorts that he of all people should know that he is too closely related to her to treat her. He agrees. This, though, is the key moment in the film: despite also suffering from grief with the death of his child a month before, the therapist feels an unstoppable urge to help his wife. The urge is understandable because it's a sign of his compassion. Yet by ignoring the wishes of his wife and rational thought, he is clearly on the road to destruction.
The criticism of this paternalistic attitude that is borne out in the horror sequences that follow is what makes Dafoe a modern day Prince Myshkin. It's no coincidence that when the director talks of the character called "He" in the credits, he says, "'He' is an idiot." He then goes even further and states, "We are all idiots." The director states, "I think I've always been the female characters in all my films, you know, the men tend to just be stupid... to have theories about things and destroy things."
Yet the flipside to this argument, and one that has led to the sustained debate about whether the director is a misogynist or not, is that "She" reacts in a hostile and aggressive manner. Gainsbourg's performance is uninhibited and out-of-the-box and fully deserving of the best actress prize she was awarded at Cannes.
In the second half of the picture, in which the film becomes a full blown horror, there is a graphic scene of her re-enacting John Wayne Bobbit's worst nightmare and then a scene of clitoridectomy that would made the most gore immune spectator look away. These are extreme moments that are visualisations of events that are taking place in the wife's mind.
Clearly these scenes only make sense if you feel that her husband is an idiot; but see him as compassionate and, all of a sudden, it's easy, albeit mistaken, to see the film as misogynistic.
About the booing that accompanied his film, he argues: "If you ask me it is good, yes, it's good people boo. In principle, I think it's very good that a film divides people. But being a person, I am smiling to you to try to get a response and say that we all have something in common, that we are OK in each other's company, and of course it is very human and it affects me."
'Antichrist' is out later this year
LARS VON TRIER, FILM BY FILM
The Element of Crime (1984)
Von Trier uses elements of film noir and comic-book fantasy in this macabre tale about a detective tracking a serial killer.
The first evidence of the joker within the director. A computer virus wipes out 18 months of work on a film script.
A ghostly take on Euripides, based on an unproduced script by Carl Theodor Dreyer and the poet Preben Thomson.
The culmination of the so-called Europe Trilogy, this stylish pictures stars Jean Marc Barr as an American innocent in post-war Germany.
Breaking the Waves (1996)
Emily Watson (right) plays a woman who suffers sexual brutality to save the life of the man she loves.
Made under the Dogme 95 manifesto, this movie focuses on a group of people who decide to meet in a house in Copenhagen and transgress all of their personal boundaries.
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Shot using 100 digital cameras, and starring the Icelandic pop star Björk (below), this three-hour Palme d'Or winner is a curious ode to musicals.
Von Trier used a sound stage to double for America as Nicole Kidman hides from a mob in a small town packed with petty, selfish individuals.
Bryce Dallas Howard replaced Nicole Kidman in the second of von Trier's proposed American trilogy, as the Danish director investigated racism during the 1930s in America's Deep South.
The Boss of It All (2006)
A comedy about an actor employed to impersonate a fictional company director. The film has a playfulness that can also be seen as a send-up of von Trier's relationship with his producing partner, Peter Albaek.