Just about now, Lars von Trier will be trundling off in a camper van (he hates to fly) from Denmark to France for the Cannes premiere of his latest feature, Antichrist. The journey takes five days there and five days back.
It is a trek he has made many times as films such as Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville have screened at the festival.
Even so, his presence this year comes as a slight surprise. In 2006, when he reached 50, the Danish director issued a proclamation announcing that it was "time to narrow down". He complained about feeling burdened "by barren habits and expectations (my own and other people's)." His new films, he promised, would be promoted with less fanfare.
But the lure of Cannes has proved too strong. Besides, there's a lot riding on Antichrist. While Von Trier remains Denmark's most famous filmmaker, he hasn't had an international hit in several years. Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005) divided critics and failed to attract mass audiences. His lowish-budget, shot-by-computer Danish comedy about office politics The Boss of It All (2006) seemed parochial and tame. Zentropa, the company that he and his business partner Peter Aalbæk Jensen had formed in 1992, merged with Scandinavian major Nordisk last year. While there may have been sound business reasons for such a move, it still seemed like a symbolic loss of independence.
Von Trier hasn't disclosed too much in advance about Antichrist. Original plans to make the film were abandoned when Aalbæk Jensen disclosed too many plot details to journalists. Von Trier was so annoyed that he "punished" his producer by making the resolutely non-commercial Manderlay instead. It stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe as a grieving couple who retreat to their cabin in the woods, "hoping a return to Eden will repair their broken hearts and troubled marriage". But nature takes its course and things go from bad to worse.
The trailer suggests a film in the vein of The Shining or The Exorcist – a full-blown exploitation pic, complete with plenty of animals and some very graphic sex scenes. There are lines like "nature is Satan's church". There is a Hieronymous Bosch-like sequence in which Dafoe and Gainsbourg make love in the woods as dozens of hands reach out around them from a tree's stems. Von Trier is also working intensively with animals for the first time. A Czech animal trainer was brought in to control a supporting cast that includes deer, crows and foxes. Von Trier being Von Trier, CGI trickery has apparently been kept to a minimum and the animals have actually had to perform on camera. It's about time Von Trier had a critical and commercial hit – but is Antichrist the film to provide it?