Lars Von Trier And Mr. Beaks Frolic In The Forbidden Forest Of ANTICHRIST!
Published at: Oct. 21, 2009, 1:37 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
Ignore the howls of disgust that greeted the film at last May's Cannes Film Festival: ANTICHRIST is not the end of cinema. It's just the latest movie from Lars von Trier. But I understand the confusion.
Von Trier's films have a way of forcing themselves on the viewer; they're designed to elicit a strong response. According to von Trier, he simply cannot help this: stretching back to his stunning 1984 debut, THE ELEMENT OF CRIME, the director's process has always been guided by intuition, rather than nuts-and-bolts stuff like story structure and genre conventions. Everything that unfolds onscreen is an honest, misshapen product of von Trier's imagination. This is the shit that delights and/or haunts him.
Though there is an outside possibility that he's just completely fucking with us.
Several of my colleagues contend that ANTICHRIST is an elaborate practical joke meant to push the audience's buttons, as well as tweak von Trier's reputation as cinema's foremost misogynist (supplanting Brian De Palma, who appears to be semi-retired). I think this is hogwash. The opening sequence alone - in which a married couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) have slo-motion, black-and-white, scored-to-Handel shower sex while their toddler son escapes from his crib and takes a fatal, multi-story fall from the bedroom window - is far too devastating to be some kind of aesthetic goof. It's as tragic and heartbreaking as anything in BREAKING THE WAVES or DOGVILLE. And it prepares us for an unnerving exploration of parental grief that very closely recalls Nicolas Roeg's masterpiece, DON'T LOOK NOW - with the dwarf in red replaced by a talking fox that likes to gnaw on its own insides.
You may stumble out of ANTICHRIST worrying for von Trier's mental well-being, but I don't think you'll be questioning his sincerity. Whatever he's trying to say with this singular piece of psychological horror, he means it. And if you're hoping von Trier might drop some hints as to his thematic intent in the following interview, forget it: he subscribes to the David Lynch School of Don't Explain a Fucking Thing. You want an authoritative interpretation? Pay close attention and come up with your own.
And while I think this is an admirable philosophy, it makes it kinda tough to talk about the work at hand. But we found other topics to discuss - like angry critics, the horror genre, and how to effectively direct an actress to masturbate for real on film. Read on, reader...
Mr. Beaks: I saw the film after the Cannes debut, and I really resented the overreaction in the press. It was so obsessed with how the film ends and what happens to the characters, and it deprived me of an initial viewing where I could experience the surprise and the shock that they felt. But as the film started, knowing what happens to the characters, I found that it deepened the tragedy for me. Are you okay with viewers knowing how your film ends ahead of time?
Lars von Trier: Actually, I just re-watched [Richard Brooks's] IN COLD BLOOD. There it is very clear what is going to happen, and it actually makes it better. Sometimes, it's not so bad to know how it ends.
Beaks: In obsessing on the third act, do you feel the critics did a disservice to your film?
Von Trier: Hm. (Pause) That's a little difficult to answer. I must say that I got a little provoked by this thing that I should "justify" myself. (Laughs) I don't think anyone should justify themselves. We can talk about the film, but [this particular critic] implied that I was doing something terrible to the audience, which I hope I have not done.
Beaks: When I finally got to see the film for myself, it of course provoked me, but I didn't think it was outrageous. I actually thought it was a fairly reasonable film.
Von Trier: When I do a film, I think I work a little bit like a painter. I really don't have so many plans or ambitions or views on how it should be seen. You kind of follow your intuition, and different films come out of that. I don't start off thinking that an audience should feel this or this. I'm pretty much working for myself in that sense.
Beaks: In approaching ANTICHRIST explicitly as a horror film, did you take into account any of the genre's conventions as you were writing the screenplay?
Von Trier: I think horror is an interesting genre. It really gives you room for strange images and sounds. I started off liking films like CARRIE and THE SHINING and Hitchcock, but I also saw some Japanese films that I liked - THE RING, for instance.
Beaks: You've cited David Lynch as an influence as well.
Von Trier: Very much so. Especially TWIN PEAKS: I was very taken with that. And the later films also. I like that he refuses to say any words about what his film means. He's a clever man.
Beaks: (Laughs) I think that's very wise. It can make for tricky interviews, but you just have to find other things to talk about. I'm pleased, though, that you cited Lynch as an influence on this film. The opening scene, which is so beautifully shot to that Handel aria... the look and feel of it reminded me of Lynch's commercials for Obsession.
Von Trier: (Laughs) Okay. I have not seen those, but I can imagine.
Beaks: I was just so enraptured by the images. And then you build to this horrible tragedy, the most awful thing that can ever happen to a parent... it's a collision of conflicting emotions.
Von Trier: When you work in dream slo-motion and black-and-white, you can't go wrong. It's very poetic. I think that's a technique I use to make it clash between different things like the death of a child and the beauty of the thing.
Beaks: Did you write specifically for Willem or Charlotte?
Von Trier: Not at all. I was looking for somebody much younger, and I was not at all sure where I was going to go. But then Willem wrote me a letter asking me if I had something for him, and I said, "Oh, yes. Absolutely." And he said yes after he took a little time to think about it. And Charlotte came in after we shot some test films with a few others. It was all a great gift.
Beaks: Did you find that Charlotte was game for anything? Was she a willing participant all the way through production?
Von Trier: I've never done a film that was, acting-wise, so simple. It was no problem whatsoever. Everything was very, very smooth - and that is, of course, thanks to the actors. I think Charlotte did a great job. You know, the masturbation scene, the only comment I had was "You have to masturbate much faster." She tried, but then she came to me and said, "I'm so sorry, but physically it it is not possible." (Laughs)
Beaks: I suppose you could have undercranked it.
Von Trier: Yeah, I could've. (Laughs) But this is filmed the way she... it's the real stuff.
Beaks: ANTICHRIST recently played at Fantastic Fest in Austin, and "Chaos Reigns" kind of became the motto of the festival. I guess talking foxes just have a profound effect on people.
Von Trier: (Laughs) Yes, well that's because it's so scary, and then all of a sudden turns and becomes funny. That, again, was not so much of my doing. Earlier on in my life, I did a lot of shamanic journeys, and the animals in this film are all from these journeys. So I had to give the fox a line, even though it's a little ridiculous.
Beaks: But that's what I get out of so many of your movies: you seem willing to go wherever the story needs to go, or wherever you need to go as an artist, and--
Von Trier: But I think, actually, I have a responsibility. I can finance these films, which would be difficult in a lot of other places in the world because they're so strange and relatively narrow. So I feel a responsibility to be a little wild.
Beaks: I know that years and years ago, Hollywood took an interest in you. I've read that Steven Spielberg was particularly eager to bring you over. Was there an offer made? And if so, were there any specific projects he wanted you to direct?
Von Trier: I don't know if that offer was ever made, but he is a very clever man. And he was early on interested in what was going on in... the universe of much narrower films than he did. If you look at the first film I did, THE ELEMENT OF CRIME, and ALIEN 3 many years later, the universes are pretty much the same. It's just a matter of... there might be things that, as a film producer, that he would like to see what goes on in what you could call the avant-garde. And then you know that this would be something you could use some years later.
Yes, I was sent some scripts, but I'm not coming to America.
Beaks: This film was born out of a depression and not knowing what to do. How do you feel now? Are you ready to press on and continue your career?
Von Trier: I'm fooling around a little with some ideas. It's not so easy to come up with stuff all the time. (Laughs) But I'm working. And I think I will be shooting a film next year.
I'm sure the Cannes Film Festival already has a competition slot reserved for it - whatever the hell it is.
ANTICHRIST makes its VOD debut this Wednesday, October 21st, and opens theatrically Friday, October 23rd. Go get yourself some chaos, and make it reign.