Thought-provoking, decidedly un-PC and formally inventive, Anders Morgenthaler’s first feature Princess mixes animation with some live action to tell the story of a young woman, Christina, who becomes a porn star under the name ‘Princess’. When she dies, her intense, guilt-racked priest brother August takes in her five-year-old daughter Mia and sets out to destroy all material starring his sister, which leads to a violent confrontation with unscrupulous porn barons. Below, the Danish director discusses some of the most controversial aspects of the film and explains why he used animation to comment on sex and violence.
Virginie Sélavy: What was the starting point of the film? Did you begin with the idea of criticising the porn industry or with the idea of a revenge story?
Anders Morgenthaler: I started to do it because I wanted to comment on the roughness of the porn industry. I really love the work of the Japanese photographer Araki, I’m very fond of the way he mixes sexuality and art. He made a book called Tokyo Lucky Hole where he cruised the prostitution district in Tokyo in the 80s and took pictures of the girls in a very refined way. They became something other than sexual objects. That made me see them in a different way. Suddenly I saw these girls, I saw their faces, and then I had this idea, what if that was my sister, or my mother or my daughter? I think that was the turning point, because when you start thinking like that, you don’t get disgusted by sex, you get disgusted by what these people have experienced in their lives that made them decide to do porn. And that was the start of Princess. If you start thinking not from a larger social point of view but on a more intimate level, what would it be like if this happened to someone around you, then you find the anger and the rage very fast. And from there on it became a revenge story.
VS: Is that what you were trying to imagine? That Princess was your sister?
AM: No, no. Actually I had a big problem with the Danish press. People abroad seem to understand the movie a lot better, that it’s a kind of fairy tale, it’s not realism, it’s based on reality but it’s a poetic, gruesome fairy tale. In Denmark it was taken exactly like, oh that’s you, that’s exactly like it is. And the movie can’t be treated that way, it would be way too violent.
VS: So the Danish press thought that you were saying, go out and kill all the porn producers?
AM: Exactly. They said, OK, this guy believes that. And I can’t believe they missed the point, because the whole point of the movie is, don’t do it, don’t react like August does.
VS: It seems quite clear that you’re not advocating violence because we see that August’s actions lead to some very nasty, tragic things.
AM: I think most men tend to react like August does, with anger and rage and violence. We want to tear the fucking world apart, and find the person who’s responsible. The film is done from a very male perspective. What the movie is saying on a higher level is that if a woman had taken Mia in, and I tried to put that in at the start of the movie with the old hooker character, she’s obviously not a role model, but she would probably have taken better care of Mia.
VS: Why is August a priest?
AM: I needed to create a job function for August within which he could react. Therefore I had to set up a character who lived by a set of rules. In the first draft he was a soldier coming home from the Army. But then it would be too obvious that he would go berserk and kill the whole world. So I had a talk with one of the writers and she said, what if he was a priest. I had thought about that but I thought it might be too obvious. But making movies is an organic process so thinking about it, it became very clear to me that if you want a person to go completely berserk then you have to take someone with religious beliefs. Because they have a set of rules that they live by, they have moral standards. So just having him in a priest outfit sets the rules for the way he’s going to react.
VS: You’re making a film that is very critical of porn but at the same time there is some extremely brutal violence in the film. Do you think that there is a risk that some people might like the film because they enjoy those violent scenes?
AM: I think that’s a pretty big risk! (laughs) Men like harsh reactions to emotional things. I like him reacting like that. I wish I didn’t but I like it. I like the fact that Mia takes out this crow bar and removes this man’s genitals, which is a very harsh and violent scene.
VS: It’s a very shocking scene, because she’s five years old.
AM: But the point of the scene is that she’s completely ruined from that point on. She was a ruined girl before but the moment they do that, you experience five seconds of happiness in the act of revenge but eventually it ruins you. If you start living up revenge, you start breaking all of civilisation’s rules. And from then on you’re an animal.
VS: Do you feel that the violence is more acceptable to audiences because it’s animation?
AM: It makes it bearable to watch. You can sit in the cinema for the whole film. If I’d made it in the same way but entirely in live action then many people would probably have left, because it would be too much. And I could never justify putting a little girl through a film like this. I just couldn’t do it.
VS: So animation is a way of…
AM: It’s a way of keeping a distance. I think the good thing about animation is that you can use it to create a poetic feeling. And I think that succeeded very well in Princess. That would have been much harder to do in a live action film with a budget like this. It’s also a budget thing. If I’d had a big budget I could have done this movie. But who would give me 100 million dollars to do a film like this? (laughs) And it’s also funny that animation is for kids in people’s minds, except in Asia, and suddenly you’re watching something that you wouldn’t want your kids to see until they’re eighteen.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
Read the review of Princess.