Lars von Trier’s latest film Antichrist has already generated a vast amount of controversy, and it is so bewildering on so many levels that two of our writers had to take on the task of reviewing it. Virginie Sélavy interviewed the director over the phone and was impressed by his openness, his good-natured efforts to give thoughtful answers to her questions, and yes, his sense of humour.
Virginie Sélavy:You’ve described Antichrist as ‘the most important film of your entire career’. Why is that?
Lars von Trier: There are several reasons. First it was a tool to get out of the depression that I had while I was writing it, so it was a kind of life saver in that sense. Then it links back to some of the themes and images from when I first started making films.
VS: You have said before that the film is based on material from your youth, why did you decide to go back to your past?
LVT: It’s unanswerable. I can’t tell you why I choose stuff, it’s really something I don’t analyse. The only thing I can say is that a film has to demand to be made, I don’t have a plan of what films I’m going to make. The only thing that I know now is that I’m not too crazy about doing things again that I’ve been into before.
VS: What sort of material from your youth did you use for the film? Was it specific ideas or images?
LVT: Yes, you could say that. But also it was this kind of immature Strindbergian idea about women coming out of the Earth to consume you. I have this very perverted relationship to Strindberg. I love him very much, but maybe that’s because I also had a lot of problems with women (laughs), and I thought that Strindberg was also actually a very funny man. So maybe, I don’t know, maybe I’m even more immature now than I was… I just felt like looking back at some of the stuff. My answers are not so good, I’m sorry. I’m trying!
VS: Do you feel there is a sense of humour in Antichrist?
LVT: Well, I know that there is a sense of humour, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can see this film as humoristic. I would say that the way I work is based on humour, because my life is full of humour, but sometimes it comes out as very melodramatic, very serious, but I think the source for the whole thing is the same.
VS: Antichist starts as a film that is ostensibly about grief, but in fact it turns out to be more about fear, and confronting your fears, is that fair to say?
LVT: That’s fair to say, yes.
VS: Was it about you confronting your own fears too?
LVT: Yes. The cognitive therapy that takes place in the film is a form of therapy that I have used for some time, and it has to do with confronting your fears. I would say that especially the part of the film that has to do with therapy is humoristic because people who know about this form of therapy would know that he (Willem Dafoe’s character) is more than a fool.
VS: Why is that?
LVT: He’s doing all the wrong things.
VS: Because he’s too controlling?
LVT: Because he’s just not a very good therapist.
VS: Do you feel he brings about his wife’s violent reaction? Is he partly responsible for what happens at the end?
LVT: Oh yes. One of the things that got me thinking during therapy is that they say that fear is only thoughts, and nothing will happen because thoughts will never be real. And my thesis, or joke, in this film, is that they really do become real.
VS: You said in a previous interview that ‘female sexuality is frightening’. Is that the kind of fear that you personally confronted through the film?
LVT:Yeah, but if it was only that, I think I could cope (laughs). I think it’s more complicated. Basically you’re afraid of chaos, and lack of control and death, that’s the basis of everything.
VS: So why did you say that?
LVT: I think female sexuality is frightening even to the female.
LVT: (laughs) I’m not talking about you!
VS: Mmmh, yes, I don’t think I’m frightened! (laughs)
LVT: But as a little boy, when you find out that your penis can become erect, that’s extremely frightening. I’m sure there must be some parallel thing for girls. I’m talking about a female sexuality that doesn’t come out in sexuality itself but comes out in a lot of other forms. But yeah, maybe I’m wrong… I’m frightened of almost everything in life, so…
VS: There seems to be the idea in the film that evil comes from women’s sexuality…
LVT: I think that’s a little excessive… No, I don’t think so. I think that sexuality is the part of human beings that is closest to nature. And nature is dangerous somehow, yes, if you put nature against civilisation, nature is definitely a threat.
VS: And you feel that women are closer to nature than men?
LVT: (laughs) You know, the reason I make films is so that I don’t have to answer questions like that! Yes, maybe somehow I feel that, but not in a negative way.
VS: The vision of nature in the film is very dark, it’s full of death. Is that how you feel about nature, that nature is chaos and death?
LVT: No, the whole thing came from an experiment that was done a long time ago. People were asked to pick their favourite spot in the whole world, where they would not be afraid at all, and the response was a lake in the forest, with deer and all that – I’m sure you have the same kind of romantic picture in England – and that was the place where everybody would like to go and relax. And then I saw a film about the original forest of Europe, and what is characteristic about this very romantic forest, is that it’s where the maximum of pain and suffering and struggle occurs, because a lot of species want to live in this place and they all fight and die all the time. So I just found it very interesting that the place that we would all find to be extremely calming is actually the place where there’s the most struggle and pain going on.
VS: In the film, the characters talk about nature as ‘Satan’s Church’.
LVT: Yes, at a certain point, the characters start talking without my interference.
VS: You mean that wasn’t in the script, it was improvised?
LVT: No, it was in the script, but when you write a script, suddenly things like that come out, and you keep them there. But it’s also connected to the idea that if a god had planned to create a place like this where everyone is longing for life and 99% of everything is dying, then it couldn’t be a god. I thought it was such a satanic idea, the whole nature thing. And also that it’s a god that invents human beings and then tells them that they’re going to die, it’s not a very nice god.
VS: Is that where the title comes from?
VS: You link this idea of this satanic nature to witches and witch-hunts. How do you see the connection? Why did you put the witches at the centre of the film?
LVT: The whole film also has to do with the sexes. And again, to call on Strindberg, there is this eternal fight between the sexes and I thought it was interesting that it has to do with sexuality. I know it’s not a very modern idea but it always fascinated me when I was younger. I don’t believe in witches. I think that’s quite important to say. And I don’t believe that women are more evil than men or anything like that (laughs). But I think that the concepts are interesting. And somehow it’s not politically correct but I think that it’s interesting now and then not to be. The film had to make a turn that went from nature, as in out in the woods, to the nature of men, and we had to turn to some mythology about the evil of women, and we found it in the traditional, primitive view of witches.
VS: There are elements in the film that seem to come from horror. Do you see Antichrist as a horror film?
LVT: No, I would say that I made a film called Dancer in the Dark, and that was maybe not a musical, and it’s the same thing here. I aim for a genre but I will never hit it spot on. It’s on purpose because I try to make this film mine in a way that will make it not a genre film.
VS: Is that your attitude to genre in general?
LVT: I’m really fascinated by it and the good thing about horror films is that they actually allow you to use a lot of strange images that a more naturalistic film wouldn’t allow.
VS: How do you feel about the reactions that the film got in Cannes?
LVT: I only heard about them. If you asked me how a film should be received, I would definitely love that there should be some booing and some applause.
VS: Have you read some of the criticism directed at you?
LVT: It was quite interesting that there was some criticism directed at me because at Cannes, which is a film festival, there should be criticism of the film, but towards me, I think it’s a little bit too much.
VS: Do you feel the criticism got a bit too personal?
LVT: Oh yes, very, from some journalists I got things like ‘justify yourself’, stuff like that. I react against that, of course. I don’t need to justify myself, I just show you a film, and if you don’t like it, it’s fine.
VS: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe give fantastic performances. How did it go with them?
LVT: It went extremely well. They were so nice, and so dedicated to the film. I was in a very poor mental state and I had to have all the collaboration that I could get, and I really got it. There was a lot of technical stuff that I couldn’t really take care of very well because of this depression, but the actors really helped me. And it’s very important for me to have actors who will help and not fight me, because then I can’t really work.
VS: They seemed to understand what you were trying to do with the film.
LVT: Yes, and I’m very happy about the prize that Charlotte got, she really deserves it. And I don’t know if they understood it more than I did (laughs).
VS: It must have been a very difficult role for her because she exposes herself so much, and I don’t mean just physically.
LVT: I agree. But I didn’t experience any problems whatsoever, on the contrary. For example we were talking about the speed of the masturbation in the scene in the forest and I said, ‘much faster’, just being stupid. And she did, and afterwards she said, ‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t do it faster because physically it was not possible’ (laughs). I thought that was very good. That’s the kind of actor you want!
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
Read our double review of Antichrist here.