“I am the best film director in the world,” proclaimed Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier to a packed press conference for his film Antichrist, starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, after its premiere at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. “All the others,” he added later in the conversation, “are overrated.”
If you were to be asked what filmmaker could have made such a comment, you’d be hard-pressed to think of a more likely prospect than von Trier, the Dogme 95 leader who has consistently pushed the boundaries of what cinema will allow. In The Idiots (Idioterne), a film he made adhering to the ascetic boundaries erected by Dogme, he gave us an art film featuring unsimulated sex scenes. The practice may strike you as not particularly shocking now, with films like Romance, The Brown Bunny, The Wayward Cloud (Tian bian yi duo yun), Destricted, and 9 Songs all having been released in recent years, but The Idiots started the trend. Other works by Von Trier, Dogville and Manderlay, were set on a theater set, with chalk outlines of where buildings “were”; the audience had to imagine their presence.
Now with Antichrist, he pushes boundaries further than ever before, with again, unsimulated sex (in one of the opening shots, no less!), talking animals that eat themselves, and, naturally, more than one act of genital mutilation.
What’s amusing, and particularly von Trier-ian about Antichrist’s tour of the festival circuit, is that the antics surrounding the film have become as provocative, perhaps even more so, than the film itself. Antichrist is easily the most envelope-pushing film of this controversial filmmaker’s career, so what better way to support it than by behaving like a straight-up crazy?
That Cannes press conference was an early sign. “The knowledge I have that I am the best director, I see it as true,” he said. When pressed to justify the film to members of the press, he explained that “I don’t have very much to say,” adding, “I haven’t done it for you or an audience. I don’t think I owe anybody an explanation.”
Furor continued to be incited even after the film ended, with the first image to appear in the closing credits: “Dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky.” At the New York Film Festival press screening, the audience erupted in laughter. To dedicate a film of such anarchy to the patron saint of cinema seems, well, a little blasphemous. Von Trier characteristically put forth a straight-faced defense of the dedication in his press conference afterwards, explaining, “I could have dedicated any one of my films to Tarkovsky, he has influenced me so much. So I decided to dedicate this one.” He added: "I've stolen so much from him over the years that in order not to get arrested I had to dedicate the film to him." Too bad it was the one sure to have set Andrei spinning in his grave.
More shocking still was the news that at a public NYFF screening, a man in the theater had a seizure during the film’s shocking third act. Amidst screams of “Help!” and “Call 911!” the film was shut off; police entered the theater, and the man ended up okay. The film resumed. The incident called to mind a diabetic’s fainting during the hypodermic needle scene in Pulp Fiction’s 1994 screening. There was plenty of speculation that the seizure could have been set off by the horrifyingly tense scenes late in the film, which truly are on a par, in terms of suspense, with any great horror master’s work.
One also can’t help but be amused by von Trier’s behavior during a recent interview with The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan, wherein von Trier removes his shoes, lays down on the couch in his office and closes his eyes, as if in a therapy session. As O’Hagan takes notes dutifully, von Trier begins to talk about the deep depression he was in when he wrote the script. The interview-with-a-journalist-as-psychoanalysis-session? All right! When O’Hagan begins to question von Trier about the horrific scenes in the film, von Trier responds, “This does not feel good. There are some things it is not good to explain or analyze.” Later on, O’Hagan tells von Trier he worries about the state of von Trier’s mental health. “You’re right to worry,” von Trier responds, “but it is not good to worry about something you can’t do anything about.”
So what’s the verdict on von Trier’s actions? Is he completely serious in all of these pronouncements and acts, and just balls-to-the-wall nuts? Or is it a tongue-and-cheek performance artwork of the highest order? Regardless of which way you go on the issue, there’s no question that the hubbub surrounding Antichrist dwarfs the film itself; while the movie is quite transgressive, one expects something a bit—well—better, when you consider all the fuss the movie, and its maker, have stirred up. And yet, von Trier’s personal exploits are utterly fascinating: critic Mike D’Angelo, who gave the film a D+ in his review for The Onion A.V. Club, compares him to performance-artist extraordinaire Andy Kaufman, and the comparison seems quite apt. How could von Trier not command our attention, no matter what he does? He is, after all, the best film director in the world.
What's your take on Antichrist: Horrifying? Masterpiece? Do you think Lars von Trier is a misogynist? Genius? The Danish answer to Andy Kaufman? Tell us your thoughts in the comments (no registration required). We especially want to hear from people who think the film is a masterpiece.
Antichrist opens on Friday, October 23. In New York, it is playing at the IFC Center. It is available On Demand on Wednesday, October 21.
We wrote about Antichrist at the New York Film Festival here and here, and came to similar conclusions.