The woolly career of Danish provocateur Lars von Trier might well be summed up with the phrase “chaos reigns,” uttered by an unexpected source in his new film Antichrist, and currently spreading through the culture like swine flu. From the beginning, his work has always thrived on the tension between chaos and control—both on the screen, where rigidly managed societies like those in 2003’s Dogville and 2005’s Manderlay start to break down, and behind the scenes, where von Trier has repeatedly tried to simplify and control his effects, from the “Automavision” camera in 2006’s The Boss Of It All to his famed Dogme 95 manifesto and its many Spartan tenets. After early experiments in genre films marked by wild cinematic effects—the sepia tones of 1984’s The Element Of Crime and 1994’s The Kingdom, the back-projection and superimpositions of 1991’s Zentropa—von Trier has gradually stripped down his style and segued into a career as independent cinema’s premier bomb-thrower. With 1996’s Breaking The Waves, 2000’s Dancer In The Dark, and the first two entries of his aborted “America trilogy,” Dogville and Manderlay, von Trier has challenged (and often angered) audiences with bold statements on politics and religion, and given a platform to some extraordinarily raw performances by his actresses—Emily Watson, Björk, Nicole Kidman, and Bryce Dallas Howard.
True to form, Antichrist stunned audiences at Cannes with its unhinged, shockingly explicit portrait of a marriage undone by tragedy and psychosis. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg star as a couple trying to cope with their young son’s accidental death. With Gainsbourg paralyzed with grief, Dafoe puts himself in charge of her recovery, first taking her to a forest “Eden” where she and her son once frolicked in happier times, then forcing her through his own twisted form of aversion therapy. Via Skype from Denmark, Von Trier recently spoke to The A.V. Club about making a film about depression and therapy while depressed and undergoing therapy.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said Antichrist is a film made out of depression. Was making it cathartic or therapeutic in any way?
Lars von Trier: Just the fact that you’re working is good for you. I don’t know if the content of the film had anything to do with it, but it helped me get up in the morning. When you’re depressed, having some success with something is positive, but I wouldn’t say making this film was a miracle cure. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg come on board?
LVT: I was looking for somebody younger [than Dafoe] in the beginning, and I was not really sure where I should look. Then Willem sent me this e-mail saying “Do you have anything for me this autumn?” And I said, “Yes. Please. Come and help me.” And I don’t know if he was very sure that this was a film he should do from the start, but he said yes. That was fantastic. I’ve worked with him before [on Manderlay].
AVC: What about Gainsbourg?
LVT: We had a longer discussion with Eva Green and her agent, but we never really agreed, so suddenly we had very little time, and we talked to Gainsbourg, and she was very eager. “Yes, I’m dying to do the part,” she said.
AVC: How do you prepare the actors for what they’re going to go through?
LVT: First of all, I ask them to read everything really carefully, so I would not all of a sudden have to tell them “Now you should masturbate in the woods and stuff.” Because in my experience, it’s a very good idea to discuss that in advance. [Laughs.] But I don’t know if we really discussed… We had some weeks they were up here, and we had some weeks together. I don’t think I did anything special. I did very little, I must say.
AVC: You didn’t do much rehearsal?
LVT: No. Normally, we do some talking about the characters, of course, and then every day of shooting, we start with a rehearsal where the actors kind of bring what they think should be in the scene. But we film everything, and we use cuts of this first take, also.
AVC: Your last film, The Boss Of It All, employed a camera gizmo that was designed to work independently of the operator, but Antichrist is much more controlled and aestheticized. How did you make that kind of transition?
LVT: A lot of the images [in Antichrist], you could compare to some work I have done earlier in my career. Parts of the film are a little too slick for me. I would have liked the documentary part of it all, or should we say the handheld-camera part of it, to be rougher. But you never know how a film might have been. You always know how it is, but never how it might have been, so maybe this is all good.
AVC: Do you see yourself returning to a more Spartan style?
LVT: I’m so stupid to ask these things. I’m very confused in my head, I don’t… maybe, maybe. First of all, I have to fight just to make another film. I think it’s difficult.
AVC: Even at this point, there’s no apparatus in place that will allow you to make another movie?
LVT: Oh, yes, the production apparatus is there, absolutely. No, I’m not talking about that. I’m just talking about me and how I get the energy to go on and stuff.
AVC: The forest in the film acts like a third character. Its presence is very insidious. How did you conceptualize it?
LVT: Well, I think that this idea that nature might be dangerous is something that has been in almost all my movies. Maybe it’s the nature of man, but this was kind of nature nature. Yeah, it was a very important part of the film, but I can’t say we succeeded. I’m a little negative. I don’t think that we succeeded there so well. [Laughs.]
AVC: You certainly don’t seem of the school that nature is a peaceful place to retreat.
LVT: Yeah, well, no. I think the idea of Eden in the film is that it’s a peaceful place to rest. This is the interesting thing, was that I’ve always thought a place like this would be where you would love to spend time, and this would be the most peaceful, romantic place on Earth. The film has to do with the idea that maybe it’s not, but it is a typical place where I could go.
AVC: The film takes a position on therapy and therapy culture that could generously be described as ambivalent. What are your thoughts on therapy and the way it’s used in the film?
LVT: Therapy is, of course, used very stupidly in the film. But this kind of therapy, competent therapy, I have been undergoing for four years. I am quite sure that it’s the best you can do, but still the best is not good enough. And it’s typical for me to be a little sarcastic about formal therapy.
AVC: You could describe this as aversion therapy. Having to confront fears head-on.
LVT: Yeah, that’s the idea. But the idea is also to allow your brain to go in between, so you should have a look at yourself from the outside, and experience that it is anxiety, stuff like that. The idea is to involve the brain more and more, so you don’t just panic and run away.
AVC: Dafoe’s character is definitely the wrong guy to be putting his wife through this process, but the process itself isn’t inherently unhealthy.
LVT: No, I don’t think so. The only thing I am making fun of here is the one statement that this is only a fear, nothing more. What this film is about is that something would actually change in reality as they go through this process.
AVC: The film is visually striking. Did you have any influences in mind in terms of paintings, or other movies?
LVT: Yeah, well, I’ve been looking at quite a lot of paintings, especially Romantic paintings. Actually, some of the research I used in this film is research I did for some Wagner operas I was supposed to direct in Bayreuth some years ago. It didn’t happen, but I had a lot of these Romantic images at hand. As for films, I acknowledge [Andrei] Tarkovsky at the end [of Antichrist], and of course the classic horror films, but not very many modern ones, because I haven’t seen them. Though I was influenced by some of the newer Japanese ones—The Ring, Dark Water, and all that.
AVC: Do you keep up very well with movies that are being made now?
LVT: No. No. This was very unusual to me, because I had this down period, so I thought, “Well, I might as well take a look at what’s going on in these Japanese films.” But normally, no, I don’t see newer films. I have this idea that it would be interesting to have somebody who does not look at all the new stuff. Because when you look at the new stuff, then you are kind of influenced in a bad way. You get excited by something, and then you move in that direction, and you get excited by another thing, then you move in that direction. Even though this is crumbling for me, I still have a feeling that I go more or less in the same direction without distractions.
AVC: You placed fewer restrictions on yourself for this movie than you have recently. Was that an enjoyable experience, to be able to use all the tools in the box?
LVT: The reason we didn’t have more restrictions and dogmas or whatever was that I was not able to force them through. Of course, it was, to a certain degree, beneficial to be able to use more tools, but I was not at all as much in control as I would have liked to be. But I’ve said that 10 times, so by now you might understand that I was a little bit, what do you call it, crazy. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did the actors’ willingness make the production a little easier?
LVT: Oh, yes. I was so happy for them, and they helped me, and I think that maybe it was because I showed them that I was down and not so clear, so they helped me even more. I think that’s maybe a good little trick somebody can use. Even if you feel all right, tell the actors you don’t have full power, and they will help you. These actors did, and I was very happy for them.
AVC: Is that usually the biggest determinant in terms of how a film is going to go? Is it that relationship with the actors, or are there technical matters that can be bothersome as well?
LVT: There were a lot of technical matters that I didn’t have control over. As I told you, the style, I was not too happy about. The monumental images, I like very much, but all the stuff that was supposed to be realistic, I was not very happy about. So I had a lot of frustrations, and I was drinking far too much, and I was just trying to survive and be there every day, and this is what came out of it.
AVC: What do you make of the reaction to the film?
LVT: I think it’s been good, on balance. I’m very happy. If there are some people that like the film and some people that do not, that’s fine for me, because I do not intend to make very broad films. I must say, I’m a little surprised by where it goes over well and where it doesn’t go well. I’ve never made a film that more than a hundred people have seen in America, I think. But France was very critical, strangely enough, which I hadn’t thought, because France has always been a very good market for me. And then places like Poland and Russia have been very, very good.
AVC: Do you think it has to do with whether some places are more sensitive about violence, or unwilling to accept some of the images that you present in this movie?
LVT: I think that especially in France, you are very serious about what kind of a film it is. What I’m doing is, I’m actually mixing up the genres a little bit here, so that we put full penetration into a film where full penetration should not be. And I think that is maybe more provoking if you take it very seriously, with how a film of that sort should look.
AVC: What can you say about Planet Melancholia, your recently announced science-fiction feature?
LVT: That I feel melancholic about it. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’re already not feeling good?
LVT: Very melancholic. And I’m in doubt if I can do it in time, but I’m working on it, and I’m using my own melancholia to fill it out with, so we’ll see. I kind of like the idea. Let’s see what happens.