By Utpal Borpujari in Cannes
“Two years ago, I suffered from depression… everything, no matter what, seemed unimportant, trivial. I couldn’t work. Six months later, just as an exercise, I wrote a script. It was a kind of therapy, but also a search, a test to see if I would ever make another film. The script was finished and filmed without much enthusiasm, made as it was using about half of my physical and intellectual capacity.” – Lars von Trier.
The film the Danish provocateur, who has given the world some of the most talked about films, such as Dancer in the Dark, Idiots, Breaking the Waves, Dogville and Manderlay, is talking about is Antichrist, which shook the recent 62nd Cannes Film Festival up like few others have in the past.
von Trier has always been a director who is uncompromising in his approach to his art, like all creative geniuses ought to be. He showed his artistic genius in Breaking the Waves, and then in Dancer in the Dark, which surprisingly got mass approval too. Antichrist, despite its extreme violence, sex and a combination of the two, is what only a creator of original art can produce. Those who found it repulsive are talking about the violent tone of the film, including the scenes of genital mutilation, but scratch the surface, and it is a continuation of von Trier’s critical world view of religion and the society.
The film has divided the world of film critics like we see very rarely, some repulsed by it, some applauding his courage and some left plain confused. The legendary Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun Times has said about it, “I rarely find a serious film by a major director to be this disturbing… Its cruelty is unrelenting. Its despair is profound…. I cannot dismiss this film. It is a real film. It will remain in my mind.” Todd McCarthy of Variety responded to it by saying, “Lars von Trier cuts a big fat art-film fart with ‘Antichrist’”, while Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly has said that “it’s one good-looking, publicity-grabbing provocation, with an overlay of pseudo-Christian allegory thrown in to deflect a reasonable person’s accusations of misogyny.”
In fact, it caused such a stir at the festival that the Ecumenical Jury, comprising Christian film makers, film critics and other film professionals and seeking to honour “works of artistic quality which witnesses to the power of film to reveal the mysterious depths of human beings through what concerns them, their hurts and failings as well as their hopes”, chose it for an “anti-prize” saying it was “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world”.
The director apparently spent a long time researching on misogyny while making this film, and went to the extent of appointing a researcher on misogyny. One of the film’s chapters (it is in four chapters plus the Prologue and Epilogue) is even titled “Despair-Gynocide”, a play on the word “genocide” to bring in the aspect of misogyny (the other chapters are called ‘Pain’, ‘Grief-Chaos Reigns’ and ‘The Three Beggars’).
But going beyond the accusation of being a film that has a misogynist heart, “Antichrist” probably is better described as a film that points in a gruesome way to the existence of evil in every human being. There are enough indicators that von Trier has used in the film for viewers to scurry to find Biblical references, starting with the title itself. The film has only two characters, simply named “He” and “She” (played with extreme courage by Hollywood star William Dafoe and French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, the latter winning the Best Actress award at the festival) and they seem like alter egos of Adam and Eve. The private jungle retreat they go to following the accidental death of their young son (shown in the Prologue part of the film, shot astoundingly in black & white in slow motion – camera by Anthony Dod Mantle of Slumdog Millionaire fame – and with Frideric Handel’s first crusade opera ‘Rinaldo’ aria as the background score making it perhaps one of the most-evocative opening sequences ever in cinema), is simply called “Eden”. It is a world where bizarre things happen. The film conveys in a very von Trierist way that Satan, or the Antichrist, can rear its head in the unlikeliest of environs, even in “Eden”, if there is provocation enough for the evil within the human being.
Though von Trier has not cared to explain, the film seems to strike at the very core of the idea of a “civlised” society. The director says he offers “no excuse” for ”Antichrist”, “other than my absolute belief in the film – the most important film of my entire career!”. Even though his dedication of the film to Russian cinema great Andrei Tarkovsky evoked derisive laughter from a section of the critics, von Trier, as is his wont, visibly remained unmoved. In fact, his press conference opened with a provocative question, “Why did you make this film? Please explain, and don’t do that in two words.” von Trier called it a “strange” question, and replied, “I work for myself and I don’t think I owe anybody an explanation.” And then he added in his very special provocative way, “It was the hand of the god. I am sure I am the best filmmaker in the world though I am not sure if god is the best god in the world.” The violent scenes were merely explained away by the director with a few words. With reference to the female character’s smashing of her male counterpart’s genitals in one scene, followed by self-mutilation in another, he said, “Charlotte took it too far, but I couldn’t stop her.”
That this Danish co-produciton with Germany, France, Sweden, Italy and Poland is set to travel the world is apparent. Apart form Denmark, it has already been sold to Norway, Sweden, France, Poland, Spain, Italy, Germany, Greece, Russia, CIS, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania, Estonia, Korea, India, Brazil, Iran, Middle East, Turkey, Belgium, Lithuania, Netherlands, Finland, Austria and Taiwan. Of course, the version shown in Cannes will not travel to all these countries, and the rumours have it that there is a different, “moderate” version for some of the conservative markets.