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Sunday 19 November 2017

Antichrist was Lars' 'fun' way of treating depression

Despite its controversial reputation, Antichrist is just a critique of a hip therapy -- or so the film's director told Evan Fanning

Charlotte Gainsbourg stars in Lars von Trier's latest movie 'Antichrist'
Charlotte Gainsbourg stars in Lars von Trier's latest movie 'Antichrist'

Evan Fanning

THE press notes for Danish director Lars von Trier's latest film Antichrist contained a so-called "Director's Confession" which explained that the film was written as a form of therapy in the midst of a deep depression when "everything, no matter what, seemed unimportant, trivial."

Ever the difficult customer, von Trier now disputes the wording which says it is a confession by saying "some smart PR guy put this on. I wouldn't call it a confession. All the time I'm telling everybody how neurotic I am. That's not a confession, it's a comment."

What is clear is that it's appropriate that the notes for the media are some attempt at an explanation of the movie, as it has been the media's reaction to the film, since it was first screened earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, which has earned it arguably more column inches than any art house film in history.

Antichrist has been called "the sickest film ever made", "an abomination" and "easily one of the biggest debacles in Cannes film history". Von Trier himself has been labelled a misogynist.

Just last week the Daily Mail ran an article bemoaning the decision of the censors in the UK to pass the film with an 18-certificate. The article was headlined "What does it take for a film to get banned these days?" and Antichrist was said to plumb "new depths of sexual explicitness, excruciating violence and degradation". In true Daily Mail fashion, the journalist calling for the film to be banned, Christopher Hart, then confessed to not having actually seen it.

Speaking at a question and answer session in London last week following a preview screening of the film, 53-year-old von Trier, who was appearing via a Skype link-up as his various anxieties prevent him from flying, seemed slightly bemused and unsettled by the furore surrounding the film.

But why is it creating such fuss? Antichrist is the story (in so far as there is any plot) of a couple known only as He and She, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who, following the death of their young child, travel to a remote cabin in the midst of a forest known (not very subtly) as Eden. Here, Dafoe, a therapist, attempts to "cure" his partner of the intense grief she is experiencing which has led to borderline psychosis.

Most of what has earned the film its shocking headlines centres on graphic scenes of genital mutilation. These scenes, while headline grabbing, also do the film something of a disservice as they have largely drawn attention away from other sequences in which von Trier touches on, although never adequately explores, topics much more deserving of comment than the brutal art-porn.

It is, however, some of these more psychological excursions, exploring the nature of the relationship between man and woman, which have led to von Trier being labelled a woman-hater.

Listening to him speak, you get the impression that he enjoys some of the controversy he has notoriously provoked in the media with films such as The Idiots, Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, although the accusations of misogyny seem to rattle him slightly more than the rest.

"The film is more like an investigation into all the forbidden things," he explains. "My mother was a feminist and the head of the Danish feminist movement at one time, so all the different ideas [in the film] are forbidden dogmas about women. It's normal to go in and question your parents' ideas."

It is put to him that these are recurring themes, not just in this film, but throughout his body or work. "They are all fiction films, so they are not statements of how women are. They are more statements of how women or female characters are inside my imagination."

He admits that he was "not very conscious" when he wrote and made Antichrist and strayed from his usual practice of revisiting the script again and again in order to make sure it was working in the way he would have wished. Nor, he says, has making the film helped him overcome his depression in any way.

"I was not very aware of what I was doing when I wrote the script, but scriptwriting has always been fun to me and one of the things you have to do when you are depressed is to find a little something that can make you relax and feel the tiniest bit of joy in life.

"To me it's very much a film about anxiety. One way that you can write scripts is that you can take your own personality and you put it into some characters and that is exactly what I've done here. I feel a part of both of them, maybe mostly the female, but it's a way of writing, I'm told."

For all its gruesome scenes of genital mutilation, Antichrist and von Trier himself are a psychologist's dream. It's easy to assume that his mother features heavily in his sessions. On her deathbed, she is said to have told him that the man he understood to be his father was, in fact, not.

He has been in various forms of mental therapy since he was six years old and this film, he says, is a reaction to the treatment he was receiving for the depression he's suffered over the past two years. He even screened it for his therapist who was less than pleased with the final result.

"I have been undergoing this thing called cognitive therapy for some years, and the therapy he [Dafoe] is doing in the film -- in a very bad way -- is cognitive therapy. The very modern thing about these people is that Freud is dead and has no significance any more, which I don't know. I know a little about Freud but I would not be able to say if he is dead or not.

"The whole thing about this cognitive therapy is very sarcastic from my point of view. I've been undergoing a lot of it and at a certain point when you find out the logic of this treatment you get disappointed."

The title, von Trier says, comes from the Friedrich Nietzsche book The Antichrist which was published shortly before Nietzche's own mental breakdown. "All my life I've had this little book by Frederich Nietzsche on my table and I've never been able to go through more than one page. But it was there on the table, his Antichrist, so I thought it was kind of an inspiration. It's a good title."

The likelihood is that we will never know the full truth about Antichrist. If we accept that von Trier was in the midst of a deep depression when he wrote the film, then the truth of what his feelings are and what his intentions were, are wrapped up deep within that.

If he is aware of his real feelings, towards women and others, it may be that his illnesses provide him with a convenient blanket to hide behind. When asked outright whether he hates women he says, in a typically cryptic manner, "I don't think so. It would be like hating elephants. There's no logic to it. There are kind elephants and there are unkind elephants. Even the unkind elephants I actually like very much."

Antichrist is now showing in the IFI and Lighthouse cinemas in Dublin

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