In mid-September, Danish director Lars Von Trier appeared-via a Skype video chat-at a press conference for the New York Film Festival, which screens his controversial new shocker Antichrist. The film, which Von Trier has said was born out of a terrible depression, is the story of an unnamed married couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Dafoe) who take refuge at a cabin in the wilds after their toddler son has died in a fall.
Proposing that “nature is Satan’s church,” Von Trier takes the couple on a spiraling descent into hell, as psyhiatrist Dafoe’s efforts to treat his grief-crippled wife lead to a grisly sequence of events that prompted jeering and walkouts at the movie’s Cannes premiere. No spoilers here, just trust that the film’s graphic extremes may induce squirming and nausea. As such, Antichrist could be taken as a masochistic joke on the audience. But during the press conference, Von Trier seemed quite sincere that it was far from a joke-even if the melancholy Dane was quick with the deadpan one-liners.
At one point, the typical NYFF press conference twit asked a barely audible queston three times in a row, making pains to cite Nietzsche so everyone would know how profound he was. Moderator Dennis Lim then asked Von Trier if he had finally got the queston.
“No … but I don’t need to.”
What follows is a reconstruction of the Q&A (the sound quality of the internet transmission muddily amplified in Walter Reade Theater left much to be desired):
Q: Where did you get the idea for the film?
Lars von Trier: The idea was to make a horror film, which I know it was not really. But I think I started with that. Normally I know what to say but I can’t tell you.
Q: As a provocateur, are you upset if people don’t walk out of your movie? Which I think was the case today.
Von Trier: Then I have failed. [laughter]
Q: What about the casting of Willem Dafoe?
Von Trier: I was trying to cast this film. And he sent me an email asking if I had anything for him. I said, “Yes. Thank God.” That was a miracle.
Q: The sound design of Antichrist reminded me a lot of David Lynch’s films. I wonder if you took any inspiration from him.
Von Trier: I was very, very taken by Twin Peaks. I thought that was fantastic. I’m a big David Lynch fan. A big fan. [Von Trier also acknowledged that Antichrist shares a geographical focus with Lynch’s films.] When we shoot in Europe, it can only look like the Pacific Northwest.”
Q: Could you talk about the Biblical references in the film, to Satan, the Antichrist and Eden?
Von Trier: The title was there very early on and if it [means anything], it is that there is no God. The cabin is called “Eden,” I know. I’m sorry for that. I usually go back through the script and take that shit out.”
Q: Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character’s conflict seems to be that she’s a woman of pleasure and not a mother. Would you agree?
Von Trier: You say she’s not really a mother? You should have seen my mother. This is nothing compared to that.
Q: Since you consider Antichrist a kind of horror film, can you tell us which horror films had the most influence on you?
Von Trier: I’ve seen the old stuff, but at the same time, in my confusion I saw a lot of Japanese horror films. I saw The Ring and Dark Water. I liked them very much, but maybe I liked them not so much as horror, but for the cultural differences. It’s interesting to see images that are definitely not from the West. I like them very much, but I’m not sure if I’m as influenced by them as much as The Shining. Or Rosemary’s Baby. And Carrie was actually a very good film when I saw it.
Q: What makes a horror film stick in your mind?
Von Trier: I think that Psycho is a classic, but not because it was scary. In horror films, the scary things are not what I remember. I remember a style or a mood. The good thing about horror films is that they have a lot of room for strange pictures or whatever. I didn’t find The Shining very scary, I must say. But today, I’m rather involved with it. I think that, as with all other films, it has to do with a personality that you feel in it as you watch what happens in it.
Q: When will you complete the American Trilogy [which began with Dogville and Manderlay]?
Von Trier: That’s the problem about trilogies, that there has to be three of them.
Q: Why did you dedicate the movie to Andrei Tarkovsky?
Von Trier: “When I saw The Mirror, it took me days to get over it. I have stolen so much from Tarkovsky over the years; in order not to get arrested, I had to dedicate the film to him. I should have done it a long time ago.”
Q: The film has an unusual credit for a “misogyny researcher.” What exactly does a misongyny researcher do?
Von Trier: It has mostly to do with the things the female character in the film is going through in her thesis. She did a very good job; I didn’t do very much of it. I’m in a situation where I can only get the fundamental stuff out of it. I don’t know if I learned anything or if I hated women more than I did before. [pause] I like to be with women.