Thus far, it's all just been so civil. Press conferences have resembled cosy fireside chats, eliciting bonhomie, some interesting but generally tame personal and political confessions. But today the knives were out as Danish enfant terrible was called to account for his latest brutally controversial offering, Antichrist. At its two press screenings the film which contains graphic sex and genital self-mutilation, was loudly jeered and booed by a significant portion of the international press corps. But that was just for openers. At Cannes this afternoon AntiChrist turned into a crucifixion.
One of the press big guns, the popular and usually affable Daily Mail film reporter Baz Bamigboye firmly fired the opening shot, provocatively challenging Von Trier to justify his film. “That's a strange question,“ the usually monosyllabic filmmaker responded. “I don't have very much to say except that I believe you are all my guests – not the other way around. I have made this little film, which I don't have to explain to you or the audience. Von Trier: 1, Press: 0.
Claiming he was “guided by the hand of God” and had no choice in the matter, Von Trier added matter-of-factly: “And I am the best director in the world!”, a refrain he repeated several times. At this point the press divided into two camps: those further baited by the comment, others who treated it as quaintly droll humour. “The start of this film was my depression,” added Von Trier whose battles with the condition have been candidly and widely documented. Making this film was a form of therapy, he admitted. “The routine becomes therapy: that means getting up every day and going to work…”
His dedication of the film to the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky became the butt of more friction. Claiming he had always felt a special kinship/affinity with the classic master, Von Trier noted: “He's a real God. I've seen his films many times. I know he saw my very first film and hated it very much. I felt related to Ingmar Bergman but he did not (reciprocate) the feeling."
Things were taking a surreal turn now.
“But if you dedicate the film to someone no one will feel you steal from him,” the Dane offered by way of explanation. Another scribe suggested amidst much laughter that surely the horror slasher meister Dario Argento was a more apt comparison.
How did the actors survive the rigours of working with such extreme material which includes graphic sex, and gruesome scenes of genital self-mutilation, another dared to ask? Charlotte Gainsbourg, occasionally uncomfortable, replied: “Most difficult was not the sex but the emotion or suffering.” What was it like working with him? “Very intense, not a lot of talking. It was pleasant in a weird way.”
Another hack joined in with: “Did you ever say, 'Hold on Lars, you're going too far?' ” Before she had time to respond Von Trier chimed in: “Charlotte took it too far, but I couldn't stop it (her).”
Willem Defoe appeared much more relaxed: “[On Working with Von Trier:] A dream. We didn't talk a lot but I enjoy his company and his sense of humour. He really doesn't allow any preparation before you shoot but you soon get very flexible and open up to many impulses through which he guides you.”
As for the genital self-mutilation, Von Trier deadpanned : 'We could only shoot it once, you know. For me not to show it would be lying as this is a very dark film about lying, guilt and sex. This is more dream put into a film, not logic.”
After several more assurances that he was the best filmmaker here and that others are overrated, Von Trier ventured: “I see this knowledge that I am the best director as a tool. Others may not say it. I'm not sure I am, but I feel it.' Candour or conceit? Tthe hacks debated.
For a final blow, another journo chipped in: “Is your cinema ahead of its time and how will you reach audiences around the world amidst such a hostile press reaction?”
Some of us (the suckers/ wusses) were becoming concerned that amidst this intense pressure the depressed auteur and former Palme D'Or winner might do himself in right here before us. Now there's a headline. But Von Trier surfaced blithely with a rebut: “I don't believe in thinking about audience when you make a film.” Uh-huh, marketing execs, take note: “I've been treated badly by the press before. It's a good start.” You keeping score??
Possibly, extraneous factors were involved. Von Trier offered that the repetitive one-dish menu for three months straight in a provincial German town where they were shooting, as a possible cause of exacerbating his condition. “If I wasn't depressed before, the same menu every day for three months could certainly do it.”
Ultimately, Von Trier offered no excuses for Antichrist. He was adamant he had absolute faith in the film, even referred to it as the most important of his career.
The crucial question for us in Australia is : despite some exquisite images after this fracas is any distributor game enough to buy the film?
And will Von Trier, a notoriously agitated traveller, after this stoush, be more inclined to stay at home? Or will it simply provoke more fight???
Read our verdict of Antichrist here.