Lars von Trier's is one of cinema's most divisive and controversial figures, sometimes seeming to court controversy for its own sake.
Looking for trouble: Lars von Trier
Nobody in the film world causes trouble quite like Lars von Trier. The maverick Danish director has an ability to annoy and amaze like no other filmmaker working today. At first glance he seems to revel in controversy, whether it be writing manifestos like Dogme 95 that asked filmmakers to make movies without the use of the latest technological innovations, or appearing in films such as The Five Obstructions, where he depicts himself as a provocateur, or indeed in his many films such as Breaking the Waves and Dogville where his female characters are pushed to do the most extraordinary things. But, even with this track record, no one was quite prepared for von Trier's latest adventure, Antichrist, a two-hander starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg that divided audiences in Cannes.
At the official black-tie screening, the 51-year-old Danish director broke with etiquette when he left the world premiere before the end credits finished rolling, choosing not to wait to hear the acclaim of the crowd. This was a big shock, even by von Trier's standards, as the festival has always treated the director with the greatest respect, showing many of his films and awarding him the coveted Palme d'Or in 2000 for his extravagant musical Dancer in the Dark. This year his female star, Gainsbourg, won the Best Actress prize.
Gainsbourg plays a character called "She" who suffers a breakdown when her young son dies in an accident. She blames herself for his death. She is in hospital for a month being treated for depression with medication, when her husband, a therapist, desperate to help his wife recover, decides to try and treat her - an action that sends her spiralling into madness. This is von Trier's first attempt to make a straight horror film and, to put it mildly, it is not for the squeamish.
Depression has been a big theme for the Danish director recently, for he has been suffering with the condition. The press notes for the film even talked about his visits to a psychiatrist. At one point he admits that he didn't know if he would be able to make a film again. He argues that writing it was almost like giving himself a dare to see if he could still direct a motion picture. Although, the auteur says that he didn't see writing about the illness as cathartic. He says: "It's more the routine of making a film every day, the getting up in the morning very early, going to work, concentrating on the film that helps. I don't believe the subject helps anybody, that by putting misery on the screen in any way gets rid of the nasty things in yourself? I don't believe that."
His struggle with depression also raises the question as to why he chose to have it affect the female rather than the male lead in the film. Von Trier says that the answer is simple. "I think I've always been the female character in all my films, you know. The men tend to just be stupid, to have theories about things and to destroy everything, so it was kind of natural. But the therapy that [Dafoe's character] practises is the kind of therapy I've gone through for a couple of years."
The great thing about von Trier is that he gets excited by the prospect of annoying people. He is like a schoolboy taking pleasure in making his teacher flustered. As such, he quickly adds: "I had a little call from my therapist [after I showed her the film] and she was not too happy - mainly she was worried about her future income because after watching this film people may run away from that type of therapy."
He then checks himself and explains what a hard job being von Trier's therapist must be. "It's really difficult to do anything for me. I've had anxiety since I was six years old so it's really a hard job, but I appreciate what she's been doing." The big problem for von Trier is not getting in touch with his feminine side, but dealing with his masculinity. This is Dafoe's downfall in the film. "We all have our little problems with that," the director says, wryly.
Von Trier addresses similar themes that rage in the movies of Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky: the battles between man, nature and science. His latest film is dedicated to Tarkovsky. In fact, the Russian filmmaker is one of the few directors who von Trier, who cheekily called himself "the best director in the world" at a press conference in Cannes, admits to liking. He says of the director of Stalker and Mirror: "When I first saw Mirror it was on a small TV set but I was in ecstasy - I've seen his films many times. I know he saw my first film and hated it, which for me is fine. He is the generation before me, but I feel he is related to me. I feel related to Bergman too, but he didn't feel related to me, either."
When I tell von Trier that it took me a long time to get to grips with Tarkovsky and that I don't always understand all of his films, he frankly replies: "Neither did I." He also admits that he doesn't like all of Tarkovsky's films. As he explains: "What is very interesting is that all his best films were shot in the Soviet Union. When he came to the West he kind of lost his sting. I can't remember what his last films were called at this moment, but they were made in Italy and Sweden."
Von Trier also has a big fear of travelling. He never gets on planes. He travelled to Cannes in a camper van and receives special permission to park the vehicle in the staff car park of the Hotel du Cap. "I am a very bad traveller," he says. "I hate being somewhere else. We shot Antichrist in Germany for three months. It was tough to live in a small hotel when you've seen the menu once, then again, and again - if I wasn't depressed before?"
One of the big talking points of von Trier's latest work is when a fox turns to the camera and growls the words: "Chaos reigns." It is a sure sign that we have now entered a fantasy world. In fact, it is easy to imagine him in the edit suite laughing his head off, knowing that such a device was sure to get a negative reaction from a large part of his audience. "Oh, yes," he says. "Actually, all the animals are something that I have encountered, or have found. I do something called shamanic journeys. There is a special drum rhythm that you have for going into a trance, then you go onto these mental journeys. It's a lot of fun. You go and talk to these animals. You are supposed to be able to find your own power animal when you go into these dreams."
The director reveals that he first went on one of these journeys when a friend was ill with cancer. He had seen some foxes in the hospital garden when on a visit. He then offered to go on a spiritual journey in the hope that this would help her. When he went into a trance the first animal he encountered was a fox. This is a film that is all about the subconscious. "I like films that are like this," von Trier says. "I have been clearer and more logical in other films. This one is more like a dream."
The big debate that always arises when you speak about von Trier is whether or not he is a misogynist. He has fallen out with so many of his leading ladies, including Nicole Kidman and Björk, that it's a surprise any woman in the business would want to work with him. But his relationship with Gainsbourg remains strong. He says of the actress: "She's very shy and modest. It's a tough role but she told me that she believed in the project, believed in me and she did it. I think to work with male actors is different in that sense because there is much more of a fight for control and I believe, maybe I'm wrong, but some of my experiences with actresses come from the fact that they believe in me." He is careful not to say whether these experiences are the good or bad ones, but reading between the lines, it would appear that he means both.
Conjecture and motivations aside, the casting of his latest film is superb - a fact that is not lost on von Trier. "In their careers, they have both shown that they are ready and able to play challenging parts, and that they could do something like this," he says of Dafoe and Gainsbourg. But the big question remains: is the audience really ready to see the Dane do a full-blooded horror film? Von Trier just sits and smiles.