Madness, sex and mutilation in Danish shocker at Cannes

19th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

Critics gasped, squirmed and jeered during a preview of the movie, but there were both cheers and boos from the Cannes film crowd at the premiere in this visually exquisite film.

Cannes -- Denmark's master of scandal Lars Von Trier stunned Cannes on Monday with his new film "Antichrist," a thriller on love and madness littered with graphic close-ups of sex and mutilation.

Critics gasped, squirmed and jeered during a preview of the movie, but there were both cheers and boos from the Cannes film crowd at the premiere in this visually exquisite film.

Willem Dafoe and France's Charlotte Gainsbourg deliver powerful performances as a couple who retreat to an isolated log cabin to try to overcome grief at the death of their baby son.

It opens with a slow-motion close-up of sexual penetration, veers into a dramatic escalation of violence, and climaxes with an excruciating shot of Gainsbourg slicing off her clitoris with a pair of scissors.

"This is a very dark dream about guilt and sex and stuff," the 53-year-old director told a packed and rather hostile news conference after the premiere of the often hard-to-watch film, one of 20 competing for the top Palme d'Or award.

Von Trier, who won a Palme d'Or in Cannes for "Dancer in the Dark" in 2000, says he shot the film as a form of therapy after having a mental breakdown two years ago, and says it is the most important of his career.

Challenged on why he chose to make such a visually violent work, he fired back: "I don't think I owe anyone an explanation. I made it for myself."

"It's the hand of God," he added provocatively with a grin. "And I am the best director in the world!"

Gothic imagery, references to medieval witch hunts and ghoulish hallucinations of talking animals combine to create a hauntingly gothic atmosphere throughout the film.

"It was unbearable. I hated it. It's misogynistic, and there is going to be a scandal," Victor Saint-Macary, a project developer at Gaumont film studios, said after Monday's premiere.

But others like Marc Bahud, who runs a Swiss cinema, were blown away.

"It was fascinating, a thing of total beauty," he said. "It's very, very twisted. There are some very hard things. But that's the way it is. It is the exploration of a tortured soul."

Dafoe plays Gainsbourg's psychotherapist husband in the film -- neither character is named -- who tries to help her cope with her mourning, but who is dragged down with her as she slides from grief into insanity.

In the gore-fest that ensues, a transfigured Gainsbourg subjects him to ordeals that include having his genitals smashed with a wooden plank, and his leg hand-drilled through and bolted to a millstone.

The 37-year-old Gainsbourg, who masturbates under a tree in one of many explicit scenes, said the film's emotional content, with a focus on grief, motherhood, cruelty and madness was far tougher than the blood and gore.

"The hardest part wasn't necessarily the sex and nudity, it was scenes with emotion and suffering that felt the most raw."

Both she and Dafoe said they were deeply affected by the making of the film, which was shot without any rehearsals.

"It was quite an experience -- very intense, not a lot of talking, and something that I won't live again," said the soft-spoken actress.

Dafoe, no stranger to controversy after starring in "The Last Temptation of Christ", said the shoot was an "intense physical and emotional atmosphere".

His part was "clearly one of the most testing roles that I've had," he told AFP after the screening.

Asked why he included the film's most disturbing scene -- the close-up shot of genital mutilation -- Von Trier replied: "For me not to show it would be lying. It came in naturally."

Von Trier insists he is not a misogynist, but that he finds female sexuality "frightening".

He dedicated the work to the late Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, maker of films shot through with Christian and metaphysical imagery, who he said was "truly a God."


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