Report From Cannes

Report from Cannes: Lars von Trier's Dark 'Antichrist' Gets Mixed Reviews

A look at the premieres and other key moments from this year's Cannes Film Festival.
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

CANNES, France, May 18 -- As any veteran of the Cannes Film Festival will tell you, it isn't Cannes without a controversy.

After a relatively calm, uncrowded and decorous four days of the festival, a provocative and polarizing film finally arrived here from the most reliable purveyor of such fare, Danish auteur Lars von Trier. At Sunday night's first press screening of "Antichrist," a graphic, Gothic psychosexual chamber piece starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, the audience -- famous the world 'round for booing even the world's most revered filmmakers -- delivered its first audible thumbs down, although the reaction wasn't unanimous. Laughs, applause and those notorious boos were heard in about equal measure after the film, which begins as a gorgeously photographed examination of a grieving couple's troubled marriage (think a high-end version of the HBO series "In Treatment") and ends in a bloody denouement involving both male and female castration, physical torture and -- the final blow to many in the audience Sunday evening -- a dedication to the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. It wasn't clear what upset the viewers more: von Trier's full-frontal portrayal of sadistic violence or his sheer artistic pretension.

At Monday's news conference for the film, at which the director, stars and producer Meta Louise Foldager were gathered, the room was packed and buzzing. Journalists had clearly come loaded for bear -- or at least the talking fox that shows up midway through "Antichrist," growling the words "Chaos reigns" in a moment that sent the audience into howls of derisive laughter.

The goriest parts of the film were outrageous even for von Trier, who is known for putting his characters, especially women, through hell on screen. When a clearly outraged British journalist commenced the proceedings by demanding that the director justify what he had just perpetrated on the audience, von Trier was unruffled. "I don't think I have to justify -- " he began.

"Yes, you do," his interlocutor interrupted. "This is the Cannes Film Festival, and you brought your film here, and you have to explain why you made it."

"I don't have very much to say," von Trier finally said after a brief kerfuffle of interruptions and counter-interruptions subsided. "I think it's a very strange question that I have to excuse myself. You are all my guests. It's not the other way around. That's how I feel. I work for myself, and I do this little film that I'm now kind of fond of. I haven't done it for a review or for an audience."

That pretty much sums up the ethos of von Trier, who has been bringing films to Cannes since 1984, when he won a technical grand prize for "The Element of Crime." He won two jury prizes, for "Europa" and "Breaking the Waves" (which won a grand prize). In 2000, he won the coveted Golden Palm for the musical "Dancer in the Dark," starring Björk.

It's probably a long shot that he'll win top prizes for "Antichrist," especially considering this year's jury is half women (it's headed by French actress Isabelle Huppert). But if von Trier is to be believed, things like adulation, critical approval and accessibility to the audience don't matter. This is, after all, the man who once said that a film "should be like a stone in your shoe."

"It's quite important that it hurts you," he said Sunday afternoon at the Hotel du Cap, where he stays whenever he comes to Cannes. "I make my movies to provoke myself. I take a subject and a point of view that I do not share, and then I defend that."

In "Antichrist," the view he seems to be defending has to do with men and women, culture and nature, rationality and chaos and, ultimately, the voracious, even murderous power of women to give and withhold life. (In his portrayal of a monstrous mother, von Trier is part of a disconcerting trend at the festival, where such films as "Fish Tank," "Precious," "Taking Woodstock" and "Mother" have all featured varying degrees of erstwhile Medeas.)

Whether "Antichrist" will find a buyer at Cannes is still unclear (the trade publications Variety and Hollywood Reporter both panned it Monday morning). But von Trier's penchant for driving even his most ardent admirers to their breaking points might not keep him at the Hotel du Cap (where rates start at just under $1,000 a night) forever. For pointers on how to navigate a vigorous art-film career, he might have sat in on the news conference just before his, where the British realist director Ken Loach answered questions about his new film, "Looking for Eric." Loach, 72, has worked with fierce independence and adherence to political and aesthetic principles throughout his career, including such gritty working-class dramas as "Kes" and "Riff-Raff." In recent years, he's also proven remarkably supple, in 2006 directing the historical drama "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" (which won that year's Golden Palm) and this year arriving with perhaps the most unexpected film of his career: a sweet, observant comedy starring former Manchester United forward Eric Cantona.

In "Looking for Eric," which elicited laughs, cheers and sustained applause at Monday morning's press screening, Cantona stars as himself, acting as a sort of spirit guide for a down-and-out Londoner named Eric Bishop (Steve Evets). With Cantona's help, Bishop comes to terms with a difficult family life and reunites with the love of his life. Meanwhile, Cantona imparts life lessons by way of banal-sounding pronouncements ("Trust your teammates; without them you are lost") that acquire surprisingly deep meaning with the help of flashbacks to actual Man U games.

As a generous burst of energy, hope and healing, "Looking for Eric" was just the antidote to the dire proceedings of "Antichrist" the night before. And it was all the sweeter for having come from a filmmaker better known for dour subjects and an austere style. "We've done a couple of films that were really quite tough," Loach explained at the news conference, referring to his longtime collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, and producer Rebecca O'Brien. "We thought it might be nice to do a film with a smile on our faces. You can say that a comedy is a tragedy with a happy ending. We felt that what we had to do was to play the story with truth. . . . This is a story that could have gone either way. Sometimes it's funny, and sometimes it's sad. But if you play the truth, it's okay."

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