BBC TwoNewsnight Review
Page last updated at 16:55 GMT, Wednesday, 20 May 2009 17:55 UK

Seven minute Antichrist challenge

By Paul Morley
BBC Newsnight Review, Cannes

I'm told I have seven minutes with the troubled and troubling film director Lars von Trier to talk about his newest film, Antichrist.

Lars Von Trier
Lars Von Trier assumed the role of "shy but deeply sly poet"

The film features at least seven or eight moments which inspire the kind of question that would take at least seven minutes to ask.

I very much enjoyed his press conference on Monday which started with an angry, appalled attack from the man from the Daily Mail, which basically suggested von Trier is a loathsome foreigner spewing pornographic filth over our, or certainly middle Britain's, pure unspoilt innocence.

He is asked to stand up for himself. Von Trier does not desire to do such a thing, at least not while a finger is being wagged at him.

Sex scenes

The man from the Mail was clearly outraged to the point of exploding with 'Meldrewish' disbelief at those things, events and sex scenes in the film that would take me at least seven minutes to ask a question about.

These things include genital self mutilation performed by the Charlotte Gainsbourg character looking like a cross between a cute fluffy bunny and a deranged Patti Smith.

She had just smashed a rock into the genital area, which is once or twice showed us in full fake reality, of the psychologist played by Willem Defoe, who looks like he knows he's about to be buried alive in a grave next to a crow that cannot be killed.

This is, as you can tell, not a Mail type of film.

In fact for the man from the Mail the whole Cannes festival must seem like the apocalypse in the form of an orgy - largely organised by vile, crazed and immoral non 'Britishers' - and Ms Gainsbourg's brutally discarded clitoris.

Oh, and I wonder how he felt coming across the film where a bear eats a man alive.

Sly poet

At the press conference Charlotte was a delicate flower dreamily but purposefully avoiding all questions about her own feelings concerning the graphic self mutilation.

He uses the conference to practise his comic timing, which is a cocktail of Bergman and Bill Bailey with a citrus slice of elusive Dylan role-playing thrown in

Defoe in the grand Peter O'Toole manner happily didn't know where the hell he was.

Von Trier assumed the role of shy but deeply sly poet who rarely leaves his cork lined room to engage with the demanding human race, here oddly represented by journalists some of whom love him for his cryptic cinematic sensitivity and some of whom despise him for his treatment of woman as grotesque witches, fascinating objects and unpredictable specimens.

He uses the conference to practise his comic timing, which is a cocktail of Bergman and Bill Bailey with a citrus slice of elusive Dylan role-playing thrown in.

He will, during my seven minutes, explain that there is a difference between what he thinks of women in his movies, and what he actually thinks of them, although we have no time to pursue this line of thinking because, after I suggest he is being complacent not to engage in the discussion about his film with a little more contemplative vigour, my seven minutes seems to have shrunk to four.

My seven minutes has been mutilated.

These things, these interviews and press conferences, are treated as an amusing game by von Trier, I am presuming so that he can get through them without feeling so sad and despairing about the human condition he will have to make more films about crows that cannot die, hysterical grieving woman who must be tortured and docile mixed up men who hear foxes talk to them.

Opening question

As one interview finishes the next must begin.

I would like it if as I sit down in front of Lars he is still answering the question from the Swede, Brazilian or Canadian before me, and I must then ask the correct following question.

Then the whole day's interviews done by 20, 30 people could thread together as one long whole piece.

Alas I must start from scratch, and such is the stare of the PR lady, the way she clicks her stop watch to count down my time as soon as I ask my first question, and the resignation, sadness, suppressed rage and charred humour lurking in von Trier's eyes that I fluff the word "objectionable" in my opening question.

Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg
Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg star in Antichrist

I have been rehearsing this all morning knowing that as soon as I am placed in front of the director I must immediately ask a question.

Apparently this must not have anything to do with when the film is coming out in Britain, as it does not yet have a distributor.

Of course, if the man from the Mail has anything to do with it, it never will.

You can tell from the way that he stormed out of the conference when he realised that von Trier is not likely to apologise for his film - actually, he's apparently making a joke of the controversy - that he would like to see the film burnt at the stake in a ceremony hosted by Katie Price.

Long pauses

Lars is looking dinky in a nice little hat, displaying the nervous, wary but quite kind grin of someone who does not necessarily make a habit of requesting that young actresses pretend to snip off their genitals.

My brisk-as-possible questions are greeted with long pauses, and this does not seem fair as it will waste much of my valuable time.

As I anticipated he is not planning on being drawn into any considered thinking about the questions raised by his film, which, as far as he is concerned, is the equivalent of some paint splashed on a canvas.

"I have not ever come across the same fuss about paint splashed on a canvas" he twinkles.

He uses the old interviewee switch around when I question him on his feelings for woman, that this film only goes to confirm those views many have that he must hate women.

"Do you think I hate women?" he asks, and it's my turn to pause, because, of course, nothing is as simple as it needs to be for the purposes of a seven, or four, minute interview.

The PR lady starts to point fingers in my direction indicating limited time left as soon as I started to ask questions. Japan, or Germany, or the Isle of Man are waiting for their turn.

I stand my ground and ask more questions even after she has triumphantly clicked time out on her stopwatch, but I manage to ask whether the fox that talks in Antichrist, a special effect relation of the threadbare stuffed rat used in the health inspector episode of Fawlty Towers, might ruin whatever spell the movie may or may not be casting.

A final little twinkle and as Lars answers, something about "a shamanic effect", I am gently but firmly ushered away from the Danish director.

No doubt we will never meet again.

Perhaps he carries on answering and the Belgian, Egyptian or Albanian interviewer after me has to carry on the interview, which now involves the symbolic properties of a poorly modelled talking fox in neurotic, highly perverted, desperately memorable avant garde cinema.

You can see Paul's interview with Lars Von Trier on Newsnight Review's Cannes Special on Friday at 11pm

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