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Frames from Cannes
Lars Von Trier’s Sex and Horror
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
Danish director Lars Von Trier

Cannes loves to shock. And it loves those who shock the world. Danish director Lars Von Trier – who rose to fame with his early "Epidemic" and "Europa" and recaptured the magic of pure cinema with his Dogme 95 which suggested a return to natural lighting, prop-less sets and hand-held photography – came back to the 62nd edition of the Festival with "Antichrist." A tragic tale of a grieving couple who lose their baby son and retire to a life of isolation in a dense forest, the movie is so sexually violent that it could be the perfect anti-dote to Viagra. Graphic and explicit, the film shows the enormous power of women to destroy. Actress Charlotte Gainsbourg is the wife, who not only tries dismembering her screen husband (Willem Dafoe), but eventually mutilates her own sexual organ in a terrifying gush of blood.

Moving between wooded light and shade, swinging between lust and love and shifting between extreme angst and delirious joy, Von Trier's murderous and suicidal saga evoked groans and shrieks from the audiences at Cannes. Nobody walked out of the screening hall: after all this was a master at work. But a master needed not have stooped to such ugly, gut-churning scenes to try and seduce/hold his viewers.

The movie turned out to be an exercise in power-play, titillation and deathly guilt. All these culminated in the macabre and the murderous in a film that takes us back to Von Trier's obsession with suffering women. In his 1996, "Breaking the Waves," we saw the woman disgrace and debase her body only to please her invalid husband. We saw her deprivation and pain in "Dancer in the Dark." "Dogville" and "Manderlay," and the unmistakable undercurrent of religion could not be missed in any of these. Not in 'Antichrist" either.

However, Von Trier's Cannes' Competition entry may well be described as pure sexual horror whose script the helmer wrote as part of his recovery from severe and inexplicable depression. Two years ago, it confined him to bed, and he would often wonder whether to get up at all even for a drink of water. Von Trier says that it can take him up to seven years to come clean of the depression.

The auteur affirms that "horror and porno movies both put the viewer in a state of excitation. In horror, it's fear. In porno, it is lust. The two meet in extreme excitation, where it is sometimes hard to decode what is passive suffering and what is active lust.

"Antichrist is the one that comes closest to a scream. It came at a time in my life when I was feeling really bad. Inspiration is found in your own fear, your own emotions. That is where things come from, but then they become something else. It is not like there is telepathy going on from the director to the audience, as in, Presto, this is the key that will put you in the state I was in. It is not like that. The reason why the horror genre – and I am not even sure that is what this is – is interesting to me is that I get to do so many different kinds of things"

Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman once asked Von Trier why he was so terrible to women. Why was he treating female sexuality as evil, like the serpent in the Paradise that deserved to be punished. "I do not think women or their sexuality is evil, but it is frightening. But this does not mean they should be subjugated, certainly not with violence."

Yet "Antichrist" it is precisely that in which the man overpowers her. It was precisely that in "Breaking the Waves," "Dogville" and others. But of all the films he has had made till now, "Antichrist" takes the cake with its sadistic sex and the sheer horror of it all.



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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.

 

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