Danish director Lars von Trier describes his dark thriller Antichrist as the most important film of his career. But when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, audiences greeted it with a chorus of derisive laughter and jeering, while critics labeled it, among other things, misogynistic, offensive and revolting.
It's easy to see why. In the film's opening scene, a couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) have sex while their toddler son falls out of a window to his death. To cope with their grief, they travel to a forest retreat called Eden where they spiral into madness in explicit scenes involving (non-simulated) penetrative sex and (simulated) female genital mutilation. Von Trier spoke with TIME ahead of the film's U.K. premiere on July 24.
You've described Antichrist as the most important film of your career. Why?
This film was what I was clinging to when trying to get out of a depression. It was kind of like a tool. I don't know if you've ever been depressed, but you lie in bed and stare into the wall. It was better to look at some actors.
What motivated you to get on with it?
I needed to make a film that was even more depressed than me. [Laughs.] It was a project I thought of before I got depressed. Then I took a long pause. Then I said, "Now I have to write ten pages every day," just to do something else. It's very hard on your family if you're just not there mentally.
Was your wife happy when you started spending time on the film?
Yes. Oh, yes. She thinks everything I am doing is fantastic. She said, "Oh, you are making this wonderful, wonderful film," and I said, "But you haven't seen it." She was very nice to me.
In one scene the female character saws through her husband's leg, and in another the male character ejaculates blood. Is this the darkest film you've ever made?
Yeah, it could be. [Pause.] Yeah, yeah. Probably. What am I going to do now? I have no idea.
The script calls for Gainsbourg to simulate cutting off her own clitoris. How did you make her feel comfortable with that?
I don't think she was uncomfortable with it. I didn't feel that. Privately she is so shy. You can sit with her for a meal and she doesn't say anything. I asked her once, "How can this very, very shy person do scenes like this?" She said, "Yes, wouldn't you like to know?" I never got an answer for that.
You said that you could only put half of your capacity into the film intellectually and physically. Does that mean it took twice as long?
It means it's only half as good. [Laughs.] There are things I like very much, and things that I'm not too crazy about. But I was very satisfied with the actors. They helped me very much. I'm very grateful.
How did they help you?
They were there for me whenever they were [on set]. Sometimes I had to leave just to get some strength back and they were so understanding.
Are you happy with how the film turned out?
I don't think I lived up to my best. Sometimes I wasn't so happy about the film while we were doing it. But the more I see it and I've seen it about a hundred times it helps. I think the overall look of the film should have been more rough. The film should have been divided into two very stylized parts, with the first featuring monumental pictures. That part I like very much and I think we have succeeded in, but the rest of the film to my taste could have had a more documentary look to it.
At Cannes some people were disgusted that you included shots of penetrative sex and extreme violence. Are they just prudes?
No. I think it's fine to have the capacity to be shocked and to be revolted. That's good. But to me, that it was so graphic was kind of natural.
The film's most graphic scenes will be cut before it is released in some markets. How do you feel about that?
I can understand some countries will have problems showing it because of censorship and I have no problem with them cutting something out as long as you as an audience know that it was done differently in the original. But to me there would be no reason for not showing the sex if they were having sex.
How proud were you when you saw Charlotte win Best Actress at Cannes? Did it redeem the film?
I was not there. I was fleeing to my own country. I know that she didn't feel so good about standing [on stage] alone. But that's how it is.