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Lars von Trier denies woman-hating in controversial film

  • Story Highlights
  • Pornographic sex and visceral violence in "Antichrist" shocked early audiences
  • Von Trier was accused of misogyny but claims to identify with the female character
  • "Antichrist" stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe as a bereaved couple
  • Von Trier's "The Idiots" (1998) was first mainstream film to show non-simulated sex
By Mairi Mackay
CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- When Danish auteur Lars von Trier presented his gothic thriller, "Antichrist" at Cannes Film Festival last month, it was greeted with cat-calls, jeers and, at times, disbelieving laughter.

"Antichrist," a gothic two-hander starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg provoked shock and outrage at this years' Cannes Film Festival.

Danish auteur Lars von Trier has been making films that shock, provoke and impress for over 40 years.

Filmmakers are expected to give audiences a hard time at Cannes and the two-hander starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a couple grieving the loss of a child is no exception.

But it was the level of pornographic sex and visceral brutality that outraged some and astonished many.

Von Trier was labeled a woman-hater for the wince-inducingly horrific final scene in which female lead Charlotte Gainsbourg takes a pair of rusty scissors to her genitals and performs a DIY clitoridectomy right to camera.

An Ecumenical Jury that normally hands out a prize at Cannes celebrating spiritual values felt moved to award "Antichrist" an "anti-prize" for being "the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world."

"Lars von Trier, we get it," wrote film critic Wendy Ide in UK paper The Times. "You really, really don't like women."

Misogyny couldn't be further from the truth, according to Von Trier, who says he sees himself up there on the screen: "I mostly see myself as the female character," the 53-year-old director told CNN in Cannes. Do you think that Lars von Trier is a woman-hater? Tell us below in the SoundOff box

The director says that he shot the film as a form of therapy after recovering from a serious mental illness. Indeed, a few years ago, it was questionable whether von Trier, who is famously multi-phobic, would be able to make another film.

In the winter of 2006, he fell victim to depression and checked into hospital, the aftermath of which left him "like a blank sheet of paper," he told Danish paper Politiken at the time.

Today, if not fully recovered -- the most terrifying thing he can think of is still "myself" -- he is able to function once more and is receiving cognitive behavioral therapy to help him face up to his psychological issues.

Despite, or perhaps because of, what he describes as his "sensitive" nature, von Trier is one of today's great contemporary European auteurs, considered responsible for spearheading a revival in the fortunes of Scandinavian filmmaking.

"I think that if you are, shall we say, sensitive, then there is a good side and a bad side about it," said von Trier. "The good side is that you can sometimes achieve something creatively. But, of course, it always also allows some of these negative thoughts in." Video Watch Lars von Trier talking to CNN's The Screening Room about "Antichrist" »

He has been nominated for the top prize at Cannes, the Palme D'Or, a staggering eight times, winning once in 2000 for the harrowing operatic tragedy, "Dancer in the Dark," starring Icelandic musician, Bjork, who also took home the Best Actress prize that year.

It is rumored Bjork became so unhinged filming "Dancer in the Dark" she ate her own cardigan. Von Trier claimed each morning she would say "Mr von Trier, I despise you," and spit at him. Photo In pictures: The wierd world of Lars von Trier »

Von Trier has a reputation for being tough on his actors. His friend and long-time collaborator, actor Stellan Skarsgard describes von Trier as "not uncomplex."

"I was scared," admitted Gainsbourg who won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance. "I had heard stories about him as a director ... maybe he's cruel and vicious." But she now describes him as her "guide" and "the greatest director I've ever worked with."

Fueled by his unconventional approach and upbringing, the mythology surrounding von Trier looms large over everything he touches.

Brought up in Copenhagen by bohemian parents who were committed nudists, he suffers from crippling bouts of agoraphobia; and, most famously, a fear of flying. Each visit to Cannes involves a five-day road trip from Denmark to the French Riviera by camper van.

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He has an undeniable egotistical streak: this year at Cannes, he declared, "I am the best filmmaker in the world," and in 1991, when displeased that Cannes jury president Roman Polanski had only awarded "Europa" the runner-up Grand Prix prize, he called him a "dwarf."

He also seems to actively court controversy: 1998 Palme D'Or contender "Dogme #2: The Idiots" grabbed headlines for being the first commercial film to show non-simulated sex on screen, and for von Trier's typically eccentric claim that the best way to prepare actors for sex scenes is to direct in the nude.

But, von Trier says, he has always taken a deeply personal approach to the experimental, often dark and challenging works that he creates. He says he finds it difficult to know how to satisfy the needs of others with his films and so works only for himself.

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"I feel very strongly for satisfying, maybe not my own needs, but my own idea of the film and the images that come from within," he told CNN.

"If I didn't follow my instinct, then I can't work."

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