Seconds after the world premiere of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist at Cannes in May, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance was already the stuff of legend—and already providing further fuel for those who believe von Trier hates women: clitoridectomy by rusty garden tool, testicular smashing, feverish masturbation in the woods. The 38-year-old actress rightly won the Best Actress Award at the festival, not just for these extreme actions, but for the far more challenging work of sustaining the grief, guilt, rage, and self-hatred that consumes her character (listed in the credits simply as “She”) after the death of her only child, as her husband, played by Willem Dafoe (“He”), tries to cure her mental illness.
Though the Paris-based Gainsbourg—the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg, the infamous singer, writer, actor, and director who died in 1991, and actress-singer Jane Birkin, making her own appearance at the festival in Jacques Rivette’s latest—has worked steadily in films (recently Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep and Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There) since she was 13 (and released two albums, with a third expected next year), Antichrist is her greatest achievement and should be remembered as one of cinema’s most fearless performances. On the occasion of Antichrist‘s U.S. premiere, at the New York Film Festival, I reached Gainsbourg in Brisbane, Australia, near where she’s shooting her next film, Julie Bertucelli’s The Tree, to discuss going all the way.
Could you tell me about your first meeting with Lars von Trier? How did he describe Antichrist and your character?
We didn’t discuss much. He had had a problem with another actress [Eva Green], and so I read the script while I was on holiday in the south of France. I loved the script, not really understanding every part of it—I had many questions. I read it as sort of a horror movie, with all the drama that’s implied. So I just traveled to Copenhagen and met with him. I felt too normal, in the sense that he kept asking me if I had had panic attacks in the past and what my fears were. The more he asked about what was wrong with me, the more I wanted to say that I was completely normal [laughs] and that I had no real fears. He seemed so perturbed himself—it was maybe a reaction I had. I remember calling my mother, saying, “Ah, well, I won’t get this part. Too bad.” A week later, he called and said he wanted me to do it. So it was a big surprise. His biggest preoccupation was that he wanted to know if I was really prepared to go all the way. And I was.
Had you been a fan of von Trier’s films?
Yes, especially The Idiots. I think that’s also what led me into being really willing to go all the way, because I knew what an artist he was.
Did von Trier mention that he’d seen any of your films?
He never said anything?
No, he didn’t say anything. I think he said that he had seen Todd Haynes’s film, but he didn’t talk about me. He just said, “What a weird film.” [Laughs.] So I didn’t even know if he knew I was an actress, and I didn’t dare ask him anything because I don’t know how I would have reacted if he’d said he didn’t like me in a film. He was capable of anything, so I thought I’d be better off not knowing.
Were you surprised by how hostile the response was at Antichrist‘s press conference in Cannes? When von Trier was booed as he entered the room?
During the shoot, I never really thought about how people would react, but I did think about it afterward. Some of the producers said, once we knew we were going to Cannes, “Prepare yourself. It’s not going to be easy.” Lars enjoys having that kind of reception, but I had never been through that. When we did go to Cannes, I was expecting the worst. I thought people would throw things at me. Then they told us the press screening had been quite violent, so entering the press conference—it wasn’t a total surprise. That first man [Daily Mail reporter Baz Bamigboye, who demanded that von Trier justify why he made Antichrist] was a surprise because it was so . . . I had the impression that we had killed someone.
What do you make of the charges of misogyny?
That’s not what I believe the film is about. Lars does portray his own fear of women and the sexuality of women. It’s not at all a hatred against women—it’s really quite the opposite. He’s sincere in the way that he’s talking about his own fears, his own questions, but he’s not accusing women. Of course, “She” has some kind of an evil part to her, but for me, it had a lot to do with the grieving and going into madness. And then the act of physically cutting herself was the extreme of madness and just trying, with her guilt, to—there’s no way of coping with it, so how do you hurt yourself in the most horrific way?
It seems that most of von Trier’s animosity is directed at Willem Dafoe’s psychotherapist character.
But Lars does have a real respect for psychotherapy—well, for his [psychotherapist], anyway. He was always saying, “That’s what my therapist said you should say.” [Laughs.] I needed to think that Willem’s character was not the bad one, but I had to blame him. What did help me a great deal—and this is also another answer to people who say Lars has such a bad view of women—was that I did have the feeling that I was portraying Lars. All the panic attacks—those were Lars’s, so it was easy to make the link. In his own fragility, Lars was the female character.
Did he go into detail about what it’s like to experience a panic attack?
My biggest fear before we started shooting was those panic attacks. I had never experienced one myself, and, according to people who’ve had them—well, there’s nothing like it. It’s very hard to describe them apart from the fact that you think you’re going to die. The external aspects of it, which I needed, are very hard to find. Lars tried to show me some videos on the Internet of people having panic attacks on airplanes. But you can’t see much—it’s very hard to analyze. I think what you feel on the inside is 1,000 percent more than what people really see. And so he was able to be very generous in his way of describing his own experiences and to be a real guide during the shoot, because I had no idea if I was going too far or not far enough.
Was there anything you said “no” to doing?
Yeah. Before we started to shoot, he said there would be three inserts with porn actors. I was OK with that, but in one shot, he asked me if I would mind being with that porn actor just to see my face come up on one part of the screen and the man’s erect penis. I didn’t have to touch him or anything. If I wasn’t willing to do it, he was already prepared to do it in a different way. I said I didn’t mind. And I was in this little cabin with this guy who was not Willem, and I felt so awkward. I shrieked like a little girl. [Laughs.] I realized that was my limit—I didn’t want to do it.
You have been associated with provocative material ever since you were 12, when you sang “Lemon Incest” with your father. Is there something about taboos that has always appealed to you?
Not in the sense [of thinking of “Lemon Incest” as] provocative—not on my side, because I was so young. But after that, I did do The Cement Garden [1993, directed by Andrew Birkin, Gainsbourg’s uncle], which also has to do with incest between a brother and sister. It’s not that I’m attracted to that kind of material, but I find that those are subjects . . . Well, it’s difficult to say that you understand it because you don’t want to accept it, but there is something that I did find beautiful in those stories. I wouldn’t refuse material just because it has to do with something taboo.
You’ve been acting in movies since you were a teenager. Do you think that Antichrist and the Cannes award will open new avenues to you as a performer?
I’m not sure. I don’t know what it really does. I’m very proud of having won that, and it was a wonderful, exciting time, and really great. I’m just hoping people will see the film and love it as I love it—well, as I loved the experience, anyway.
Antichrist plays at the New York Film Festival October 2 and 3 and opens in theaters October 23.