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Playing Lars

Charlotte Gainsbourg discovered her limits while filming "Antichrist" with Lars von Trier - a man who has much in common with her father Serge. She talks about the gruelling but rewarding experience with Martina Meister.

Frankfurter Rundschau: Charlotte, did you emerge from "Antichrist" unscathed?

Charlotte Gainsbourg
: I think I did, yes. At least that's what I try to tell myself. But of course my role was disturbing and unsettling. During the filming I spent two months covered in blood and running through the woods screaming. It was like being in a trance. I dreamed a lot during this time but I also enjoyed my character.

You mean that there was something pleasurable in playing this extremely aggressive role?

Absolutely. I really enjoyed all the screaming. It was as if I'd been given a license to go through a crisis for two months and completely let myself go. You don't normally get such freedom in real life. Not even children are allowed to explode like that. I really let off steam in this role.

How could you stand being in mourning for so long?

Only by breaking out of it. Otherwise I would never have been about to keep going for two months. But I was happy to shut myself away in the atmosphere of the film. We were completely cut off from the world in a forest near Cologne. We were filming in this beautiful nature but we were living in a brand new hotel that looked onto a golf course. It was all very sterile. There was no lobby, no reception. At the end of the day I would go straight up to my room. There was something euphoric about my role, but I was completely exhausted after two months.

Everyone was describing "Antichrist" as a breaking point in your career. Do you feel like that, that there was a "before" and "after"?

When I returned from Cannes, everyone congratulated me and was excited with me, which I found very touching. It was like I'd won the World Cup! But actually the "after" had started well before that. I'd started working on a new film even before Cannes. Without really taking time for myself, to catch my breath. Of course while we were making "Antichrist", I had the feeling that the next film would be difficult. I knew I was playing an extreme role and that it would probably be a while before someone asked me to go that far again. I had to show extreme sensibility, extreme sorrow but also extreme aggressiveness, all mixed up with horror, blood and sex.

It was the first time you have worked with Lars von Trier...

Yes and it was a revelation for me. It was also a meaningful encounter with a person who, though I still don't really know him, feels very familiar and I feel very close to.

Because he reminds you of your father?

I'm sure that played a major role. His way of being provocative and extremely fragile at the same time. And unpredictable. Although my father was less unpredictable than Lars. He had a sense of humour that I knew very well, he was provocative – then of course there was the alcohol on top, which amplified everything. Lars had similar tendencies and he reminded me of my father in that respect. But he did strike me as less stable. There were days when he was feeling so terrible that we were worried that he'd call the whole thing off. But that's where the similarities end, except that in some scenes I was only able to go as far as I did because I wanted to please him – just as I wanted to please my father.

Where others use provocation to push their parents away, you take the provocative route to get closer to them. It seems that this role might have a lot to do with your parents?

During the filming I was certainly having long text message conversations with my mother. I felt as if I was crossing a boundary. I was like a child who wants to provoke a reaction. It also involved hurting myself to some extent, but basically it was fun. Perhaps because for once I didn't want to be that sweet, good little girl that everyone thinks I am. I wanted to surprise them, show what I'm capable of. Prove myself. All the way through the filming I felt like a stand-in, because the film was not written for me and Eva Green was meant to play the role of the woman. I felt like an impostor from the start and I had to show what I was capable of, I had to prove to the others that I really deserved the role.

People have accused Lars von Trier of making a misogynist film because he shows this incredibly sensitive and extremely aggressive woman who is burnt like a witch at the end. Can you relate to these accusations?

No. As far as I'm concerned the woman could just as well have been a man. During the filming I kept imagining that I was playing Lars. I kept thinking of all the panic attacks that I have ever had to play. I can't relate to what people said afterwards about his so-called misogyny. Because everything that he inflicts on the female character, he is going through himself. Of course his fear of women is in there, his fear of his mother, his relationship to children. Although he's a man, there's a close connection between him and this woman, through the pain. She experiences what he experiences. Which is why I never saw him as someone looking on from outside, but as an ally, who led me through the role and understood me.

But can you understand why the film has had such a mixed reception?

To be honest, I expected as much. But most of all I was expecting the audience in Cannes to react in disgust. But the opposite was the case. It was film critics who reacted badly, not the audience. The press is clearly much more reactionary by comparison. But I hope this won't be the case in the rest of the world.

The question is whether the violence in "Antichrist" is gratuitous?

Absolutely not. Lars is not someone who provokes for the sake of it. He has to provoke himself, to push himself forward as an artist. This might seem abstract at times, or pointless, because he doesn't always answer the questions he raises. Everything is very instinctive with him and he can't or doesn't like to explain the film.

In Cannes one journalist really took him to task, demanding that he justify himself...

I was shocked by this, that it's obviously no longer possible to make a film without having to justify yourself. There are so few directors who try to express themselves in their films. The majority just goes with the mainstream and produces stereotypes, easy films which make people laugh, but god forbid that they should be made to think or even shocked. Times are obviously so hard that we are only supposed to make films that distract us from our lives.

What message do you think the film has?

I'm not good at analysing but with Lars I have the feeling that the woman is a sort of superhuman with superhuman powers who is standing on a pedestal, and he has to tear her down at the end. I don't find it hard to believe that women have a different relationship to nature, that they can feel guilty when they have to chose between their roles as mother and sexual subject. Of course the film doesn't provide any answers to these questions, even if it shows that this woman mistreated her child beforehand, that she was a bad mother in some way, and in the end she is found guilty and has to die. But these are things that exist. Why is it reprehensible to show this madness?

Was being a mother yourself helpful for playing the role?

No. I kept my children out of it and I didn't want to think about them. The feelings of mourning, loss, pain are entirely invented. Of course you always use what you have lived yourself and you draw on your own experiences. But I wanted to avoid putting images from my own life onto these feelings.

Is that really possible?

Yes, it's no problem. While making this film I felt for the first time that you don't necessarily have to draw on your own experience for certain scenes. The things come by themselves, unconsciously, without you having to summon them. Normally I have a hard time playing scenes where I have to cry. But this time, although I had to cry the whole time, I didn't let myself worry about it and just went with the moment. Strangely enough tears come of their own accord, if you are honest with yourself.

Does that mean that you find it easier to do sex scenes than to cry on camera?

Yes it's harder to open up your soul than to show your body. Sex scenes are just body scenes where you might feel shame or embarrassment at showing your naked body or touching a naked body that you don't know. But you're always very aware that it's something artificial that won't really affect you. Sometimes the people involved are so embarrassed that it becomes funny again. I remember before we started filming, Lars undressed and so did Willem Dafoe. Just to get the embarrassment over and done with. I didn't want to. But once you've crossed that boundary, it's really not so bad.

How do you feel when you see your naked body on the screen?

I don't think I'm beautiful, if that's what you mean. I'm too skinny. It's not a woman's body that I see. But it's got much better, I used to hate seeing myself. In the meantime I've accepted my body, I live in it. And as long as I don't have to show my breasts I have no problem with nudity scenes. I can show my arse, I have no problem with that. Even the masturbation scene wasn't that hard. I found it amusing that I was able to go so far. It really taught me that I'm not that easily shocked after all.

In the most extreme scenes you have body doubles who are porn actors. Couldn't you have played the scenes yourself after all you'd done?

No way! I hit against a very clear boundary here. Lars went into enormous detail in the script. How he wanted the sex scenes, what you should see. He insisted that I study it intensively before we started filming, because he wanted to be sure that I knew what I was getting myself into. He wanted to know that I wasn't going to pull out half way through.

Were there moments that were just too much for you?

There was one scene that was actually intended as a cross-fade, where you see the penis of a porn actor with my face behind it. There was one scene that was actually intended as a cross-fade, where you see the penis of a porn actor with my face behind it. Lars asked me whether we should go ahead as planned and film the two shots and cross-fade them or if we could do it in one shot. I really thought I was up to it. Why should I be bothered by doing a scene with a porn actor? But when the time came I felt very differently. I'm really not a prude but suddenly I felt I was in the wrong film: it wasn't Willem Dafoe, it was this porn actor who was masturbating because he needed his penis erect for the shot. Lars asked me whether we could then do the shot where I smash his genitals with a block of wood. All he needed were my hands. But that was too much for me. I just couldn't do the pornographic scenes. That's my limit. A ridiculous limit when you think of it...

Why ridiculous?

Let's just say that I was looking for my limits and I didn't know when I set out where they'd be. I'm very bad at imagining things in theory. But to lie next to someone you don't know, someone you wouldn't have wanted to make the film with, changes everything. It surprised me and annoyed me at the same time, that I didn't know beforehand where my boundaries were. I'm not someone who says at the outset: up to that point, but no further.

Which is pretty normal...

No. Some people have principles. I'm not one of them. You're more vulnerable if you don't have principles. On the other hand, you just have to be more courageous and not let people walk over you and just shout out when you don't want to go any further.

What's your impression of Germany after spending two months in a dark forest and a deserted hotel?

The hotel and the forest were two separate worlds. The forest was incredibly beautiful but I also found it extremely frightening.

That doesn't sound like a declaration of love...

Put it this way: my impression is not nearly as bad as you might think.


This article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on September 9, 209

Charlotte Gainsbourg, 38, is the daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. She made her motion picture debut 1984 playing Catherine Deneuve's daughter in the film 'Paroles et musique'. Since then she has starred in more than 30 films.

Martina Meister
is a cultural correspondent in Paris for the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation: lp - let's talk european