Not to be confused with The Antichrist (film).
Antichrist is a 2009 English-language Danish experimentalarthorror film written and directed by Lars von Trier, and starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. It tells the story of a couple who, after the death of their child, retreat to a cabin in the woods where the man experiences strange visions and the woman manifests increasingly violent sexual behaviour and sadomasochism. The narrative is divided into a prologue, four chapters and an epilogue. The film was primarily a Danish production and co-produced by companies from six different European countries. It was filmed in Germany and Sweden.
After premiering at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where Gainsbourg won the festival's award for Best Actress, the film immediately caused controversy, with critics generally praising the film's artistic execution but strongly divided regarding its substantive merit. Other awards won by the film include the Robert Award for best Danish film, The Nordic Council Film Prize for best Nordic film and the European Film Award for best cinematography. The film is dedicated to the Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (1932–86).
Antichrist is the first film in von Trier's unofficially titled "Depression Trilogy". It was followed in 2011 by Melancholia and then by Nymphomaniac in 2013.
A couple makes passionate love, as their toddler, Nic, climbs up to the bedroom window and falls to his death.
Chapter One: Grief
The mother collapses at the funeral, and spends the next month in the hospital crippled with atypical grief. The father, a therapist, is skeptical of the psychiatric care she is receiving and takes it upon himself to treat her personally with psychotherapy. But it is not successful, and so when she reveals that her second greatest fear is nature, he decides to try exposure therapy. They hike to their isolated cabin in a woods called Eden, where she spent time with Nic the previous summer while writing a thesis on gynocide. He encounters a doe which shows no fear of him, and has a stillborn fawn hanging halfway out of her.
Chapter Two: Pain (Chaos Reigns)
During sessions of psychotherapy, she becomes increasingly grief stricken and manic, often demanding forceful sex to escape the pain. The area becomes increasingly sinister to the man, including acorns rapidly pelting the metal roof, awakening with a hand covered in swollen ticks, and finding a self-disemboweling fox that tells him "chaos reigns."
Chapter Three: Despair (Gynocide)
In the dark attic the man finds the woman's thesis studies: terrifying pictures of witch-hunts, and a scrapbook in which her writing becomes increasingly frantic and illegible. She reveals that while writing her thesis, she came to believe that all women are inherently evil. The man is repulsed by this and reproaches her for buying into the gynocidal beliefs she had originally set out to criticize. In a frenzied moment, they have violent intercourse at the base of an ominous dead tree, where bodies are intertwined within the exposed roots. He suspects that Satan is her greatest hidden fear.
Through the autopsy and old photos, he becomes aware that she had been systematically putting Nic's shoes on the wrong feet, resulting in pain and deformity. She attacks him, accuses him of planning to leave her, mounts him, and then smashes a large block of wood onto his testicles, causing him to lose consciousness. The woman then masturbates the unconscious man, culminating in an ejaculation of blood. She drills a hole through his leg, bolting a heavy grindstone through the wound, and then tossing the wrench she used under the cabin. He awakens alone; unable to loosen the bolt, he hides by dragging himself into the deep, dark foxhole at the base of the dead tree. Following the sound of a crow he has found buried alive in the hole, she locates him and attacks and mostly buries him with a shovel.
Chapter Four: The Three Beggars
Night falls; now remorseful, she unburies him but cannot remember where the wrench is. She helps him back to the cabin, where she tells him she does "not yet" want to kill him, adding that "when the three beggars arrive someone must die." In a flashback she watches Nic climbing up to the window, but she does not act, thus displaying her essential evil much like her hypothesis. In the cabin she cuts off her clitoris with scissors. They are visited by the crow, the deer, and the fox. A hailstorm begins; earlier it had been revealed that women accused of witchcraft had been known to have the power to summon hailstorms. Finding the wrench under the floorboards, he is stabbed by her with the scissors, but is able to unbolt the grindstone. Finally free, he shows a vicious face, and strangles her to death. He then burns her on a funeral pyre.
He limps from the cabin, eating wild berries, as the three diaphanous beggars look on. Reaching the top of a hill, under a brilliant light he sees hundreds of women in antiquated clothes coming towards him, their faces blurred.
- Willem Dafoe as "He": Dafoe, who had previously worked with Lars von Trier in Manderlay from 2005, was cast after contacting Trier and asking what he was working on at the moment. He received the script for Antichrist, although he was told that Trier's wife was skeptical about asking a renowned actor like Dafoe to do such an extreme role. Dafoe accepted the part, later explaining its appeal to him: "I think the dark stuff, the unspoken stuff is more potent for an actor. It's the stuff we don't talk about, so if you have the opportunity to apply yourself to that stuff in a playful, creative way, yes I'm attracted to it." The voice of the talking fox was also supplied by Dafoe, although the recording was heavily manipulated.
- Charlotte Gainsbourg as "She": French actress Eva Green was initially approached for the female lead. According to Trier, Green was positive about appearing in the film, but her agents refused to allow her. The unsuccessful casting attempt took two months of the pre-production process. Eventually Gainsbourg turned up, and by Trier's words she was very eager to get cast: "Charlotte came in and said, 'I'm dying to get the part no matter what.' So I think it was a decision she made very early and she stuck to it. We had no problems whatsoever."
- Storm Acheche Sahlstrøm as Nic: The child of the unnamed couple "He" and "She".
Antichrist started with the idea of making a horror film. Trier thought it was a good idea to start with a certain genre, and chose horror cinema because "the genre [is such] that you can put a lot of very, very strange images in a horror film". He had recently seen several contemporary Japanese horror films such as Ring and Dark Water, from which he drew inspiration. Another basic idea came from a documentary Trier saw about the original forests of Europe. In the documentary the forests were portrayed as a place of great pain and suffering as the different species tried to kill and eat each other. Trier was fascinated by the contrast between this and the view of nature as a romantic and peaceful place. Trier said: "At the same time that we hang it on our walls over the fireplace or whatever, it represents pure Hell." In retrospect he said that he had become unsure whether Antichrist really could be classified as a horror film, because "it's not so horrific ... we didn't try so hard to do shocks, and that is maybe why it is not a horror film. I took [the horror genre] more as an inspiration, and then this strange story came out of it."
The title was the first thing that was written for the film.Antichrist was originally scheduled for production in 2005, but its executive producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen accidentally revealed the film's planned revelation: that earth was created by Satan and not by God. Trier was furious and decided to delay the shoot so he could rewrite the script.
In 2007 Trier announced that he was suffering from depression, and that it was possible that he never would be able to make another film. "I assume that Antichrist will be my next film. But right now I don't know," he told the Danish newspaper Politiken. During an early casting attempt, English actors who had come to Copenhagen had to be sent home, while Trier was crying because his poor condition did not allow him to meet them.
The post-depression version of the script was to some extent written as an exercise for Trier, to see if he had recovered enough to be able to work again. Trier has also made references to August Strindberg and his Inferno Crisis in the 1890s, comparing it to his own writing under difficult mental circumstances: "was Antichrist my Inferno Crisis?" Several notable names appear in the credits as having assisted Trier in the writing. Danish writer and directors Per Fly and Nikolaj Arcel are listed as script consultants, and Anders Thomas Jensen as story supervisor. Also credited are researchers dedicated to fields including "misogyny", "anxiety", "horror films" and "theology." Trier himself is a Catholic convert and intensely interested in Christian symbolism and theology.
Production was led by Trier's Copenhagen-based company Zentropa. Co-producers were Sweden's Film i Väst, Italy's Lucky Red and France's Liberator Productions, Slot Machine and Arte France. The Danish Film Institute contributed with a financial support of $1.5 million and Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Germany with $1.3 million. The total budget was around $11 million.
Props for the more violent scenes were provided by the company Soda ApS, and made in their workshop in Nørrebro, Copenhagen. Plaster casts were made of Willem Dafoe's leg and the female "porno double's" sexual organ. A plastic baby with authentic weight was made for the opening sequence. Pictures found using Google Image Search had to serve as models for the stillborn deer, and a nylon stocking was used as caul. The vulva prop was constructed with its inner parts detachable for easy preparation if several takes would be needed. Czech animal trainer Ota Bares, who had collaborated with parts of the crew in the 2005 film Adam's Apples, was hired early on and given instructions about what tasks the animals must be able to perform. The fox, for example, was taught to open its mouth on a given command to simulate speaking movements.
To get into the right mood before filming started, both Dafoe and Gainsbourg were shown Andrei Tarkovsky's The Mirror from 1975. Dafoe was also shown Trier's own 1998 film The Idiots, and Gainsbourg The Night Porter to study Charlotte Rampling's character. Dafoe also met therapists working with cognitive behavioral therapy as well as being present at actual sessions of exposure therapy and studying material on the topic. Trier himself is highly skeptical of psychotherapy.
Filming took 40 days to finish, from 20 August to the end of September 2008. The film was shot in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Locations were used in Rhein-Sieg-Kreis, part of the Cologne region, and Wuppertal. It was the first film by Trier to be entirely filmed in Germany. The fictional setting of the film however is near Seattle, USA. The film was shot on digital video, primarily using Red One cameras in 4K resolution. The slow motion sequences were shot with a Phantom V4 in 1,000 frames per second. Filming techniques involved dollys, hand-held camerawork and computer-programmed "motion control", of which the team had previous experience from Trier's 2006 film The Boss of It All. One shot, where the couple is copulating under a tree, was particularly difficult since the camera would switch from being hand-held to motion controlled in the middle of the take.
Trier had not recovered completely from his depression when filming started. He repeatedly excused himself to the actors for being in the mental condition he was, and was not able to operate the camera as he usually does, which made him very frustrated. "The script was filmed and finished without much enthusiasm, made as it was using about half of my physical and intellectual capacity," the director said in an interview.
Post-production was primarily located in Warsaw, Poland, and Gothenburg, Sweden. Over the time of two months, the Poles contributed with about 4,000 hours of work and the Swedes 500. The film features 80 shots with computer-generated imagery, provided by the Polish company Platige Image. Most of these shots consist of digitally removed details such as the collar and leash used to lead the deer, but some were more complicated. The scene where the fox utters the words "chaos reigns" was particularly difficult to make. The mouth movements had to be entirely computer-generated in order to synchronise with the sound. The scene in Chapter Three during which the couple makes love and numerous hands emerge from the roots of a tree was subsequently adapted into the principal promotional art for the film.
The aria "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Handel's opera Rinaldo is used as the film's main musical theme. The aria has previously been used in other films such as Farinelli, a 1994 biographical film about the castrato singer Farinelli, and was used again by von Trier in Nymphomaniac during a scene referencing the sequence showing Nic approaching the open window. The eight-track soundtrack features both versions of "Lascia ch'io pianga" and selected extracts of the "score" created by sound designer Kristian Eidnes Andersen.
|1.||"Intro"||Kristian Eidnes Andersen||1:32|
|2.||"Lascia Ch'io Pianga Prologue"||George Frideric Handel||5:20|
|6.||"Lascia Ch'io Pianga Epilogue"||George Frideric Handel||2:39|
|7.||"Credits Pt. 1"||Kristian Eidnes||1:16|
|8.||"Credits Pt. 2"||Kristian Eidnes||3:29|
The film premiered during the Competition portion of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival to a polarized response from the audience. The film prompted several walk outs and at least four people fainted during the preview due to the film's explicit violence. At the press conference following the screening, Trier was asked by a journalist from the Daily Mail to justify why he made the film, to which the director responded that he found the question strange since he considered the audience as his guests, "not the other way around." He then claimed to be the best director in the world. Charlotte Gainsbourg won the Cannes Film Festival's award for Best Actress. The ecumenical jury at the Cannes festival gave the film a special "anti-award" and declared the film to be "the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world". Cannes festival director Thierry Frémaux responded that this was a "ridiculous decision that borders on a call for censorship" and that it was "scandalous coming from an 'ecumenical' jury". The "talking fox" was nominated for the Palm Dog, but lost to Dug from Up.
Two versions were available for buyers at the Cannes film market, nicknamed the "Catholic" and "Protestant" versions, where the former had some of the most explicit scenes removed while the latter was uncut. The uncut version was released theatrically to a general audience on 20 May 2009 in Denmark. It was acquired for British distribution by Artificial Eye and American by IFC Films.
In both Ireland and the United Kingdom, Antichrist was released uncut with an 18 certificate. The British Advertising Standards Authority received seven complaints about the film poster, which was based on the original poster and shows the couple as they are having sexual intercourse. The organization decided to approve the poster, finding it to not be pornographic since its "dark tone" made it "unlikely to cause sexual excitement". An alternative poster, featuring only quotes from reviews and no image at all, was used in outdoor venues and as an alternative for publishers who desired it.
The film received a limited theatrical run in Australia followed by a basic DVD release in early 2010. Sale of the DVD was strictly limited in South Australia due to new laws that place restrictions on films with an R18+ classification. A notable feature of the Australian release was the creation of a critically acclaimed poster that made prominent use of a pair of rusty scissors that had the actor's faces fused into the handles. The poster received much international coverage at the end of 2009 and was used as the local DVD cover.
This film was released on DVD and Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection on 9 November 2010.
The film was not submitted to the MPAA because the filmmakers feared that it would receive an NC-17 rating for its graphic violence.
Versions of the film
According to a correspondence between an Amazon.com Customer Reviewer and Karen Mesoznik, staff member at The Criterion Collection, the version released by Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD is in fact the uncut, so-called "Protestant Version" which has a run time of 108 minutes. The cut, so-called "Catholic Version", has a run time of between 100 and 104 minutes (approximately). The long rumored, 120 minute version (supposedly released in France) is nothing more than a packaging misprint on the French DVD release.
In Denmark, the film quickly became successful with both critics and audiences.Politiken called it "a grotesque masterpiece," giving it a perfect score of 6 out of 6, and praised it for being completely unconventional while at the same time being "a profoundly serious, very personal ... piece of art about small things like sorrow, death, sex and the meaninglessness of everything."Berlingske Tidende gave it a rating of 4 out of 6 and praised the "peerless imagery," and how "cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle effectively switches between Dogme-like hand-held scenes and wonderful stylized tableaux." An exception was Claus Christensen, editor of the Danish film magazine Ekko. Christensen accused the other Danish critics of overrating the film, himself calling it "a master director's failed work." Around 83,000 tickets were sold in Denmark during the theatrical run, the best performance by a Lars Trier film since Dogville. The film was nominated by Denmark for The Nordic Council Film Prize, which it won.Antichrist went on to sweep the Robert Awards, Denmark's main national film awards, by winning in seven categories: Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematographer, Best Editing, Best Lighting Design and Best Special Effects.
However, Antichrist polarized critical opinion in the United States. On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 50% based on 166 reviews, and an average rating of 5.5/10. (Its summary: "Gruesome, explicit and highly controversial; Lars von Trier's arthouse-horror, though beautifully shot, is no easy ride.") Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four, saying:
"Von Trier, who has always been a provocateur, is driven to confront and shake his audience more than any other serious filmmaker. He will do this with sex, pain, boredom, theology and bizarre stylistic experiments. And why not? We are at least convinced we're watching a film precisely as he intended it, and not after a watering down by a fearful studio executive. That said, I know what's in it for Von Trier. What was in it for me? More than anything else, I responded to the performances. Feature films may be fiction, but they are certainly documentaries showing actors in front of a camera."
In a blog post, he expanded on this, discussing the film's symbolism, imagery and Trier's intentions, calling him "one of the most heroic directors in the world" and Antichrist "a powerfully-made film that contains material many audiences will find repulsive or unbearable. The performances by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are heroic and fearless. Trier's visual command is striking. The use of music is evocative; no score, but operatic and liturgical arias. And if you can think beyond what he shows to what he implies, its depth are [sic] frightening." Duane Dudek of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called Antichrist "Trier's most visually lush and technically rigorous film; it captures things at a molecular level and in a slow motion that all but brings the world to a halt... But paradoxically, this is his most unwatchable film, and many will find its violence and cruelty, including scenes of genital mutilation, repellent. I cannot recommend Antichrist, but in a culture that hemorrhages death and torture nightly on shows like 24 or C.S.I., I can understand it."
Chris Tookey for the British tabloid Daily Mail started his review by noting that the film contains "a few images of startling beauty," but soon went on to call it "offensively misogynistic" and "needlessly graphic." He also listed other films that preceded Antichrist in showing explicit sex, genital self-mutilation and "women torturing men for pleasure," eventually giving the film one star out of five. In the British film magazine Empire, film critic Kim Newman gave the film four stars out of five and noted that "Trier's self-conscious arrogance is calculated to split audiences into extremist factions, but Antichrist delivers enough beauty, terror and wonder to qualify as the strangest and most original horror movie of the year."
In Australia's The Monthly, film critic Luke Davies viewed the film as "a bleak but entrancing film that explores guilt, grief and many things besides ... that will anger as many people as it pleases", describing Trier's "command of the visually surreal" as "truly exceptional". Davies described the film as "very good and very flawed", conceding "it is not easy to understand the meaning or intention of specific images and details of the film" but still concludes that "there’s something neurotic and reactionary in the controversy and near-hysteria surrounding the film."
Film director John Waters hailed Antichrist as one of the ten best films of 2009 in Artforum, stating "If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, [Antichrist] is the movie he would have made."
The film won the award for Best Cinematographer at the 2009 European Film Awards, shared with Slumdog Millionaire as both films were shot by Anthony Dod Mantle. It was nominated for Best Director and Best Actress but the awards lost to Michael Haneke for The White Ribbon and Kate Winslet for The Reader respectively. In a 2016 international poll by BBC, critics Stephanie Zacharek and Andreas Borcholte ranked Antichrist among the greatest films since 2000.
Cancelled video game
According to a June 2009 article in the Danish newspaper Politiken, a video game called Eden, based on the film, was in the works. It was to start where the film ended. "It will be a self-therapeutic journey into your own darkest fears, and will break the boundaries of what you can and can't do in video games," said video game director Morten Iversen. As of 2011[update], Zentropa Games are out of business and Eden has been cancelled.
The cast of Antichrist in 2009. Willem Dafoe at the Toronto International Film Festival and Charlotte Gainsbourg at the Cannes Film Festival.
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Dafoe smiles and drops the knife. ‘Nah, what happened was that I stabbed myself during a stage production,’ he says in his sing-song Midwestern accent. ‘I was doing acrobatics with the knife and in the final scene I had to press it to my chest, fall face down on it and pretend to kill myself. Night after night I would palm the knife as I dropped so that it fell flat. Then, one night, I dunno, I wasn’t concentrating I guess and I fell on the damn thing and skewered myself.’ He winces. ‘It was the first of a few,’ he says nonchalantly.
He nearly broke his nose and then almost fried himself inside his heavy, vinyl suit while making Spider-Man, he says, pointing to a map of nicks and blemishes. Dafoe buttons up and the flesh show is over. It may have been a private screening of the Dafoe physique but hardly an exclusive one. Seasoned cinemagoers are more than familiar with the sight of Dafoe in the buff. And with the fact that he does his own stunts.
And, blimey, never more so than in his new soon-to-be-released film, Antichrist. Although we’re not so much talking about doing his own stunts here. We are talking about doing his own very graphic adult sex scenes. Very graphic.
Antichrist, which was previewed at the Cannes film festival amid a brouhaha of media moral outrage, whipped up a storm of indignation (most genuine, some affected) among critics who are aghast that the British Board of Film Classification has given the film – from the pen of Lars von Trier, the cult Danish film-maker – an 18 rating.
They are even more aghast at its unsimulated, nigh on pornographic scenes of uninhibited passion in which Dafoe and his co-star, Charlotte Gainsbourg, couple with feverish abandon before indulging in a frenzy of genital self-mutilation, mutual masturbation and an eye-watering quasi torture sequence. For those of you whose interests lean towards the prurient, I suggest you read a no-holds-barred description of the film on the internet. For those of a more delicate disposition, the following will suffice.
Dafoe and Gainsbourg – a psychiatrist and his wife – are grieving over the death of their only son who, in an artfully shot opening scene, falls from a window while they are engaged in the film’s first of many unflinching sex scenes. Gainsbourg suffers a breakdown. Dafoe rails at her therapy and medication and insists upon treating her himself. She protests that he is too close. Arrogant and overbearing, Dafoe insists.
They retreat to their secluded cabin. What ensues is a moving and thought-provoking journey through the dark and gritty themes of grief and guilt. There are moments of extreme tenderness interspersed with unfathomable fantasy: others of wanton sexual abandon that border on, then invade, the boundaries of what most would consider decency. Mediawatch-UK has denounced it as ‘shocking’ and critics denounced it as ‘an abomination’ and ‘sadistically violent’.
‘I know it’s extreme,’ Dafoe admits, still toying with the knife. ‘But I can’t worry about moral outrage.’ It isn’t his concern then? ‘Yes, it is. But I can’t worry about it,’ he says. I dread his next comment. That this is ‘art-house’, that somehow such scenes are necessary for its integrity or some such. Oddly, it doesn’t come. ‘Yes, of course the criticism bothers me,’ he says impatiently.
‘When you’ve made something good you want to show it. Want people to like it – though at the preview I attended in Cannes, the one without the media, it was received with rapture. But I can only say if you are morally outraged then this movie is not for you. Personally, I thought it was outrageous that the British tabloid press attacked Lars at the press preview shouting: ‘‘You must justify this.’’ Why? He cares deeply about his audience but he wasn’t necessarily thinking about the audience when he was making it. He was making it for himself.’
Dafoe says that Antichrist is a ‘very sincere’ film that draws heavily on von Trier’s own bouts of depression. ‘He struggled every day on set. He had this safety valve, he could retreat to his trailer and direct from there if he needed.’ What bothers him most are the criticisms that Antichrist lacks rhyme or reason and that its narrative and emotional context don’t warrant such graphic scenes. He shrugs. ‘I think Lars does well at balancing the poetry and the narrative. But, maybe he errs on the poetic side. But then, maybe we are too narrative obsessed. I know Lars was talking about fuzzing it digitally for some audiences. But I hope not.’
Dafoe, by anyone’s standards an A-list actor, is understandably defensive. He worked hard at the role, sitting in on endless therapy sessions at Columbia University to get under the skin of his character. ‘I’ve never had therapy – though God knows lots of people have told me I need it – or had depression, so I had to work hard. When you get around these people you do start to develop phobic ideas yourself. I could see the triggers.’ He wanted the role badly. He had worked with von Trier on Manderlay and, out of the blue, had called him one day ‘just to see what he was up to’.
Von Trier’s career had been on hold while he battled depression: Antichrist was his first post-blues offering. ‘To be honest, he wanted a much younger and unknown actor. Someone he thought would feel freer to do the more intimate scenes. When I said I was interested he said: “Are you sure?” He was worried about what my wife would think.’
And filming those intimate scenes? How does one prepare? ‘You stay calm,’ he says. ‘And you make the other person as comfortable as possible. It was a sweet coupling and helped by the way Lars works. I hadn’t met Charlotte before filming. I can get very self-conscious but she was great. Lars doesn’t rehearse those scenes. The first time we kissed or touched was in front of the camera.
‘My wife was on set and when we would finish filming she would cook a big meal. Charlotte (who is the daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg and who won best actress at Cannes for her role) was staying in the apartment upstairs and she would join us for dinner. The three of us would talk about everything and anything. Except the movie. Then the next day we would be back to being pretend husband and wife.’
And the torture scenes? ‘Again, you have got to pretend. You don’t know what’s too much whimpering, what’s not. That’s what directors are for. And it can be very draining and disturbing.’ In the final scene of Antichrist Dafoe strangles Gainsbourg very slowly as the camera lingers on her bulging eyes, her protruding tongue. It is, as he says, an extremely disturbing scene. ‘We had to play a game of trust because Charlotte wanted enough pressure and tension for it to have edge. Obviously it is pretend but I think it did.’
Pretend is a word Dafoe uses constantly in an acting context. To be fair, he isn’t overly pretentious about his art and talent, except when he starts to discuss the ‘essence of acting’. Still, his A-list status should allow him a little self-indulgence.
Dafoe, now 53, was born in Appleton, a small town in Wisconsin. The son of a surgeon and a nurse, his upbringing was conventional. One of eight siblings, he admits his penchant for the stage could have come from the constant clamour for attention one feels in a big family. ‘The Midwest isn’t somewhere you mix with those from the performing arts,’ he says. ‘But my mum and dad would go off to Chicago every so often to see shows. They would bring back the albums and the movies, those little eight metres, and we would all watch. I think that was when I fell in love with acting.’
He enrolled in drama at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and courted controversy from the outset. ‘Yeah, that. I did interviews with a nudist, a satanist and a drug dealer. Someone came into the editing room when I was out for lunch, saw the rough footage and got a little upset. I didn’t even intend to use most of it. When I got back the room was locked and I was suspended. When I got home the college had called my parents and told them I was making pornography.’
Dafoe pauses, those cobalt-blue eyes widening in mock horror. ‘Now there’s a lesson to be learnt. Don’t go for lunch until you’ve finished editing.’
In 1977 he moved to New York where he met and married the experimental theatre director Elizabeth LeCompte. Together they founded the avant garde Wooster theatrical group. His film debut was in the disastrous Heaven’s Gate in 1981 but, mercifully, his role ended up on the editing floor which, on the one hand, meant he wasn’t associated with a turkey and, on the other, meant that he remained, for the time being, a nonentity. Next were The Hunger (1983) and To Live and Die in LA (1985) before he made his breakthrough in Platoon (1986).
His portrayal of the pot-smoking Sgt. Elias earned him Hollywood recognition and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. While his most memorable roles have been in The Last Temptation of Christ, Born on The Fourth of July and Body of Evidence, in which he starred with Madonna, he is among that rare breed of actors who glide effortlessly between mainstream Hollywood and independent art-house pictures.
‘It’s important to be flexible,’ he concedes. ‘And by choosing a diversity of roles I don’t reveal too much of myself. I do want to be in mainstream movies that are going to be seen,’ he says. ‘I suppose it satisfies the showbiz side of me.’
His judgement is sometimes off-kilter. There have been critical failures among his carefully chosen portfolio. Take his frolic with Madonna in Body of Evidence, in which La Ciccone poured wax over his naked body. It was, frankly, excruciating. It’s not something he cares to dwell on. ‘I am happy to defend it but what’s the point,’ he shrugs. Pressed to comment on his co-star’s acting ability he does more squirming and says, ‘You know, I like her a lot. And I think in the right thing she can be great.’
One suspects that his first love is theatre. But, therein lies a rub. He and first wife (some 10 years his senior) co-founded the Wooster Group and he has toured the world with it. They had one son, Jack, now 27, but the marriage ended – it is said acrimoniously. He has been married to the Italian actor and director Giada Colagrande for four years. I ask him about his divorce (in the interests of artistic revelation, you understand) and, true to form, Dafoe is evasive.
Outside the restaurant, several seats in the sun are now vacant. We decide to relocate to a pavement table, Dafoe gallantly carrying my bags.
I persist in asking about his divorce. He continues to prevaricate. ‘I don’t like the fuzzy stuff,’ he wails. ‘Look, sometimes I am envious of those who walk the red carpet and happily rabbit on to the media… I love the attention, I just don’t know how to do it.’ Suddenly, a tall, leggy blonde in skimpy, cut-off shorts and a T-shirt swoops on Dafoe, swamping him in a kiss. They hug affectionately. Said blonde sits down. ‘This is Pam,’ he says. Then, with a certain amount of resignation, he adds: ‘My divorce attorney.’
Pam smiles. ‘Oh, you won’t be needing me anytime again,’ she says. ‘Willem believes in love,’ she tells me.‘He’s happy now. Got it right this time.’
Dafoe nods enthusiastically. When Pam departs he explains that his divorce has made it nigh on impossible to continue with the Wooster Group of which his ex-wife remains artistic director. So he and Ms LeCompte are not on reasonable terms? ‘Not on my side,’ he says. ‘Basically, I am no longer with the group,’ he says, squirming some more. ‘Primarily because Liz is quite unforgiving. I miss it but I keep my mouth shut.’
As the afternoon sun begins to fade so, too, does Dafoe. ‘Well, there’s one relief, you haven’t asked that question,’ he says. What question, I ask disengenuously? We both know what question he means. I’ve been toying with mentioning it but, on balance, since this is The Sunday Telegraph, I decided I wouldn’t.
You see Mr Dafoe is a man of much repute: for his talent, his intellect and suchnot. He has, however, within Hollywood, one other reputation: that of being rather well endowed. ‘I always get asked about it in interviews,’ he says ruefully. ‘Interviewers seem obsessed with the subject.’ ‘Hmm, are they’, I reply. There is a slightly awkward silence while I wonder why he brought it up and he says nothing at all. Waiters fuss with coffee cups, and we move swiftly on.
He talks amicably about he and his wife’s home in Italy where they spend half of the year. Does he regret having just one child, I ask? ‘Who says I am finished yet?’ he grins. ‘Just a joke,’ he says, though I’m not sure it was. ‘Well, my wife is still young enough and I have no qualms about being an older dad.’
At that, a family tiptoe over and apologetically ask if they can have a picture. Dafoe obliges with easy charm. ‘Thank you so much sir,’ the father says. ‘We loved you in Spider-Man. Man, that was good.’ I’m sure I saw Dafoe wince.
- ‘Antichrist’ opens on July 24