It isn't easy to shock the jaded audiences at the Cannes Film Festival, but Danish director Lars von Trier achieved that with his new movie, "Antichrist." It wasn't really the title. It wasn't the weird scenes with a talking fox. It was the graphically portrayed sexual mutilation.
Let's dispense with the plot. A couple is mourning the loss of a child. They go to an isolated cabin, the mother loses her mind and goes postal on her husband and herself. Pressed by journalists about his film, von Trier claimed his movies choose him, not the other way around. "I never have a choice," he said. "It's the hand of God, I'm afraid." He added, "I am the best film director in the world."
Journalists don't agree. "I thought I had my head down a lavatory, frankly," said Baz Bamigboye of London's Daily Mail, one writer who demanded that von Trier attempt to justify his sick movie. The Hollywood Reporter called it "torture porn."
Brian Johnson, a critic for the Canadian news magazine Macleans, gave his readers a bitter taste: "This is the first film in which I've seen an erect penis ejaculate blood after its owner is genitally assaulted while having sex. And that's just the start. This is not your daddy's chainsaw massacre movie. In this case, the weapon of choice is a carpentry hand-drill. That's right, the old-fashioned kind that kind of works like a butter churn. In a moment of inspiration, [the wife] employs this device to bore a hole in her husband's leg, then uses a wrench to bolt a grindstone to it. And while we're racking up precedents, it's probably safe to say that until now we've never seen a woman perform a clitorectomy on herself with a pair of scissors."
Says the "art" film director: "I work for myself, and I do this little film that I am now kind of fond of. I haven't done it for you or an audience, so I don't think I owe anybody an explanation."
The audience be damned? That sounds a lot like a snooty European auteur. But it's a sign of the times that he quickly found an American distributor for "Antichrist," IFC Films. It's part of the Rainbow Media empire, which includes cable channels like AMC, IFC, We TV and the Sundance Channel.
IFC chief Jonathan Sehring poured praise all over this nightmare: "It is a towering work of cinema by one its greatest directors. We are incredibly excited to bring this film to America and expect it to have a major impact on audiences not only in America but worldwide."
A major impact? No von Trier film has ever grossed more than $6 million in the United States.
Not all violent art films at Cannes receive the same enthusiastic embrace. The Los Angeles Times reports that Steve McEveety, one of the producers of "The Passion of the Christ," took a new film to France. "The Stoning of Soraya M." is adapted from the 1994 nonfiction book of the same name by a French-Iranian journalist, Freidoune Sahebjam. He traveled to a small Iranian village in the mid-1980s and found the story of an innocent woman stoned to death over concocted charges of infidelity. Soraya's husband fell in love with another woman, accused his wife of adultery and Soraya was left without support in the town. Her two eldest sons sat on the male tribunal that declared her guilty, and she was stoned by a mob that included her father.
But Times writer John Horn suggested this film could strike the same chords of controversy with Muslims that "The Passion" did with Jewish critics.
Horn relayed that director and co-writer Cyrus Nowrasteh spares little in depicting the execution, in which Soraya is buried to her chest with her arms bound and pelted with heavy rocks from close range until she bleeds to death.
McEveety disagrees. "We had to keep toning it down so that people could bear it … It was far worse originally. But there were people who wanted us to tone it down even more than we did." Nevertheless, McEveety felt it was important to depict Soraya's killing graphically, so audiences would leave the theater outraged.
"Stoning" is clearly another violent, bloody and disturbing film. But Hollywood doesn't want this one. So just as Gibson distributed his own film, McEveety will go it alone with "The Stoning of Soraya M.," using the distribution company Roadside Attractions to book theaters, help market the film and collect theater receipts, but with his privately financed Mpower company footing the entire bill.
You could call it A Tale of Two Violent Movies. Hollywood's business decisions show where their religious and political sensibilities overrule their business sense -- and any sense of right and wrong.