(Antichrist will be discussed in detail in this review.)
First off, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is one of the best films of the year, if not the decade.
Not many are going to share this opinion, which is really a fact. Antichrist has once again sparked a current of reaction and rebellion to von Trier and his work, already always controversial. But it’s difficult to understand what exactly it is that people, or at least critics, have against von Trier. His public pronouncements seem to irritate them. His threshold-stretching films seem to make them uncomfortable, as do the similarly provocative films of Michael Haneke and Gaspar Noe, all of whom had films at the 2009 Cannes film festival. The general attitude seems to be that von Trier is something of a fraud, playing with ideas like an uncomprehending child with letter block toys. Antichrist isn’t the first film to inspire the opprobrium of the Cannes masses: the masterpiece L’aventura was jeered at Cannes, with the audience shouting “Cut! Cut!” at the film’s lengthy takes of Monica Vitta running down a hall and opening doors in search of her lover.
Assuming that these are indeed the charges against von Trier, they can be addressed simply. It is the role of art in part to make us uncomfortable, to show us the truth of life unflinchingly, though it is difficult to take. As T. S. Eliot wrote, human beings can only take so much reality. And if von Trier plays the arrogant buffoon in public in his interviews and sound bites, well, as D. H. Lawrence advised in his important book of criticism about American writers, trust the tale not the teller; look to the work of art itself, not what the artist says about it or himself. Which leads us to the charge of fraudulence. If von Trier is a “fraud” in the sense that he doesn’t take his own work seriously and enacts the role of filmmaker in order to undermine and toy with audience expectations, that is of little concern to the viewer. If the film is coherent, if it rings true, if it says about about the human condition, then it doesn’t matter what von Trier “thinks” about it or what his intentions were. We don’t really know the “intentions” of Shakespeare – he left no journals or interviews or other records of his opinions – but we have the evidence of the plays themselves, which contain a rounded view of life.
Antichrist is many things at once. It is a religious allegory (the “antichrist” of the title is nature itself), it is a horror film, it is a story of fairy tale simplicity and resonance, and it is a European art film in the Scandinavian mode of Ingmar Bergman, especially the Bergman of The Hour of the Wolf and The Silence; essentially it is a “two hander” in the manner of a Strindberg play. The film also has traces of Miike’s Audition, and even the Stephen King adaptation, Misery. Antichrist is provocative, but also extremely well written. To my mind, von Trier is under-appreciated as a writer. Dogville is one of the best crafted but also best written of films, a richly detailed, psychologically acute tale with a brilliant management of a complex idea within which numerous characters interact.
Antichrist will remind horror buffs right off the bat of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Both begin with the death of a child due to the inattention of parents, significantly in the case of Antichrist after the child witnesses uncomprehendingly the Primal Scene, though as the wife says later, “Freud is dead.” In von Trier’s thick imagery, death and orgasm are united. The rest of the movie profiles how that death haunts the surviving parents, with both supernatural and psychological elements.
In the case of Antichrist, the married couple are He (Willem Dafoe), a Seattle therapist, and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a student working on her thesis. The bulk of the film takes place at Eden, their cabin in the woods, where He takes her for a long therapy session to help her overcome her grief and her panic attacks. Not unlike Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke, this foray into into a private and isolated therapy session leads to disaster: the confrontation of a professional with the ethics of profession and the “patient” with the nature of her identity. von Trier hints at the ominous date with the forrest by frequently cutting to images of the woods, scored against unnerving music or sounds, long before they ever get there, as if the black forest is summoning them for a confrontation. Forests are often scary in fairy tales just as they are in real life. Like oceans, they are theaters in which living things fight for survival almost invisibly all around you. Certain horror films, such as The Blair Witch Project, capitalize on the inherent dangers and fearsomeness of the forest. Antichrist is very much in line with this theme in fiction, with an overlay of psychological questing. In the forest, He begins to experience the reality of nature or perhaps is simply experiencing visions of its grosser edge, of animals giving birth and of helpless creatures overcome by predators, illustrative of “nature red in tooth and claw.” These visions are the pole ends of what he thinks he is doing and what he is really doing to his wife, “giving birth” to her new identity free of panic attacks, but also dominating her and even preying on her psychologically. That their woodsy getaway is also called Eden links up with some religious concerns within the film (though von Trier skeptics might scoff that as an unbeliever he is using such themes cynically). This Adam and Eve are seeking to re-enter Eden and reshape themselves, with unEdenic results.
Like a Tarantino movie, Antichrist is divided in four chapters, plus a prologue and an epilogue. After the Prologue, in which their son Nick falls out of their apartment window to his death in the snow, there is Chapter 1, “Grief” in which He tries to wrest control of her therapy from the medical profession, Chapter 2, “Pain (Chaos Reigns),” in which they embark on the forest therapy retreat, Chapter 3, “Despair (Gynocide),” in which He learns some disturbing things about the way his wife treated their son, and Chapter 4 “The Three Beggars,” in which their psychological combat becomes physical. Finally, in the Epilogue, He is free of his wife, wandering the forest like a hunter-gatherer, comforted by the re-visitation of the three animals he has seen earlier, but then he is advanced upon by an ambiguous army of females, their faces blurred out.
Not only is Antichrist, which is about psychological states and physical actions that are difficult to take and difficult to watch – because it is dealing with facets of daily life that we spend most of our time suppressing – beautiful to look at, thanks to the photography by Anthony Dod Mantle, but its sound production is fascinating (Kristian Eidnes Andersen is credited as the supervising sound editor). The dialogue between He and She is sharp yet rich at the same time, with a strange echoey effect, as if they are always alone in a room. The film uses sound effectively, such as the constant plank-plank-plank of the acorns that fall on the tin roof of their cabin, an audio analog to their disenchantment with nature and Eden. In Returning to Eden, this Adma and Eve find that everything that was beautiful there is now hideous or difficult – in her words, dominated by “the sound of things about to die.” He at first takes a distanced, practical stance toward nature, but that doesn’t work for long.
At first He seems like the epitome of the compassionate husband, a rational man seeking to cure his wife and save their marriage. His approach to therapy, though, could be viewed as reductive as the Bay Watch Philosophy, which dictates that in every episode, someone with a phobia is encouraged to “face their fear.” The Bay Watch School of Therapy erases phobias through confrontation; von Trier’s existential humanism is less serene.
As the “therapy” continues, an underlying hostility of the wife to the husband emerges. But von Trier hinted at this tension early in the film when He is visiting She in a clinic. As they talk, the camera is first on her, then whip pans left to him for his response to her dialogue. von Trier uses this effect repeatedly in the film’s first chapter, to underscore the anger darts that She is throwing at him without his perception of them. These looks, those pans, suggest an underlying contempt for her husband, which suggests the overarching theme of the impossibility of love in such a world as the one we have.
Her contempt comes to the foreground in the forrest when she begins to speak frankly to him about his various foibles, such as his distance from She and Nick “last summer.” But he learns strange things about her, too. For one thing, she was hobbling her son with the wrong shoes, a fact that shows up in an autopsy report he at first refuses to look at. Her weird mistreatment of her son anticipates her Misery style ball and chaining of He. She also keeps something called a Gynocide scrapbook. Also, the book she was writing becomes increasing erratic in its handwriting (one of two or three subtle allusions to the films of Stanley Kubrick). She also begins to say “crazy” things, though there is the possibility of a terrible truth to them. She asserts that “human nature is evil,” that “women do not control their own bodies, nature does,” that a “crying woman is a scheming woman,” that “nature is satan’s church.” She also speaks the enigmatic “when the Three Beggars arrive someone must die,” which may refer to the three small statues that Nick knocks down on his way to the window, or to the three animal visitations that He sees. In response, He says that she has betrayed her own thesis that she has been working on for so long, and he also tells her somewhat less convincingly that “good and evil have nothing to do with therapy.”
There are three key points that will probably make an unsympathetic audience member laugh or jeer. There is the “talking fox” moment (in the husband’s hallucination, he is confronted by a fox who says “Chaos reigns”), the “leg iron” scene (von Trier seems drawn to imagery of men and women hobbled by some large impediment that restricts their movement, as in Dogville), and there is the self-mutilation (which has analogs with numerous films that lots of people like, such as Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, but apparently if von Trier does it, the moment is outrageous, cynical and provocative). But the whole movie will seem stupid to those who don’t want to think deeply about life, or prefer superficial films to adult examinations of psychology and tragedy. It isn’t as if the film isn’t thoroughly thought through, unlike so many other recent films. The credits include researchers on misogyny, mythology and evil, anxiety, horror films, music, and theology.
Antichrist is dedicated to Andre Tarkovsky, but a real, though probably unintentional, guiding spirit is Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850″ which refers to a man “Who trusted God was love indeed / And love Creation’s final law / Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw / With ravine, shriek’d against his creed.” But I guess if you don’t like von Trier you won’t like poetry, either.
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