Thursday, December 3, 2009
Adam & Eve Take a Shot to the Groin: Antichrist
I have seen "Antichrist" and cannot "unsee" it, no matter how much I would like to do so. Nor can I dismiss it, no matter how ridiculous it often is. Almost accepting the fact that I now approach every Lars von Trier film with the knowledge that he will try so very, very hard to piss me off, I worked up the nerve to see this film at home on demand. I certainly did not think I was going to last in a movie theater, knowing full well beforehand of the extreme close-up shots of genital mutilation. The experience was something that still took me days to shake off.
Yes, this film is clearly one of those instances when a director clearly loses his mind and produces something so extreme, it begs for some form of ridicule, as well as praise from some factions calling it a work of genius and even the work of a male feminist. But, yet, there are clearly some interesting (and rather confused) ideas about the nature of man and woman. The film is unapologetically pretentious, while clearly reveling in shock value. Von Trier, for all his cinematic bluster, actually stumbles into something more insightful than thumbing his nose at broad, easy targets, such as he did at the entirety of the United States in "Dogville". I believe he has achieved a fair-minded, but completely misanthropic view of both genders that is in some ways a welcome relief from the works of, say, David Mamet or Neil LaBute, who seemingly have problems creating female characters that do not want to keep the balls of their male main characters sealed in a glass jar.
I cannot help but employ a sense of humor as a defense mechanism when discussing "Antichrist". This is the film with the infamous talking fox proclaiming, "Chaos Reigns!" to a befuddled Willem Dafoe. But I also believe that a serious film viewer has to go beyond the initial snickering and try to tackle the ideas the film is attempting to present, whether you think it works or not. I also believe that the arrogance displayed by the director (particularly when it was shown and booed at during Cannes) has to also be set aside, considering most directors have swelled heads except von Trier chooses to wear his self-inflated ego as a badge of honor. I do agree to some extent that von Trier is a flim-flam artist of sorts. However, this is no different than the time I saw "Inland Empire" at the New York Film Festival where David Lynch introduced the film with thoughts about how "things are not what they seem" as if he were a cryptic, pretentious William Castle. What resulted after was the unspooling of the most visually ugly, emotionally empty film of Lynch's career.
Admittedly, I am not much of a fan of von Trier either. "Breaking the Waves" was the only feature film he made where I was willing to go along with the equally passionate and lurid premise. I recognize how that story may have been offensive to some people, but I also cannot dismiss the emotional reaction I still have for that film and its great central performance by Emily Watson. I did not need to agree with the characters' actions to understand where they came from. Outside of that film, it was only the entire series of "The Kingdom" that allowed von Trier a certain looseness in both filmmaking style, as well as pulling back on his mostly overbearing, self-serious style of drama and allowing a wicked sense of humor to show through.
However, there is the other von Trier who truly annoys me in every way. The director who shot "Dancer in the Dark" with hundreds of video cameras which resulted in the most random cutting of coverage I have ever seen in a film. The man who creates a story punishing a woman even further than he did the previous time. Bjork's character starts out the movie nearly blind and ends up at the end of a noose, all for the sake of her child who von Trier does not even bother to develop as a character to demonstrate any genuine emotional bond beyond facile melodrama.
There's also the von Trier who directed the interminable "Dogville" (you can watch the entire movie here) where actors take turns humiliating Nicole Kidman before she unleashes hell on them for the last half hour, long after we got the point in such a numbing exercise. Yes, America, von Trier thinks you suck and he has slides of homeless people and David Bowie's "Young Americans" to prove it. What made "Dogville" even more punishing to sit through was the sheer lack of anything remotely visually grabbing during its entire running time. I am sure most will proclaim the use of a bare stage to be brilliantly minimalist, but von Trier's choice to do this, much like his embrace of digital video, almost demonstrated a complete disinterest in visual storytelling. John Hurt's narration in that film is so ridiculous in explaining plot and emotions that the scenes themselves felt unnecessary.
The one aspect of "Antichrist" that I feel has not been given enough credit has been von Trier seemingly returning to becoming a visual stylist once again. Shot on the RED camera by Anthony Dod Mantle, this is quite a beautiful film, as anyone can see from the stills I have posted with this review. I would also add these images work to create a genuine disturbing atmosphere. While I would never classify this as a horror film, it actually contains an unsettling mood that most horror films are often too lazy with the employment of cheap scares to attempt creating.
The other strengths of "Antichrist" come from the very brave performances from Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the nameless, married couple at the center of the film. Their performances carry this entire film on its back, even during some of the more head-slapping moments. Gainsbourg, in particular, does not hold back when her character goes to some disturbing places. I also think, despite some of the actions her character takes, you still find more empathy for She than He.
The film (divided into unnecessary chapters) starts with a prologue with stunning imagery where the baby of the nameless couple climbs up to a window and falls out while they have sex (complete with unsimulated penetration) in the shower. All of this is scored by Handel with very little natural sound from the scene itself, a classical music video of misery. It is the first moment of many where von Trier presents male and female genitalia on the screen for you to be repulsed by, as if making the connection that sex brought the child into the world and then killed it. When a film starts with that notion, then you can only imagine how doomed von Trier thinks any relationship between men and women will turn out.
Gainsbourg's She, throughout the film, constantly tries to soothe her pain from this tragedy by trying to initiate sex with Dafoe who is a psychologist who chooses to treat his own wife by talking psychobabble with her. But, according to von Trier, there is nothing to ease the pain because men and women don't heal their emotional wounds, as much as they truly wish to punish their significant other to make themselves feel better. As much as anyone will accuse von Trier of painfully obvious provocation, that notion is not one that can be so easily dismissed. It's one of those ugly truths about the world most people would rather not deal with seriously.
It is clear that the troubles of this couple existed long before they ever got together and had a child. Their incongruity with one another was only brought to the surface by von Trier's melodramatic device to kill the child to see what their moral and emotional fiber was really made from. I do feel von Trier has the ability to tackle this subject matter in a more subtle way. I almost believe that von Trier has a great deal many phobias about intimacy that he resorts to shock tactics to bring this couple to the depths of hell where they eventually wind up.
So, while we have legitimate ideas about how making the relationships between men and women ever work is an uphill battle that many lose, due to compromise, resentment and selfishness, von Trier blows up all these notions to turn Gainsbourg's She into a crazy person who sees herself as a witch and Dafoe's He into a manipulative, stifling asshole who not only has issues with his wife, but, as the last shot suggests, may be troubled by the notion of women altogether. Somehow, I think we could have had just as much an unsettling film without penises ejaculating blood and a woman performing a clitorectomy on herself with a pair of scissors. Does anyone need to see that to relate to the emotional content of the film?
That is what's so frustrating about the von Trier experience. You are fully aware there are some buried ideas beneath the shock tactics. I cannot dismiss him because even his bad films are somewhat successful with, at least, getting a rise out of me. Oddly enough, I think "Antichrist" would have benefited from the humor he brought to "The Kingdom". Considering the fear of sex and the extremes that the couple go to destroy one another, perhaps he should have made his thuddingly obvious allusions to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with a layer of satire on top of it. Although I'm not sure if von Trier understands humor remembering the story, years back, when Stellan Skarsgard revealed that von Trier thought "Dogville" was a comedy, to which Skarsgard replied along the lines of: "There's nothing fucking funny about this movie."
Instead, von Trier treats the entire movie with such dead seriousness that when the film has moments such as the talking fox or Willem Dafoe punching a crow repeatedly, I found myself laughing at the movie as if it were as ridiculous as last year's unintentionally hilarious shlock-fest "The Happening". But, yet, those are isolated moments of absurdity in a movie that contains moments, such as Gainsbourg's reaction to realizing she put the left shoe on the right foot of her child and vice versa, her growing distrust and lack of faith in her husband and the struggle both characters have to embrace, as well as resist, the stereotypical roles that men and women feel they need play in life to satisfy the status quo. In some ways, "Antichrist" feels like "Revolutionary Road" re-imagined as torture porn.
Is it odd for me to recognize that the film shoots itself in the foot constantly but still admire the audacity of the filmmaker and his two lead actors? Is a movie as bad as its reputation when it still sticks with me after a few weeks while supposedly more respectable films fade from memory quickly? You would almost believe the film is torturing itself so that von Trier will not lose his reputation as being world cinema's bad boy of filmmaking. Maybe, one of these days, von Trier will recognize the difference between unsettling your viewers and delivering a swift kick to their most sensitive parts.
Antichrist was viewed on IFC on Demand.