Way un­holier than thou

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An­tichrist, drama, not rated, CCA Cin­e­math­eque, 982-1338, 2.5 chiles

IIf you pay at­ten­tion to world cin­ema as movies pass through the fes­ti­val cir­cuit, you’re prob­a­bly well aware of Lars von Trier’s no­to­ri­ous An­tichrist by now. But if you don’t fol­low the fes­ti­vals and were won­der­ing about the source of that loud mix­ture of groans and ap­plause com­ing from Cannes in May— well, now you know. Von Trier re­turns with his most von Trier-es­que film yet, and whether you think the Dan­ish writer and di­rec­tor is a ge­nius or a hack, An­tichrist will give you more proof to back up your opin­ion.

The story cen­ters on a cou­ple named He and She, played byWillem Dafoe and Char­lotte Gains­bourg. In the open­ing scene, the two are mak­ing love when their young child gets out of his crib and falls out a win­dow to his death. She is over­whelmed with grief. He, a ther­a­pist, treats her more as a pa­tient than as a wife and forces her to en­dure ba­nal and in­creas­ingly cruel ex­er­cises to move on with her life. Per­haps forc­ing his wife through this or­deal is the only way he can move on with his.

They re­move them­selves to a re­mote cabin in a for­est called Eden, and it quickly be­comes ap­par­ent that th­ese woods re­flect the Eden af­ter the ap­ple in­ci­dent and not an in­no­cent par­adise. As this dark en­vi­ron­ment en­croaches on them, She be­gins to sense that women are in­her­ently evil and lashes out at her hus­band/ ther­a­pist and even­tu­ally her­self in an ex­tremely vi­o­lent fash­ion. Those who find von Trier to be one of cin­ema’s big­gest misog­y­nists will find noth­ing to con­tra­dict that im­pres­sion.

An­tichrist is so ob­vi­ous in its in­tent to por­tray the du­al­i­ties of or­der and chaos and in its de­sire to of­fend view­ers that it sim­ply seems crude. The acts of vi­o­lence are too on-thenose to have real ef­fect be­yond shock value. The sym­bol­ism— such as the deer giv­ing birth and the acorns fall­ing on the roof— is blunt, as is the in­fant cry­ing in the sound mix. I usu­ally ab­hor vi­o­lence done to chil­dren in movies, as it’s a cheap way to arouse au­di­ence re­ac­tions, but von Trier plays it too silly and pre­ten­tious to elicit much be­yond a roll of the eyes. Staged to a Han­del aria with black-and-white photography, the love­mak­ing and child-dy­ing se­quence looks like a com­mer­cial for Kay’s Jewel­ers.

I sim­ply find it im­pos­si­ble to take this ma­te­rial se­ri­ously or to take von Trier very se­ri­ously as a film­maker. I don’t mean to sug­gest that An­tichrist is silly in a B-movie way, al­though if you saw it with some friends in the right frame of mind, you could eke plenty of gig­gles out of it. I just think von Trier en­joys revel­ing in his im­age as an Amer­ica-hat­ing misog­y­nist and en­joys play­ing with vis­ual sto­ry­telling and shock value. He strikes me as be­ing a cross be­tween an agent provo­ca­teur and a court jester rather than a cin­e­matic ti­tan.

Much has been made of the bravura per­for­mances (Gains­bourg even won the Best Ac­tress award at Cannes). I feel that if you’re a trained ac­tor and don’t mind nu­dity, then th­ese are fairly un­chal­leng­ing parts: there is lit­tle room for nu­ance, and the roles sim­ply en­tail throw­ing broad emo­tions across a can­vas. That’s not to be­lit­tle Dafoe and Gains­bourg, who both storm through the sex and vi­o­lence, give them­selves over to whirl­winds of mood, and ad­mirably throw them­selves into their roles. At times, how­ever, it feels more like per­for­mance art than a nar­ra­tive film.

And yet there is some­thing here. The theme of hu­mans ver­sus na­ture is more in­ter­est­ing than the theme of woman ver­sus man (putting aside von Trier’s an­noy­ing at­tempt to tie the themes to­gether by sug­gest­ing that women are more pri­mal and sex­ual, men more an­a­lyt­i­cal and pu­ri­tan­i­cal). Von Trier refers to na­ture as Satan’s church early in the film, and the creep­ing for­est does sup­ply many mem­o­rable vi­su­als. He and cin­e­matog­ra­pher An­thony Dod Man­tle ( Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire) shoot the woods won­der­fully, with a haunt­ing color pal­ette and slightly warped spe­cial ef­fects. The an­i­ma­tronic beasts and the re­lent­less on­slaught from na­ture man­age to be a lit­tle goofy, yet they still get un­der your skin. It’s like The Great Out­doors, only with more gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion.

I’ll prob­a­bly re­mem­ber it as a solid hor­ror flick but lousy art-house fare — more Evil Dead II than The Vir­gin Spring. It has, how­ever, be­come a ma­jor part of cin­ema dis­cus­sion in 2009, so if you don’t want to feel left out, I’d en­cour­age a view­ing.

I did learn two valu­able lessons, though. For men, I would sug­gest that if your wife tells you she’s dis­cov­ered that all women are evil, run away as fast as pos­si­ble. For women, my ad­vice is this: if at any point you dis­cover your­self in a Lars von Trier film, aban­don all hope. Trust me, you have a bet­ter chance at sur­vival with Freddy Krueger chas­ing you in A Night­mare on Elm Street.

She ain’t heavy, she’s my nat­u­rally evil wife: Willem Dafoe and Char­lotte Gains­bourg

Par­adise lost: Char­lotte Gains­bourg

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