Way unholier than thou
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