Monday, October 26, 2009
Antichrist (2009) A Film by Lars Von Trier
Uncharacteristically for an "arthouse" film, Antichrist has inspired an intense and widespread public brouhaha. Even for Lars Von Trier, the long-protested cinematic deviant of such extreme films as Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, and Europa, the work is somewhat of an anomaly. Who would have ever thought that a film with content reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman and a dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky would have ever received such an exaggerated response from the public at large? The entire lot of filmmakers Von Trier appears to be influenced by are too subdued and modest to have provoked it. Regardless, the director has presented a symbolically loaded tale of psychotherapeutic chaos and tickled the mass conscience in a way that reaffirms the overwhelming social power of cinema.
From its initial impulsive critical feedback at Cannes, Antichrist certainly succeeded in getting me excited. As is rarely the case, I was responding fervently to the (mostly) silly hype. Rumors of Von Trier "losing his mind" were especially enthralling; my question is, didn't Von Trier lose his mind the moment he picked up a film camera? Never have his films persuaded me for their great maturity or sophistication, but rather for their genuine uniqueness and insanity. Often times they are a mess, but Von Trier is one of those interesting enigmas whose next project can never be predicted, having moved around aesthetically and thematically almost on a film-to-film basis since his career began in the mid-1980's. So, with only a handful of press images and a slew of bombastic adjectives to work with, I could only wonder: following an unusually out of place comedy (The Boss of it All (2006)), where would Von Trier take us this time?
The mysterious but true answer is into his own head. Indeed, Antichrist may well be one of Von Trier's most personal, sincere films to date, which compels us to label him an absolute nut. In order to combat his own depression, he focuses in on an immensely depressing subject with parallels to his own life. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play with utter conviction and bravura a grieving couple whose son dies in the film's elegant opening sequence, a hyper-slow motion monochromatic account of the married couple engaged in passionate sex while their son guilelessly slips out his bedroom window. The film's "plot" really begins after this episode, when Dafoe - portentously dubbed "He" to Gainsbourg's "She" - insists on curing his wife's irregular grief pattern by himself, being the domineering therapist he is. The course of action he takes is irregular itself though: he forces his wife to confront her fears in the couple's reclusive retreat in the woods, once again suggestively called "Eden". Gainsbourg's psychological trauma intensifies as she is aroused by memories of her son's life and the malignant presence of nature that surrounds her. At one point, she insists that the ground is burning, to which Dafoe counters with characteristic detachment, "the ground is not burning".
Gradually however, the threatening force in the woods makes itself known to Dafoe's character as well. Not only do the woods embody a dangerous place to settle, but they are also rife with foreboding animals, and even nonliving objects (acorns and trees) enact an angry violence towards the two. Gainsbourg's sanity becomes an element directly related to nature's outrage; as more problems occur, she becomes increasingly out of touch with reality. At one point she hears the wail of her son reverberate around the cabin, eventually discovering nothing. Her psychological and spiritual transformation turns for the worst, culminating in the bizarrely unsettling and shockingly graphic final thirty minutes, where the bulk of the film's most talked-about scenes ensue. Dafoe and Gainsbourg undergo a significant transfer of power, signaled by the literal desexualization of the two of them. I won't divulge what actually happens because it has been endlessly ranted about on every other blog, but on a metaphorical level, She destroys His masculinity and removes the indicator of His power over Her.
The film equates femininity with nature, and nature's depiction here is relentlessly evil. Such a concept appears undeniably misogynistic, but in an interview, Von Trier stated that he has been consciously tackling issues in his recent films that he is opposed to. Whether he's sincere or not, he puts Gainsbourg through such startling effronteries that the end result could only be one of two things: career devastation or herculean praise, the latter of which came true when she won Best Actress at Cannes. At the same time, there's something perversely empowering about her character, as if Von Trier sees something admirable in her scowling persistence and unpredictability, traits that lift her to a more mythological level. She also has a haunting clairvoyance about her, constantly predicting non-verbally what will happen next, eventually explaining to her husband that once the "Three Beggars" arrive, one of them will have to die.
This idea of the "Three Beggars" - which turns out to be the deer, fox, and crow that show up individually throughout the film - points toward the more spastic allegorical levels of the film. Whenever these animals appear, they supply otherworldly tension. Each is a reminder of the supposed terror of reproduction; the deer turns around to reveal a grotesquely limp infant hanging near its hind legs, the fox bites open its own lower stomach, and a hideous baby bird inexplicably falls from a tree with flies nibbling from its corpse. Are these unavoidable reminders to Dafoe of the inherent sin of reproduction, suggesting that He is subconsciously punishing his wife for bringing their son into the world? Maybe, but Von Trier bubbles up any possible answers in obscurity by layering on other symbolic cues over it. The likeness of the central characters and setting to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the further religious presence of the three distinct animals, the notion of witchcraft informing Gainsbourg's actions (the subject of her thesis whose remnants lie across the cabin), the extreme sadomasochistic and animalistic sexual content - all work to heighten the ambiguity. Sometimes Von Trier goes in over his head and becomes overly self-conscious (I'm pointing at you, talking fox), making us question the aim of his symbolism in the first place.
No matter how frustratingly confused Antichrist's themes become, there's no denying that the film has an astounding vision. Special mention is due to Anthony Dod Mantle, Von Trier's longtime cinematographer, who took the reigns on the set in several instances when the director's depression left him considerably weak. Visually, credit should be split down the middle, with Von Trier being the mad genius to have devised such luminous imagery and Mantle the brilliant technician to execute it, using a fusion of current digital technology with the Red and the Phantom cameras. In doing so, Antichrist joins a short list of the finest cinematic statements made using digital. The scene on the train to Eden when Dafoe elicits visions from Gainsbourg is a particular standout; as She trudges in hyper-slow motion around the foggy, ominous woods, the camera observes from detached perspectives, mirroring the dreaminess of Her husband's coaxing words. The immense detail in these images, as well as in the two black and white sequences that bookend the film (scenes that take place out of the "reality" of the story), is startlingly palpable and the palette tremendously rich.
In such instances, Antichrist reaches a level of transcendence. One is not simply watching the film but experiencing it in all its vivid, sometimes hideous glory. As expected, it's a remarkably uneven and unsubtle film, from the jarring contrast between grandiose stylization and documentary-like jump cutting to the similarly opposite emotions triggered by the unpredictable clamor of the story, first marked by grim Bergmanesque chamber drama and punctuated by bursts of genre horror and exploitation. After seeing the film, I couldn't be certain as to whether I was reacting to what it did viscerally or to what it ultimately achieved on a cerebral level. I still can't be sure, but when I think about how deeply the film's denouement shook me, I am once again lost for words. That's about as close to a verdict as I can get.