Monday, December 7, 2009

Antichrist (2009, Lars Von Trier)

One of the challenges of reviewing a movie as visceral as Antichrist is that it’s difficult to see past the initial impact to the headier stuff on display. I saw Antichrist for the first time on Friday night, and since then I’ve been turning it over in my head, trying to puzzle out what Von Trier is doing with the film. However, my more immediate reaction to it was closer to stunned silence at the sheer force of the filmmaking and the often-shocking imagery. Make no mistake- Antichrist hits, and hits hard.

“If nothing else, Antichrist is the best horror movie in years,” I told a friend the other day, and I stand by this statement. With all his aspirations to artistry, Antichrist is first and foremost a horror movie, and a highly effective one (read: scary) at that. Much like Kubrick’s take on The Shining, most of the horror in Antichrist comes not from the explosion of violence and gore that comes in the last couple of reels, but rather from the creeping dread in the build-up to that point. And I do mean “creeping”- Von Trier’s use of extreme slow-motion in a number of sequences in Antichrist is nothing short of stunning, giving already some already gorgeous images a hypnotic effect while burrowing themselves into your consciousness. If I had trouble sleeping the night after I saw Antichrist, it’s these shots that were to blame.

Thankfully, Antichrist gave me plenty to think about during my sleepless hours. The best horror films tend to smuggle in their ideas as subtext, but Von Trier foregrounds his here in a way few horror filmmakers have. Antichrist is a thicket of themes and theses, tackling topics ranging from the historical repression of female sexuality to the sinister qualities of the natural world. In addition, Von Trier the limits of psychology and psychotherapy, examines the grief process, and the dissolution of a loving marriage in its wake. All this set against the portrayal of a world seemingly ruled over by a deity who appears to be anything but benevolent. Pretty heady stuff, I’d say.

Even more than most of Von Trier’s films, Antichrist has been a target for plenty of criticism from those who believe the filmmaker to be an inveterate misogynist. But while the film eventually becomes the story of a woman who goes nuts and subjects her husband to unspeakable violence, I don’t think it’s as simple as it appears to be at first glance. After all, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg, fierce and fearless) is still reeling from the accidental death of her son, which Von Trier shows in agonizing detail in the film’s opening scene. And rather than trusting her treatment to the medical establishment, her therapist husband (Willem Dafoe) takes on the case himself. He then proceeds to fully embrace his therapist role, making himself emotionally unavailable at precisely the time she needs a loving husband most. What’s more, his therapy techniques are dubious at best, consisting of Freudian psychobabble and face-your-fears platitudes, the latter leading them to their cabin in the woods (called “Eden”), which she harbors fears for even under ideal circumstances.

So yeah, He probably isn’t helping her sanity much. But just as important is Von Trier’s acknowledgement of the longstanding male fear of female sexuality, which have manifested themselves in alarming ways throughout the centuries. Before her son’s death, She was working on a graduate theses that examined these historical practices, but in light of the circumstances surrounding the boy’s accident- She was making love to her husband when the boy escaped his crib, and indeed she is shown having an orgasm just as he plunges to his death- she would understandably connect her carnal urges to destruction. So considering her extreme guilt coupled with her overwhelming grief, and exacerbated by the forbidding surroundings of Eden, the violence She displays in the final reels of Antichrist isn’t much of a stretch for the story.

This is made explicit in what is perhaps the film’s most notorious shot, in which She takes a pair of scissors to herself and snips off her clitoris. In other hands- for example, Takashi Miike at his laziest- this might have come across as an empty shock tactic. However, in the context of Antichrist, it’s anything but. Having already supplied us with images of historical persecution of women- torture, executions, and the like- von Trier uses this shot to summon up an image of contemporary persecution, one practiced among cultures that are still suspicious of the female sex. That Antichrist shows a woman doing it to herself is especially horrifying, since She has become so afraid of the destructive power of her sex that she feels the need to remove it altogether.

Even setting aside the film’s rather politically-incorrect views on gender, Antichrist is a von Trier film through and through. He’s arrogance in dealing with his wife’s mental health is similar to that displayed by Tom Edison in Dogville and Grace in Manderlay. And the use of hypnosis as a key plot point hearkens back to von Trier’s earlier work, from the narration of both The Element of Crime and Europa to the harrowing final scene of Epidemic. And like many von Trier films, Antichrist is a portrait of a social institution- a marriage, in this case- that is sent into disarray by the addition (or subtraction) of a key ingredient. After little Nick falls from the balcony, nothing can be put back together again, until, yes, “chaos reigns.”

Alas, Antichrist isn’t one of von Trier’s best films. For one thing, von Trier doesn’t quite manage to make his multitude of ideas cohere in an interesting (what does She’s sexual psychosis have to do with her phobia of the outdoors, for example?). Likewise, while some of the film’s more infamous elements- such as the aforementioned self-mutilation- make sense thematically, others seem to be included primarily for shock value, lending credence to the naysayers who dismiss von Trier as a mere provocateur. All the same, Antichrist is an important film, one for critics and cinephiles to dismiss at their peril. Von Trier claims that he made the film while suffering through a bout of severe depression, and the frayed-nerve filmmaking on display here is clearly born out of a very dark and personal place. For all its flaws, Antichrist feels like a key work for its maker, and I suspect that its reputation will only grow once the shock has worn off.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

2 comments:

Moncef said...

"what does She’s sexual psychosis have to do with her phobia of the outdoors, for example?)."

Umm, Nature: you moron? Where you paying attention the whole film? He blatantly makes the connection to the metaphor in one scene so it isn't even wishful analysis in metaphors on ambigious source information. No, from the source information (the dialogue/images in the movie) one can objectively come to the conclusion that He contends to be rational and urging rational thought. Everything that He encourages, He represents. She is with phobia. She represents phobia, which is BY DEFINITION an irrational fear. Her obsession with the HUMAN NATURE of women is also irrational. But, that's only explicitly covered in one scene where Dafoe's "He" adds "Human" to the irrational fear pyramid (right over "Nature"). Then, by the dialogue where he tells her to roleplay, her as irrational and him as rational and that's where he exposes to her that it's her own human nature she's most deeply afraid of. She's afraid of herself. She actually believes women are evil, by nature. And she fulfills that belief and "prophecy." She plays her part. And rationality does nothing to stop it. In fact, rationality is what goads irrationality into the whole entire mess we see at Eden.

Mostly, von Trier is railing against those who say:

a) Rationality prevails (in religion, where von Trier is a staunch irrational Catholic literally believing the wafer is the flesh of christ and the wine his blood; and in therapy, where von Trier is a marked denouncer of exposion therapy (hint: the type her Proud husband tries) due to his major phobias (which he's been told, many times, are irrational)

b) Therapy and therapeutical methods are to be trusted; Big Pharma is not to be trusted and therapy prevails.

I liked this movie - it stuck in my head, not because it agreed with my firmly held notions but because it disagreed artistically (in an inspiring fashion) and passionately. It was very easy for me to care about this movie due to the dialogue, the symbolism and the topics. For instance, if life is meaningless, then why is rationality meaningful?

Paul C. said...

Moncef,

You raise some interesting points, and some of these points have indeed occcurred to me since I first saw the movie. This review, such as it is, was an immediate reaction to the movie, which even more than most of Von Trier's films hit me extremely hard. In the moment, I responded to it primarily as an uncanny and extremely effective horror movie, and it wasn't until later than I began to grapple with the ideas underneath that horror.

That said, I wish you could have done without the insults and personal attacks here. I've always tried to maintain an air of positivity on my blogs, and I only ask that my readers, whoever they may be, do the same. I expect a certain amount of trolling throughout the blogosphere- indeed, that's why I turned on comment moderation. But to see someone who obviously has real insight into film resort to name calling is sort of demoralizing.