Antichrist (Denmark/Germany/France/Sweden/Italy/Poland, 2009)October 19, 2009
Antichrist is a classic case of the Emperor's New Clothes. On the surface, it seems like there's something there - as if Lars von Trier is making bold statements about important issues. But when you think about it, he's not saying much, and what he is saying is either too obtuse to be of much value or not as original as it seems to be. The reason to see Antichrist - if, in fact, there can be said to be a reason - is to understand firsthand what all the fuss is about. Because the movie itself is thematically underwhelming and narratively obtuse, the marketing campaign focuses on The Controversy, as if that's reason enough in and of itself to watch a motion picture. Yes, it deeply divided audiences at Cannes. Yes, a staggering number of people walked out of public screenings at Toronto. And, yes, it has drawn high praise and black damnation from a variety of sources, some reputable and some not.
The controversy stems from a series of shots that depict graphic sex and/or violence. There's a bizarre hardcore insert and several cringe-inducing instances of genital mutilation. Fun stuff. Remove those from the mix, and this would be a pompous, ponderous meditation on grief and sadomasochism. No one would see it because the explorations of the ideas are not sufficiently compelling to hold an audience's attention. This is a classic case of a filmmaker believing he has found a greater truth and attempting with only middling success to regurgitate it in a film. And, like all vomit, you can kind-of see what it's composed of but the smell drives you away. So what does von Trier do to spice things up, to cover over the stench? He adds X-rated sex and violence. These scenes will freak out staid and proper art house viewers. And the material in between will put the so-called "torture porn" crowd to sleep, although they might enjoy a 3-minute edit that features just the "juicy stuff."
Antichrist is pretentious, but that should come as no surprise to those familiar with von Trier's work and attitude. He believes himself to be the greatest director of all time and acts like it. He delivers blistering criticisms about United States culture without having ever visited the country and at least sampled the society. This allegory isn't about the U.S., however; it's a little more universal in scope. The film is divided into six parts: a prologue, an epilogue, and four chapters. The bookend pieces are in black-and-white; the rest is in color. Antichrist opens by introducing us to "He" (Willem Dafoe) and "She" (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a married couple with a toddler. As they make love in the bathroom and bedroom, the child, fascinated by the big, fat snowflakes falling outside, heads for an open window and tumbles out to his death. In the wake of this tragedy, She is wracked by guilt. He, a therapist, establishes a program to help her work through her feelings. This includes visiting the place in the world she most fears: Eden, their cabin in the woods. There, things go dreadfully wrong.
(Spoilers follow.) The verbal diarrhea spouted by the man doesn't help his wife; it drives her further from the realm of the rational. She ultimately responds by slamming a block of wood into his groin, knocking him out. While he's unconscious, she masturbates him until he ejaculates blood, then she drills a hole through his leg and attaches a millstone that makes it difficult for him to movie without extreme pain. Later, lost in despair, she takes a pair of scissors and snips off her clitoris.
What does it all mean? Von Trier isn't obvious in revealing the secrets of his allegory. There are probably dozens of interpretations. Certainly, Antichrist is an attack on psychotherapy, but that's more of a side-issue, not the main one. The key to understanding may lie in the title. In Christian philosophy, the "Antichrist" is a being who will emerge in the End Times to deceive men. He is expected to be a charismatic leader who will be mistaken by many as Christ when in fact he is the servant of Satan. Using that as an overlay for Von Trier's story gives a new spin to Genesis, implying that much of what is commonly attributed to God is actually the work of Satan. The director believes humanity is depraved, and this is apparently his way of working through that belief.
The problem with opting for extreme visual images is that it can take the viewer out of the movie while at the same time upstaging the characters. The hardcore insertion during the prologue is a good example of this. For the most part, this sequence is beautifully filmed and produced. The music is Handel and the black-and-white is sumptuous. The shot of white snowflakes is mesmerizing and even the child's death is handled with restraint. However, the unexpected image of the erect penis entering the vagina is so startling that the illusion of being a participant in a story is stripped away. At that moment, the viewer is keenly aware of sitting in a seat in a theater. A choice by the director is suddenly paramount, not the characters or their situation. The spell has been broken. Doing this once during the course of a film is perhaps forgivable. Doing it multiple times, as Von Trier does, creates the question of whether he cares about the characters and the message or whether his primary goal is to shock the audience. Is this a movie for viewers to absorb or an attack on them?
The first chapter is well reasoned and competently presented. The second chapter is where things start to go awry. This is where the pretentiousness shifts from the level of high-sounding proclamations to nonsense. Most psychologists, I think, would blanch at his "techniques." These, of course, lead directly to the violence, misogyny, and misanthropy of chapters three and four, but Von Trier is already losing his audience by then. He has left behind real, believable characters and substituted them with avatars espousing certain cryptic themes. The movie ceases to be a narrative and is transformed into… what? An allegory, to be sure, but is even Von Trier certain what he's trying to attain here?
I can foresee some intriguing post-screening conversations arising from Antichrist, and maybe that's justification enough for seeing it, even if most of those discussions are more about whether von Trier has lost his mind. Also, an argument can be made that something extreme demands to be seen, at least by those who have few taboos when it comes to what a director chooses to show. Whatever Von Trier's goals, he doesn't achieve them. Some great acting by Dafoe and some nice histrionics by Gainsbourg are wasted in the service of a story that is ineffective and themes that are murky at best. Antichrist is intriguing on one level, and it possesses a visceral impact in addition to exciting a level of prurient curiosity, but it doesn't work. And that makes everything from the hardcore sex to the extreme violence to the pompous-sounding pronunciations by Dafoe pointless. At the conclusion of Antichrist, I felt more hollow and confused than shocked or energized. If I was annoyed at von Trier, it was not because he had failed to make an easily digestible motion picture, but because he had failed to make one that was digestible at all.
Bottom line: Do I recommend Antichrist? Tough to do, but tough not to. For those who are intrigued by the controversy, it may be worth the sacrifice, if only so you can evaluate it from a position of knowledge. It's the fatal roadside accident, where you know if you look, you'll see something you may never forget, no matter how much you might want to. Do you turn to the side or keep your gaze unwavering straight ahead? The thing is, Antichrist stays with you, although not always for the right reasons. I know people who have had trouble sleeping after watching it, so it's hard to deny there's something powerful at work. See it at your own risk, but go in with your eyes open (and perhaps ready to snap shut at a moment's notice if you find one of von Trier's images to be too strong).
Antichrist (Denmark/Germany/France/Sweden/Italy/Poland, 2009)
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Screenplay: Lars von Trier
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films