TIFF #2: Controversy's Groom

September 11, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

September 11. The ghosts of years and festivals past. Last year, due to the early coming of Labor Day, I was home before the anniversary - the first time that happened since 2001. This year, the festival is just getting underway. It's difficult to say whether the wound on the American psyche has been healed by now. It certainly is scabbed over. For those who experienced a direct loss on 9/11, there will always be an injury that not even the passage of large chunks of time will repair, but for the rest, time marches on, inexorable in its progression. For me, I think less deeply of September 11 on each September 11. The festival becomes more like it was in 2000 before its memories became entwined with what happened in New York, D.C., and Shanksville. Some would argue that's a good thing - the resilience to overcome and move past major tragedies. Others would caution that this path leads to complacency, and complacency opens the door to another such attack. I will never forget the importance of September 11, just as I never lose sight of what November 22 and December 7 mean (even though I was not born for either occasion), but the immediacy of 2001 is fading.

Memories of Lars von Trier's latest, Antichrist, will fade as well, although perhaps not as quickly as I might wish them to. What a way to start a festival… In a way, I am fortunate that I don't provide star ratings as part of festival write-ups, or I would be put in the unenviable position of having to figure out how to rate this movie. The difficulty associated with Antichrist is not discussing the impact of the film, but in deciding whether it deserves zero stars, four stars, or something in between. I can put off that decision until the time of its United States release when I will see it again and think long and hard about whether this is something I can recommend. I almost wish I could use an "n/a" designation, but that's a cop-out.

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. His films are often compelling, frequently controversial, and often as difficult to look away from as a train wreck. But Antichrist is something altogether different: an allegory that uses images of graphic violence and hardcore sex to unsettle the audience to the point where the movie will lose many of its viewers.

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 Gainsborough), 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. Von Trier is not shy about showing these things. During the opening scene, there is a brief insert of an erect penis penetrating a vagina. Later, we see masturbation, the bloody ejaculation, and a close up of what happens when the scissors are used. If none of this sounds appealing, or at least bearable, Antichrist is to be avoided.

What does it all mean? Damned if I know. 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 was attributed to God was 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 discussions arising from Antichrist, and maybe that's justification enough for seeing it, even if most of those discussions are more about where Von Trier goes wrong. 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. Certainly, something like Antichrist is not for a mainstream audience, or perhaps even a "mainstream art house" audience, but it's not intended for them. Von Trier has pitched the film at those who are willing to watch edgy, envelope-pushing material. Predictably, some will love it and some will hate it. My opinion is that, whatever Von Trier's goals, he doesn't achieve them. Some great acting by Dafoe and some nice histrionics by Gainsborough are wasted in the service of a story that doesn't work and themes that are murky at best. Antichrist is intriguing on many levels, 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 porn 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.

Will Antichrist open at a theater near you? Perhaps if you live in a big city. The "prurient curiosity" element mentioned above will probably result in some kind of small, guerilla distribution, and it's in English and stars at least one well-known actor, so that barrier is eliminated. Do I recommend you see it? Therein lies that quandary of how many stars, and that can wait until the movie has escaped the film festival orbit and entered into the airspace of the more daring art houses. Do not expect to see this at your local AMC.

The trailer for Antichrist: