[9 November 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s fairly obvious that vision is in short supply in Hollywood. Just look at what passes for art among the mindless mainstream movies that make their weekly pilgrimage to your local Cineplex and see if it’s not true. We live in blank, bland times. But there’s something that goes hand in hand with imagination and daring, a word that many misconstrue as consistent with arrogance, pretention, and ego. Some even use it as an excuse for limiting clear creativity. Yet “audacity” is equally lacking in today’s motion picture landscape. Few filmmakers simply take their ideas and run wild with them. Typically, they simply slink along, looking to make their money before moving on to the next journeyman job.
To put it mildly, Lars Von Trier is not your typical anything. Over a career that has seen him embrace the strictures of the no-frills Dogme ‘95, dabble in TV terror, and defy convention with musicals and haughty historical period pieces, he has avoided easy description as his films have lacked commercial consideration. Now comes Antichrist (new to the Criterion Collection in a magnificent Blu-ray release), a work of unqualified brilliance - and impudence. Some have even dubbed it the most misogynistic movie ever created. Actually, it will probably stand as Von Trier’s masterpiece.
A married couple experiences a horrific tragedy when their infant son leaves his crib and crawls out an open window, falling to his death. Overtaking by grief, the mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) spends over a month in a mental hospital while her therapist husband (Willem Dafoe) disagrees with her chemical course of treatment. Removing her from the facility and forcing her to do away with all medication, he feels he can talk her through the pain. When she reveals an unnatural fear of the woods surrounding a cabin in a place called Eden, he decides to take her there.
Initially, she is frightened into a state of near inertia. He finds her anxieties almost comical. Slowly, they begin to probe her wounded psyche. But as her attitude improves, he begins to suspect something sinister. Indeed, she has used her research into historical crimes against women to conclude that the female gender is inherently evil. It’s become her post-motherhood mantra. He believes that is utter nonsense - until his wife turns violent, physically, emotionally, and above all, sexually.
Absolutely stunning in its visual flourishes, horrifying in its aggressive violence, and knowing in its psycho-sexual philosophical bent, Von Trier’s Antichrist is simply astonishing. It’s a structured walk through one woman’s terrifying mental breakdown, a deconstructed cry for relief and understanding. So obsessed with birth and biology that the symbols practically stand up and shout their intent, this is New Age therapeutics as Grand Guignol geek show.
It is obvious what Von Trier is messing with - what happens to a “mother” when she loses that title (perhaps by her own actions, or lack thereof) - and along with the awkward supposition that history has prove the woman wicked, he intends to explore every possible angle of attack. That’s why we get sequences of passion, bloodletting, comforting conversation, and unhinged insanity. In the end, he offers no real conclusions. Instead, we see one couple completely disintegrate over the impact of grief, and wonder what will come next.
Like Dante’s Inferno, what we wind up with is a literal trip through Hell, a beautiful, beguiling place that holds many horrific truths barely simmering under its lush surface. Several times throughout the course of Antichrist, Von Trier pulls back the curtain to reveal the redolence underneath. Limbs are hacked. Body parts are beaten. We aren’t supposed to take what happens to the characters as being wholly realistic. Instead, the moment they leave their quiet urban apartment and head into this mythic wilderness, the lens purposefully distorts to argue against authenticity. It’s a piece of filmic finesse that happens several times during the story.
Unlike Breaking the Waves, which took an almost documentary approach on a similar subject and theme (human degradation and the females role in same), we get the kind of aesthetic aggressiveness that makes Antichrist another ‘love it or loathe it’ extreme. The prologue with its abundant monochrome slow motion is so remarkable, so hypnotic in its carefully composed presentation that we are instantly taken aback by its power. It’s shockingly handsome. Luckily, the rest of the movie lives up to this opening promise.
Indeed, the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (Oscar Winner for Slumdog Millionaire and previous Von Trier collaborator) deserves considerable praise. There are times when the movie almost stands still, the filmmakers using their incredibly long holds and static shot framing to build a considerable amount of texture and suspense. Of course, there are also handheld close-ups and action elements that tend to forward the film’s intimate, in your face nature. Along with the amazing work by Gainsbourg and Dafoe, Von Trier creates an insular realm where his dream logic and nightmare scenarios can play out - and the results aren’t always pleasant.
Both actors are required to bare everything onscreen - from their bodies to their souls - and they do so magnificently. Some will still be bothered by the narrative’s lack of crystal clarity. Others will take the obvious step and scream ‘hate’. But there is an intriguing middle ground which suggests we are watching Dafoe work through his emotional attachment to his wife and dead child. The violent struggle to resolve same appears to be part of the movie’s motive. The finale foretells his decision.
By delivering a faux horror film that’s as much about the bloodletting as it is about the basis for all human fear, Lars Von Trier provides a statement so profound, so difficult to embrace fully and honestly that Antichrist will leave many confused and angry. It will be seen as a blight, as exploitation disguised as artistic arrogance, all meant to cover up that most typical of complaints against the director - he hates women. But even as it embraces a similar stance and offers up one character’s physical proof of an anti-female agenda (Gainsbourg’s final act is too horrific to even consider calmly), it’s obvious that this movie is merely a meditation on what’s it’s like to give birth, to lose said biological immortality, and wonder if it was such a horrible crime not to care.
When our heroine argues that she’s afraid of Nature, that it’s “Satan’s Kingdom” on Earth, her husband translates that as a simple statement of self-loathing. For more than 90 minutes we’ve watched as she acts out on such irrational, apocalyptic ire. By the end, Antichrist suggests that almost anything is survival - except, perhaps, the battle within. It’s one cosmic war that never produces an actual victor.