Friday, November 13, 2009

Movie Review: Antichrist

Antichrist ****
Directed By:
Lars von Trier.
Written By: Lars von Trier.
Starring: Willem Dafoe (He), Charlotte Gainsbourg (She).

I am not sure why Lars von Trier dedicated his new film Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky, that wonderfully weird, religiously rigid Russian filmmaker, when the film is so clearly inspired by a Scandinavian like von Trier, Ingmar Bergman. Maybe it’s more gamesmanship by the eccentric von Trier, a brilliant director that you can never trust when he speaks. He is a provocateur, both in his films and in interviews, but I don’t think he is entirely sincere when he speaks about his own work, and what is on screen, and what he describes, are obviously different. Like other celebrity directors, like Quentin Tarantino, von Trier seems trapped by the persona he has set up for himself, and feels the need to justify his reputation. And when he makes a film as “scandalous” as Antichrist, and is confronted by a hostile press at the Cannes film festival, I don’t think he can help himself.

Perhaps it would be best to start out this review by telling you to forget everything that you have heard about Antichrist in the past few months since it debuted at Cannes. All the hype about how this is the most violent, shocking film in history is complete bullshit. There is hardly any violence in the movie at all – it is nearly all in the film’s final act, and it is not nearly as graphic as you have been led to believe. What’s more, the film earns its violent conclusion – in fact it demands it – because of everything that has come before the finale. Von Trier is using the basic structure of a martial drama from Ingmar Bergman, and incorporating elements of pornography and the horror film to it. While it is not a film everyone will like – in fact many will loathe it – it is a film that demands to be seen and debated in a serious way.

The film has one of the best opening of any this year (in fact, had it not been for the marvelous opening scene of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, it would easily be the best). A married couple is fucking (and that course word is the correct one) up against their washing machine as the clothes spin around behind them. The scene is graphic, but it’s appropriate for what it going on. Their fucking is intercut with their baby waking up in his room, getting out of his crib and walking over to the window to look at the falling snow. His teddy bear goes out the window, and the baby soon follows, crashing down to the cold, icy streets below, where he is killed. The sequence is shot in stark black and white, and is a masterpiece of film construction – with the rising and falling of the fucking couple, the snow, the laundry and the baby all treated in the same way. The family in effect becomes humanity entire in this sequence.

After this sequence, we get the first of four chapters – grief and we learn more about the couple. She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has fallen into a deep grief following the death of their child, and has needed to hospitalized and medicated to get through the day. He (Willem Dafoe) is a therapist, and believes that he can help her more than her doctors can, and takes her home, and subjects her to rigorous therapy to try and get to the root of her fears. When he discovers that nature – specially their cabin the woods, named not coincidentally Eden – is what she is scared of, he takes her there, and forces her to confront her fears.

As with many of his films, von Trier portrays the male authority figure in the movie as a spineless, gutless, clueless hypocrite. She doesn’t need a therapist – or making accurately doesn’t need him to be her therapist – she needs him to be her husband. And yet, she still tries to do what he wants her to do. He pushes her farther and farther, and when she seems to be cured, it still isn’t enough for him. He has his own grief process to get through, and if he cannot control hers, then he is going to have to confront it. Not only that, but he knows things about that last summer that She and their baby spent together in Eden that she does not know. At some point in their “therapy” it becomes less about curing her, and more about punishing her.

It’s in these scenes, where the similarities between von Trier and Bergman are most pronounced. In many ways, the first two acts of von Trier’s movie is similar to one of those Bergman martial movies, where the couple fights each other in an isolated place. Think Through a Glass Darkly, minus the brother and the father, or Persona, if the you substitute a husband for one of the women. Von Trier is, if anything, an even more gifted visual filmmaker than Bergman, and the movie has many striking images of these two bodies at war with each other. The most iconic image of the film has She, after she tries to seduce He, run out into the forest and starting to furiously masturbate, before he comes along and the two fuck up against a tree as hands reach out for them from the roots. It is a haunting image.

It’s in the last act where von Trier takes the film to a new level, and it’s this last act that garners all the attention when the film is discussed (now would be the time to stop reading if you don’t want to know what happens). She again tries to seduce He, and fails. She becomes convinced that he is going to leave her, and smashes his testicles with a block of wood. Trying to convince herself that he is okay, she gives him a furious handjob (he is now passed out), and he cums blood all over her. She drills a hole in his ankle and attaches a heavy grinding wheel to stop his movement. She then uses a pair of scissors to cut off her own clit, and then flees into the forest. When He awakens, He tries to get away, ending up crawling into a hole in the base on the same tree that they fucked against in the previous act. She finds him, digs him out, and then feeling bad about what she’s done, releases the grinding wheel, at which point, he stands up and strangles her to death.

I’m sure all of this sounds pretty extreme, and admittedly it is, but it is not nearly as graphic as it has been made to be. We don’t actually see the block of wood hit Dafoe’s testicles (although every guy in the audience will feel it), and other than Gainsbourg’s pubic hair, we don’t really see all that much when she cuts off her clit either. But even if Von Trier did show this all in more detail, it would still be valid because it is what the film demands at this point.

She is writing her thesis on the evil committed against women throughout human history. But somewhere along the way, she has become confused, as she has started to read it as the evil of women. She needs He to be in there to keep her sane, so She lashes out against He when She thinks He is going to leave her. Once the damage has been done, she punishes herself in a similar way (cutting off her clit is akin to crushing his testicles) as an act of penance. By desexualizing both of them, she is also in effect punishing them both for letting their carnal desires distract them as their son fell to his death.

The rest of the film is Von Trier playing with horror movie tropes. For much of the movie, we think that perhaps this going to be something akin to a “rape revenge” horror film, with He punishing She throughout, until She strikes back. But that’s not really what happens. She transforms in the final act to something akin to the prototypical movie slasher, and he in effect becomes the “survivor girl”. This further goes to the need to have the scenes leading up to this transformation in place. By crushing his testicles, She essentially emasculates He, and by cutting off her clit, she essentially defemintizes herself. There is a gender role reversal in the final act. In essence, Von Trier’s ending is the only ending that makes sense given what has come before it.

Now as I reach the end of the review, I realize that I have described what happens in the movie, but not what it all actually means, or why Von Trier actually made the movie. I agree with Roger Ebert that the film’s title is the key to understanding the movie, in that by renaming his film Antichrist, Von Trier has indicated that this is a film set in an alternate world, created by Satan, not by God, and in essence he has remade the book of Genesis in this world. The baby’s fall is man’s fall from Grace. Her sin is despair over losing her baby. His is pride in thinking he can “cure” her. Instead of comforting each other, as they would do in the Bible, they instead inflict pain on each other – He psychologically throughout the first two acts of the movie, She physically in the last act. If you need more proof of this, just look at the ways the animals in the film are portrayed – there is even a talking fox. Not to mention the film’s haunting final image, with a group of people ascending up the hill as He walks down it. These are Biblical images, but not from the Bible if you know what I mean.

I also realize that I have not yet praised the performances of Dafoe and Gainsbourg. They are both stunning, brave, fearless performances from great actors at the top of their game. His eerily calm voice recalls his work in The Last Temptation of Christ, where he played Jesus, but could just as easily be Satan tempting Jesus. Gainsbourg has the more difficult role, and she rips into it, giving the most fully realized performance of any actor in a Von Trier film ever. These two trusted their director, who ended up creating one of his very best films. Antichrist deserves to be taken seriously, and seriously discussed, no matter what your thoughts on the film are. In my mind, it’s one of the best films of the year.

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