Sunday, October 11, 2009
Dir. Lars Von Trier
Fright Level: 5.5/10
Scare Type: Psychological, mortification
Subgenre: Domestic horror, body horror, sexual horror.
(you may be wondering if you missed #4,5 of my series of horror films. I will publish their reviews later, I saw this film after those but felt it necessary to publish its review first)
After the death of their child a therapist and his wife go to a cabin to confront her grief (he seems unmoved by the death). If I were to explain to you anything else that happens over the course of Antichrist you wouldn't believe me, and that's not a good thing. I will tell you that the film jumps the shark, or perhaps introduces a new animal-based phrase for a work reaching the threshold of its nadir, when, in an unintentionally laugh out loud moment, an anamatronic fox stops and delivers, or rather Von Trier voices the line "chaos reigns." And that's not the craziest or most pretentious part of the film, which drew all sorts of guffaws and "Wtf's" from the audience, perhaps the most I've heard since M. Night's Lady in the Water. Lars Von Trier's done horror before, in fact his finest work The Kingdom (Riget) series is one of the best works of modern film horror. This film is part horror, and part unintentionally a testament to the troubled mind of its creator.
Von Trier, one of the leaders of the Dogme 95 group of filmmakers, made two great films in the previous decade: Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves (and the Riget films, but those were miniseries'). Since Dogville he's turned the pretentious knob up to 11...this film reveals that knob goes to 12. While this is his most stylized film, aside from the chalkboard credits this film violates all the Dogme rules and is one of the most incredibly shot films in years, that stylization isn't a surprise if you've seen his work from the 80's; Von Trier can really make complex and gorgeous imagery. Shot in Panavision, utilizing state of the art digital rendering and post-processing, it looks amazing.
Written during a bout of depression, the films premise and location resemble Bergman's Persona, which was also written during a bout of deep mental distress. Both concern only two primary characters who go to work out mental troubles in a remote naturalistic location. Von Trier makes a reference to Strinberg's Inferno, and perhaps it's through Strindberg that this film refers to a lesser known Bergman film from the same period as Persona, The Hour of the Wolf. Aside from the obvious parallels to Roeg's Don't Look Now (explicit sexuality in a horror film about grieving parents after the death of a child) It also calls to mind Polanski's Repulsion and to lesser extents Lucky McKee's underrated May and Shindo's classic Onibaba. But what is done metaphorically in those films is telegraphed and overdetermined to the point of self parody in Von Trier's film.
I hope that what happened is that something personal quickly turned defensive. I hope that is the case because it would mean only that Von Trier was trying to change the topic, and appeal to centuries old pseudoscience and gender folk-epistemology; otherwise he's telling us he actually believes everything this and his other films have said and done to women. Before this I thought he was misogynistic, but I never thought until afterward, that he was so conscious of it. The first half of this film, except the ulta-stylized prologue, are actually emotionally involving, and it is apparent that this is a work that comes from a place of honest pain. Then the film tries to become too clever, adds unnecessary layers, and tries and explain that pain as part of something larger, to try and detach that pain from its creator, and it becomes a mess at best and pornography at worst. While Von Trier has not only made and championed it but at one time stated that he only watched hardcore porn, and this film features some of the most explicit sexual, I hesitate to use that term since its more the highlighting of functional body parts than sexual, images in a "mainstream" film, its, as the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes stated in a special "anti-award" given to the film, this is "one of the most misogynistic films ever made."
I will at least say this: while the woman of the film (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg who does her best in perhaps the most troubling and vulnerable role since Isabella Rosallini's in Blue Velvet) , she isn't even given a name, states dismissively "Freud is dead right?" this is the most Freudian film I've ever seen. In fact, it could be read as a horror film in which Freud's angry ghost wreaks havoc and "chaos reigns." The first half of the film uses it as subtext: the wife feeling her sexuality was the cause of her child's death begins to fear nature and her own sexuality in that nature. But the last half of the film takes a dark and disturbing turn, as Von Trier gets as literal as one can possibly get in describing Freudian sexual psychosis (even Cronenberg at his worst seems so nuanced compared to this), climaxing (and I use that term in multiple senses) with the most gruesome act of violence this side of Miike's Audition. Oh, and he tacks on a good deal of references to Original Sin and ascetic guilt in case you missed the point.
What I thought, toward the end of the film, is that this isn't reminiscent of a Bergman film or a Tarkovsky film but a Joe D'Amato film. Like Von Trier, D'Amato also worked in the porn industry, and while the infamous Italian exploitation director actually made some interesting and worthwhile films they are far outweighed by his tacky and disgusting ones. I've seen my share of exploitation films, and have championed many as being artful. One of the major determinants which can be used to differentiate between pure exploitation from a work which is using a less sophisticated filmic vocabulary is rather proportional to its self-justification. Films which merely exploit tack on social issues or use political issues as a superficial attempt to justify its transgressions and allow the viewer to defer any guilt or moral quandries in the name of some sort of misplaced civic duty. An exploitation film which does not exploit, but rather uses the language because of limitations in resources or other logistical reasons, presents its world as is, not always a self-sufficient narrative or even a justifiable one, but rather a statement of a human specific which can lead to, invite, or complicate universal interpretations. Antichrist spends so much time trying to justify itself, its filmmaker, by tying it to larger and larger issues that it eventually shows its hand: that this is an indulgent work parading as art.
Von Trier's final sin is that he takes the arrogant step of dedicating this film to Andrei Tarkovsky, a director who's work was hardly like this film except in few formal areas. That dedication is certainly the cause of some of the ill-will this film has fostered in the film community and at Cannes. Some will undoubtedly wonder if the title of the film is referring to the director himself. I don't know if its ironic or sad, but I think that's a title Von Trier would welcome.