Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Antichrist on a Bicycle: or How I Stopped Worrying and Leanred to Tolerate 'Antichrist'

Directed by: Lars Von Trier

Year: 2009
Starring: Willem Defoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Editors Note: This is not so much a formal analysis or write up as it is a quasi review/think piece/diatribe where I wonder what the hell I just witnessed.

Try digesting this little nugget of knowledge: To concretely describe Lars Von Trier's 2009 film, Antichrist, is like trying to describe a painting by Dali. We may love it, we may be repulsed by it, or we may just look at it without any clue what to say about it. Concerning Antichrist, I find myself in a cinematic purgatory, and a state of slight confusion, because twenty four hours after watching Antichrist, after taking in the lengthy scenes, the cringe worthy gore and mayhem, the heavy handed symbolism, I can't really tell you if I liked it or not. It's far from enjoyable, those who have seen it can agree with me, but we can all agree that it's very artistic, visually stunning, and well acted.

That being said, a fox tries to eat itself.
Don't be fooled, he really looking to gnaw off an arm

Yes, folks, Von Trier is back and returns with another one of his dark, moody, and otherwise audience unfriendly projects, so prepare yourself for another agonizing, unsettling, and positively bleak foray into the lives of people who should know better before being in a Lars Von Trier film. To those who are unfamiliar with Von Trier, I do not blame you. His name is less recognizable than say, Spielberg or Scorsese, but he has drawn up quite a reputation as being one of World Cinema's most twisted and controversial minds. Both praised and reviled, Von Trier directs films that rarely seem to have a 'happy' ending, and often, the pain one feels while watching a film of his becomes so excruciating that no matter how outstanding the film itself may be, watching it a second time is simply too painful.

With his latest venture into the realm of unhappiness, Von Trier constructs, or at least tries to construct a revenge story, a tale about a dysfunctional married couple, human nature, and a portrayal of violence overcoming a mother who is filled with guilt and rage. Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg portray a nameless married couple, struck with the tragedy of a dead child. Through an exquisite and slightly pornographic slow motioned prologue, the viewer is given a wordless scene of unrelenting horror. The young boy, unnoticed by his copulating parents, ventures out of his crib and out of the nearby window, falling to his death while the strains of an aria fill the void of silence. Were Antichrist to have kept its story as pure and chilling as its opening scene, you would have an artistic masterpiece, nearly flawless and indisputably well made. And in some regards, it does feel like a masterpiece, the cinematography is seamless and combines cooky symbols of terror with the seemingly tranquil woods that encombers the couple. It's just unfortunate that Von Trier decides to create what feels more like an artsy exploitation film than a psychological mind game.

Now where was I? Oh, back to the story.

So we have this depressed couple, and in their grief and agony, the wife slowly unravels and her inner demons are exposed in their entirety. The therapist husband, sensing his wife's discontentment, decides to study and treat her, as if she were one of his patients. After learning what she fears most, the obviously ominous woods called 'Eden', he ventures with her to these freaky woods, intent on studying her but also freeing her from her nightmares.

This is where the story takes an already weird turn for the strange. In 'Eden', we find a pot pourri of symbols that resemble an apparent mythology/astrology/whatever weird ass study is covered in the film. A doe with a stillborn baby hanging out of its womb, a self cannibalistic talking fox, and a crow that annoys the ever loving hell out of Defoe and will not die. Seriously, this film is just that abstract. For the most part, the film is just tension and the two characters commiserating and working through their grief. And having sex, lots and lots of sex. In fact, the sexual aspect of the film serves as a warning sign of just how exploitative it may be. Seeing the daughter of the late singer Serge Gainsbourg knocking boots with the Green Goblin got to be a little too much, and a little too freaky. And because the film does not want to appear soft and cuddly, it gets very freaky, very fast.

Fun Fact: One of these Actors was a Voice in Finding Nemo

But I digress. Antichrist, from what I have described, sounds either like a Lynchian adaptation of Snow White or an ego stroking tribute to free reign film making. But none of this can really describe the intensity and excessive nature of the last half hour of the film. Before, it was a strange and sad movie about loss, add in Gynocide and a pair of scissors, and you have yourselves a bloodbath worthy of the next Saw movie. I will not disclose the gory details, but trust me, it will seriously do a number on to both your sex drive and your sense of safety.

The main gripe I have with Antichrist is less so the acts of violence themselves, more so the fact that Von Trier has created a film that is only slightly above the par of your gratuitous torture porn fare. Its acting and how it's filmed should be commended highly, as for the story, the symbols, all of the different components, so much could have come out of this that would make it even more effective if Von Trier did not feel compelled to show every violent detail as if it were a slice of meat on a deli counter. The fox and the deer, both very bizarre, but when stacked up against their human counterparts, it fazes you less when violence is so prevalent that by the end of the film, every character has done quite a number on themselves.

The exact opposite can be said for one of Von Trier's contemporaries, Michael Haneke. Haneke also directs films that are tough to stomach and feature some agonizing scenes, but whereas violence fuels much of Von Trier's work, Haneke's sparse use of blood truly shakes the viewer, leaving them with a haunting image that won't leave their brain. Even in his highly disturbing but altogether beautiful film, The White Ribbon, the one scene in which the violent aftermath of a beating is shown to the audience, that few second splice of a child in total fear and desperation manages to effectively speak for the rest of the film's unseen violent nature.

Another quibble I have with this particular Von Trier project is that unlike his other efforts, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville are two excellent examples, the female characters have clearer motives and appear justified in their actions, whereas the nameless female in Antichrist is convinced after her own lengthy studies that women are inherently evil and thus, must be punished and harmed. Her husband refuses to believe her misogynistic notions, but soon learns the hard way that his wife is not a force to be reckoned with. The two arguments on this aspect of the film seem to indicate that either yes, the film is sexist and depicts women as violent beings who are just horrible demons, or that the actions of the wife reflect a darker side of the woman's personal self, and merely serve as vengeance for the husband's passionless way of handling her sorrow. Both sides I see and agree with to some degree, but the film, in comparison to other works by the same director, boils down to a nicely shot but weaker story than prior films.

In conclusion, as a reviewer, I urge you to see Antichrist and make your own opinions. Not first, though, watch Dogville instead, knowing that this film is both beautiful but flawed. It's something that will garner great discussion, but when it comes down to the wire, it's freaky shit with a nice lens. And in some ways, for a film, that's actually pretty decent.