Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Lars Von Trier, 2009
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
It took me a few months to actually review this film, because I couldn't really decide how I felt about Antichrist. I considered that might be worth writing about, because I'm honestly not sure if it's a successful piece of filmmaking or banks entirely on shock value. And make no mistake -- it is a jarring exercise in taboo, revulsion, shock, and horror.
A couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) try to recover from the accidental death of their young son. She (the characters are nameless) literally crumbles under the weight of guilt and grief and he tries to help her work past this in a series of steps using his training as a therapist. He takes her from the hospital to their cabin in a forest called Eden. He attempts to break her grief with a series of exposure therapy techniques, which ultimately backfires and makes her more manic, spiraling the couple into a sort of ultra-violent hell on earth.
I don't want to give away too many details, because this is a film you should see for yourself, particularly if you have the stomach for extreme on-screen violence. Despite its flaws, Antichrist subtly reroutes the normal structure of narrative film, instead relying on visuals and emotional snippets to create a powerful portrayal of grief and madness. In this way, Von Trier is completely successful, because the visual world -- including the effects -- are beautiful and unsettling. A lot of these elements blur the lines between the surreal and the supernatural, which works well for the mood and story.
The performances are also phenomenal. Dafoe and Gainsbourg give their all, bearing more in one film than most actors will in a lifetime, both physically and emotionally (though professional porn actors were used as body doubles in the graphic opening sex scene). This is essentially a film about love and responsibility: the degree to which we are responsible for those we love and those that love us, as well as how responsible we are for ourselves. Issues of abuse are also well handled. In most cases of abuse, assault, and murder, particularly against women and children, these acts are committed by loved ones and family members. Not to imply that this is a film about child or spousal abuse, but it is definitely about the abuses and wrongs to which we so easily and unconsciously subject our loved ones.
By now, anyone who has heard anything about Antichrist knows that it is a graphically violent and sexual film. There are scenes of hardcore sex in the film's opening, which is a bizarre and jarring. On one hand it is very effective. It completely disorients the viewer, leaving behind an equal blend of attraction and repulsion. Sex, at least in mainstream and art house cinema, is usually never filmed in a such a clinical or operatic way. There is nothing left to the imagination in this scene, which largely -- and I believe intentionally -- removes the eroticism.
The violence is intense. I can watch Cannibal Holocaust a few times a year and still be a little amazed by the gut-ripping, lady-bits-gored-with-a-spike horror of it all, but Antichrist is not saturated with violence, which makes the extremely graphic, horrible acts seem so much worse in comparison. You will squirm uncomfortably.
The film's biggest issue is its overwrought message about women and the female character's thesis on gynocide, the historical murder of women seen as a form of genocide, such as the Salem Witch Trials. It's somewhat ironic that is essentially a film about the wrongs done to women (and children), because Von Trier has gotten a lot of guff throughout his career for being misogynistic. Perhaps these elements are a comment on that, but they just come across feeling heavy handed. On the other hand, this is one of the best films in recent memory about sexual horror and sexual hysteria, so he's obviously doing something right.
I do think this is an accomplished film, it's just not for everyone. It's certainly flawed, but it's a major work for Von Trier, benefiting from shades of Tarkovsky (to whom the film is dedicated) and Bergman. More of a dark, violent art house effort than a horror film, I'm not really sure who to recommend it to. It is probably too disturbing for the casual viewer, but too intellectual for your run of the mill horror fan. Should you choose to watch it. the film received an absolutely beautiful release from Criterion, which comes highly recommended.