Cook & Walker on Antichrist 10/20/2009
This article was originally published for The Capilano Courier, and written in partnership with Kurt Walker, who writes at Walking in the Cinema.
Lars Von Trier's Antichrist is surely a film almost everyone will hear about in one form or another this year. For the uninitiated, Antichrist is a startlingly bleak picture about a couple that has lost their child due to their own inadequacies as parents. The setting is their remote cabin in the woods, fittingly named Eden. Antichrist's surrounding controversy largely derives from the sexual destruction that the main characters embark upon in the final act, in which a close-up (amongst many other things) of a clitoridectomy is shown is shown- clitoridectomy being the surgical removal of the clitoris.
This has turned Antichrist into the cinematic bastard-child of 2009. Very few critics can cast a fair critical eye on Antichrist's many other properties and merits. Von Trier's film is deserving of an audience far more sophisticated than the one it has landed: the torture porn crowd. The controversial images, in which the final act manifests, are 100% intrinsic to the circumstances of the narrative, but the overwhelming potency of them is what most critics call into question as a technique that overshadows the rest of the narrative. This decision is entirely independent to the viewer and his/her opinions on intensive violence, but in speaking for myself, I must say that Antichrist's problems lay elsewhere, and that Von Trier's reluctance to hide images that divide audiences is one of the filmmaker's purest strengths.
Von Trier's film is built upon a dozen storytelling mysteries. One, which instantly comes to mind, is the decision to leave the main characters (played by Willem Dafoe, and Charlotte Gainsbourg: winner of the Best Actress award at Cannes Film Festival) nameless except for being curiously credited as “Him” and “Her.” With such a vague abstraction into the realm of namelessness, we find ourselves watching Von Trier juxtapose the characters as figureheads of their respective sex whilst they play out a modern reimaging of the original biblical story of Eden, Von Trier style. Instead of the snake, Trier has created his own lore independent from the textbooks. As a substitute we have a fox, a crow, and a deer, all of which are visual representations of the characters inner anguish: Fear, Pain, and Grief. With such employed dramatic playfulness, teamed with the purely psychological intent in which the film rests, Antichrist reaches dramatic heights that few films can hit. But despite these heights, there are numerous missteps along the way.
My problems rest within Von Trier occasionally overstepping dramatic boundaries in key moments. Sadly, as a result, these moments fall from their grace and intent and land within the realm of silliness. Such examples would be the infamous talking Fox who loudly proclaims “Chaos reigns,” and brief moments in which the powerful sight and sound aesthetic enters the realm of annoyance. But even these small problems never fully tarnish a film that is fantastically bold, relevant, and fittingly unrelenting. With Antichrist, Von Trier has proven that cinema can be entirely personal in conception whilst simultaneously translate to a cohesive and agreeable picture.
Antichrist is just about the craziest movie of the decade. Kurt has already gone over the more notable moments, ones that include genital mutilation and talking animals. What more could someone ask for?
With its bold, freaky trailer, and a continuously snowballing controversy, Antichrist is sure to attract attention from mainstream audiences. It is more than likely to lure the Hostel-loving crowd who need their latest fix of violence and sexuality. Thankfully, it should give those people a nice dose of reality. In films like Hostel, the sensationalized violence and sexuality is gratuitous and made to be agreeable with the audience. In Antichrist, you’re not bound for a bloody fun time at the cinema but rather a despairing, contemplative, and even repulsive work of art.
The scenes that are most extreme don’t arrive until the third act, when all hell breaks loose. Until these climatic events, the film is actually quite subtle, and even quiet. This is excluding several heartbreaking moments of pain, when we observe the character “She” going through a wrenching grief pattern. As the film moves along, it builds up to a horrific yet logical conclusion.
Some people have looked deeply at the films themes that involve nature and the evil inherent in it. While the film does look at some big philosophical and ethical issues, I ultimately don’t take it as a statement about humanity as a whole. Director Lars von Trier is known to take a bleak view of people in his films, but Antichrist is more about himself than any of his previous works. Now, famously, von Trier was going through a very deep depression and undertook this project as a method of therapy. Whether this was a successful venture for him, I know not, but the films cathartic power is undeniable. I have now seen Antichrist twice, and I no longer consider it a film that contains no hope. That is not to say it is happy, but it does offer a slight touch of optimism by the time the credits roll.
Kurt accuses Antichrist of “overstepping dramatic boundaries”, but for me, each moment felt organic and crucial. Even the talking fox. The filmmaker claims he took a shamanic journey during his depression, and during it met a fox that demanded to be in his next film. Interesting casting process. Anyway, I think the movie maintains its serious tone from beginning to end. Some of the patrons amongst us during the screening at VIFF may have laughed at key moments, but this was not because anything was necessarily funny, rather because the subject matter was making many people uncomfortable.
Antichrist is a bold film, a despairing work of genius that will not allow you to sit comfortably. Despite the psychological conflict within the film that is anything but tranquil, the movie has a serene quality. The score is unsettling, the photography is gorgeous, and the acting is masterful. Antichrist may not quite be among Lars von Trier’s greatest accomplishments (such as Breaking the Waves and Dogville), but it stands as one of the very best films of this year.
posted by adam cook