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Cannes #6: A devil's advocate for "Antichrist"

1_.jpgLars Von Trier's new film will not leave me alone. A day after many members of the audience recoiled at its first Cannes showing, "Antichrist" is brewing a scandal here; I am reminded of the tumult following the 1976 premiere of Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses" and its castration scene. I said I was looking forward to von Trier's overnight reviews, and I haven't been disappointed. Those who thought it was good thought it was very very good ("Something completely bizarre, massively uncommercial and strangely perfect"--Damon Wise, Empire) and those who thought it was bad found it horrid ("Lars von Trier cuts a big fat art-film fart with "Antichrist"--Todd McCarthy, Variety).

I rarely find a serious film by a major director to be this disturbing. Its images are a fork in the eye. Its cruelty is unrelenting. Its despair is profound. Von Trier has a way of affecting his viewers like that. After his "Breaking the Waves" premiered at Cannes in 1996, Georgia Brown of the Village Voice fled to the rest room in emotional turmoil and Janet Maslin of the New York Times followed to comfort her. After this one, Richard and Mary Corliss blogged at Time.com that "Antichrist" presented the spectacle of a director going mad.

Enough time has passed since I saw the film for me to process my visceral reaction, and take a few steps back. I can understand why this confrontational film has so sharply divided its early critics. It is fascinating to me that there's a sharp divide between American, Canadian and British critics monitored by the Tomatometer, and a cross-section of French critics monitored by Le Film Francais, a French equivalent to Variety, which is published daily at the festival. Reflect that French critics are often noted for more intellectual, theoretical reviews, and American critics are more often populist. Which group hated or approved of the movie more?

Think again. A surprising 44% of the early Tomatometer critics gave positive reviews. Le Film Francais asks its national panel to vote on every film in the Official Selection and the Un Certain Regard section. They can vote as follows: (1) Must win the Palme d'Or; (2) Three stars ("Passionately"); (3) Two stars ("Good"); (4) One star ("One likes it a little"); (5) "Pas de tout"--"not at all"). The French critical consensus for "Antichrist" is... pas de tout. I can't recall when another Official Selection by an important director has been disliked so strongly.

2_3542014886_a400d5b05c_b.jpgCharlotte Gainsborgh and Willem Dafoe as She and He in "Antichrist."

A reader signing himself Scott D posted this comment after my first entry on the film: "If it is in fact the most despairing film you've ever seen, shouldn't it be considered a monumental achievement? Despair is such a significant aspect of the human condition (particularly in the modern western world) so how can this not be a staggeringly important film, given your statement?" There is truth to what Scott D says. In the first place, it's important to note that "Antichrist" is not a bad film. It is a powerfully-made film that contains material many audiences will find repulsive or unbearable. The performances by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are heroic and fearless. Von Trier's visual command is striking. The use of music is evocative; no score, but operatic and liturgical arias. And if you can think beyond what he shows to what he implies, its depth are frightening.

I cannot dismiss this film. It is a real film. It will remain in my mind. Von Trier has reached me and shaken me. It is up to me to decide what that means. I think the film has something to do with religious feeling. It is obvious to anyone who saw "Breaking the Waves" that von Trier's sense of spirituality is intense, and that he can envision the supernatural as literally present in the world. His reference is Catholicism. Raised by a communist mother and a socialist father in a restrictive environment, he was told as an adult that his father was not his natural parent, and renounced that man's Judaism to convert, at the age of 30, to the Catholic church. It was at about the same age that von Trier founded the Dogma movement, with its monkish asceticism.

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If you have to ask what a film symbolizes, it doesn't. With this one, I didn't have to ask. It told me. I believe "Antichrist" may be an exercise in alternative theology: von Trier's version of those passages in Genesis where Man is cast from Eden and Satan assumes a role in the world.

The Prologue, a masterful sequence lovely b&w slow motion, shows a couple, He and She, making love while their innocent baby becomes fascinated by the sight of snow falling outside an open window, climbs up on the sill, and falls to his death. This is Man's Fall from Grace. Consequently, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) falls into guilt and depression so deep she is hospitalized. That is one half of Original Sin. The character named He (Willem Dafoe) insists she cut off her medication. He will cure her himself. That is the other half. Her sin is Despair. His is Pride. These are the two greatest sins against God.

He and She go to their country home, named Eden. He subjects her to merciless talk therapy, relentlessly chipping away at her rationalizations and defenses, explaining to her why she is wrong to feel the way she does. I suspect many of the reviews will focus on the physical violence She inflicts upon He in the next act of the film. It is important to note that the earlier psychological violence He inflicts is equally brutal. He talks and talks, boring away at her defenses, tearing at her psyche, exposing her. Listen to Dafoe's voice in the trailer linked below. It could be used for Satan's temptation of Christ in the desert.

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There is little sense at Eden of real lives together; He and She they are locked in combat that seems their inescapable destiny after the loss of their child. The violence in the film is explicit, but is it intended to be realistic? I don't believe you can have a hole drilled clean through your leg, an iron bar pushed through it, and a grindstone bolted to it, and do much other than be in agony. That He can even speak, let alone crawl into the woods, contend with her and defend himself, is remarkable. I think the violence illustrates the depth of her venom and that She, like He, will stop at nothing.

Images suggesting Bosch are evoked toward the end of the film. Human limbs rise up to grasp He and She as they have sex. There is a talking dog, bluebirds, a deer, inhabiting the world of Man. At the end He stands atop a hill while a legion of unnatural humans ascends toward him, evoking "Night of the Living Dead." The suggestion is Biblical, but not from the Bible we know. The human figures are not naked, climbing toward birth, but clothed, climbing toward death. After their fall in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve learned shame, and covered their nakedness. In this evil world, they are created covered, and by their sins are cast out into nakedness.

5_3464903427_3a92f8991e_b.jpgVon Trier's original intention, it's said, was to reveal at the end that the world was created by Satan, not God: That evil, not goodness, reigns ascendant. His finished film reflects the same idea, but not as explicitly. The title "Antichrist" is the key. This is a mirror world. It is a sin to lose Knowledge rather than to eat of its fruit and gain it. She and He are behaving with such cruelty toward each other not as actual people, but as creatures inhabiting a moral mirror world. As much as they might comfort and love each other in our world after losing a child, so to the same degree in the mirror world they inflame each other's pain and act out hatred. This would be the world created by Satan.

If I am right, then von Trier has proceeded with perfect logic. Just as a good world could not contain too much beauty and charity, an evil world could not have too much cruelty and hatred. He is making a moral statement. I'm not sure if he's telling us how things are, or warning us of what could come. But I am sure he has not compromised his vision. He has been brave and strong, and made a film that fully reflects the pain of his own feelings. And his actors have been remarkably courageous in going all the way with him.

In his own defense here at Cannes, von Trier has described himself "the greatest director in the world." Well, if Le Film Francais says he is merde, what can he be expected to say? He is certainly one of the most heroic directors in the world, uncompromising, resolute. He goes all the way and takes no prisoners. Do I believe his film "works?" Would I "recommend" it? Is it a "good" film? I believe von Trier doesn't care how I or anyone else would reply to those questions. He had the ideas and feelings, he saw into the pit, he made the film, and here it is.

Von Trier discusses his upcoming comedy (!)

Von Trier's mentor, Jørgen Leth, made a 12-minute film in 1967 that von Trier admired so much he saw it 20 times in a year. In 2002, he summoned the 67-year-old Leth from retirement in Haiti and commissioned him to remake the film in five different ways, despite obstructions which von Trier would supply. My review of "The Five Obstructions" is here.

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