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Lars von Trier and the Antichrist

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antichrist_poster.jpgSo, Cannes 2011: Malick was booed, Lars Von Trier was banned and "Pirates of the Caribbean 4" was presented as hors-concours. If those are any indication, I predict "Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo 3" will win the Palm d'Or in 2012.

But in all seriousness, Cannes: banning Von Trier? Really? Persona non grata for making some jokes (yes, in very poor taste, but jokes still) in the same year you had Mel Gibson over? The same Mel Gibson who made anti-semitic remarks, defended his father for denying the Holocaust and was recorded in a racist rant over the telephone?


Not that Gibson should be banned from Cannes: he's a very talented actor-director and he belongs there. The fact that I wouldn't invite him over for my kid's birthday party doesn't mean I wouldn't be glad to have him as guest of my (non-existing for now) film festival. And by banning Von Trier, Cannes just opened a rotten can of worms - and its directors should be prepared for an avalanche of condemning articles when they invite the new film by the great Roman Polanski in the near future.

Actually, when I started this piece, I intended to defend Lars Von Trier as a person: you just have to watch the video from the press conference to realize he, in fact, did not mean he was really a "nazi" or "defended" Hitler -- any person with a two-digit I.Q. could see he was trying to be funny while making a point about the difference between an artist and his/her art. And the fact he wasn't funny and made a fool of himself while embarrassing his cast isn't justification for the disproportional uproar that the press promptly manufactured in order to get page views.

But I won't defend von Trier as a person; like I said, it doesn't matter if he is (or if he is not) an asshole; only his work matters in the context of a film festival. A film festival that was enriched numerous times by his fims.

Which brings me to "Antichrist."

"Antichrist" is the wet dream of any psychiatrist. A film loaded with symbols that go from religious images to Freudian constructions, this work by Lars Von Trier will only disappoint those who try to interpret it literally, since then it'll just be a work that is neck deep in sadism and destroyed by a script with no rhyme or reason. On the other hand, just as the id, superego and ego concepts established by the Austrian master refer directly to the way in which the ancient Greeks divided the "soul" (respectively: desire, reason and spirit), "Antichrist" swings fluidly between Faith and Reason, creating a complex, mature and deeply distressful tale.



Written by the director, the script tells a simple story that doesn't really matter, since the most important thing to the narrative is the way we see the two main characters and their personal dilemmas -- and each spectator will certainly project on the couple played by Dafoe and Gainsbourg their own worries and interpretations. So, after a visually fascinating prologue in which we follow, in black and white and slow motion, the protagonists having sex while their small son has a fatal accident, we are led to an exhaustive psychological journey while the Man, a experienced psychoanalyst, tries to help the Woman to overcome the oppressive state of mourning she dived into. Traveling to a shack in the middle of a dense forest, they discuss their biggest fears until eventually they start to physically punish each other for their own anger and frustration.

Without ever providing us with the names of the protagonists and insisting on blurring all remaining actors seen throughout the narrative, Von Trier turns the Man and the Woman into representatives of the human race while forcing us to ignore all the rest of mankind, in what might seem to be a contradiction but, in fact, hides a slight didacticism from the director which, it turns out, avoids bigger mix-ups to the audience by limiting our focus to what happens to the protagonists.



At the same time, the stunning cinematography by Von Trier's recurrent collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle creates images that will linger on with the audience long after the end of the movie, such as the forest which, half-covered by the fog, simultaneously shows spots of bright light and deep darkness, while the slow camera establishes a terrifying nightmarish atmosphere - and, in that sense, the art direction helps by creating oppressive, sad settings, from the wooden shack in the middle of nowhere to the depressing bathroom which, with its filthy and blue tiles, looks more like a prison. Moreover, the jump cuts and the constant changes of axis provide the narrative with a lack of time and space continuity that contributes to the already mentioned (and immensely important) nightmarish tone that Lars von Trier considers to be so important.


For a film that affirms, in a certain moment, that "Freud is dead" (clearly an irony), "Antichrist" certainly doesn't hesitate in creating a whole new structural logic inspired by psychoanalysis: stunned by the death of their son, the Man and the Woman find different ways, equally ineffective, to deal with grief -- and if Gainsbourg's character dives into physical pain and into other symptoms that seem to point to a curious abstinence syndrome (of her son? Of being a mother?), the father played by Defoe seems to use his wife's suffering to try to ignore his own by devoting himself to "treating her" even if, in the process, he forces her to give in to her most intense fears. Besides, although both feel guilty for the negligence that caused the accident, it is the Woman who feels the weight of this responsibility the most, since, as a Mother, she believes to have failed her own female nature.


But it is when the couple decides to travel to the cabin that the conflicts really gain size: named Eden (a non-subtle reference to the Original Sin), the place serves as a sort of bubble that allows them to focus on their own pain, investigating what was rotten beneath the surface of marital bliss in which they previously seemed to live -- something symbolized by a revealing shot in which von Trier approaches a vase of flowers to expose the dirt of sedimentation in the water and in the plants' stem. In a similar way, during one of the first psychological exercises promoted by the Man in the cabin, the Woman ends up seeing, in shock, a bird that devours the nestling after it fell from the tree, in a literal and symbolic reflection of her own son's death and of her failure as a mother and protector. That way, "Antichrist" soon establishes the connection between the forest and the impulses and primal fears of human beings, in a logic comparison between human nature and Nature itself.

But the use of Nature's phenomenons as an analogy of the characters' state of mind does not stop there: disturbed by the noise caused by the steady drop of oak seeds on the roof of the cabin, they didn't take long to establish a relation between that and the loss of a young life - just like seeds full of potential life are lost and die in an infertile soil, the couple's son had his life cut short at the very beginning (and Von Trier makes a shocking, but fabulous thematic rhyme between the seeds falling and the dreadful shot in which the Man ejaculates blood, shedding death instead of life). And if sex is seen by the Woman as a way of escaping reality, that is also because of the potential of creation represented by the act, in a probably subconscious search for a) re-experiencing something different than pain; and b) creating a substitute for the dead child.

Charlotte Gainsbourg's character, by the way, is a well of contradictions - but this, instead of turning her into something implausible or artificial, turns out to convert her into a fascinating creature due to her complexity. Getting more and more frustrated and furious about her husband's insistence on analyzing and deciphering her, the Woman is also tortured by her overpowering feeling of guilt, since she feels she failed not only as a mother, but as a representative of the female gender - which eventually leads her to the radical act of self-castration. The whole narrative, by the way, is developed from this character's point of view -- and, thus, it's only natural that, when showing the image of the forest passing quickly by the train's window, von Trier includes almost subliminal, non-perceptible flashes that reveal distorted women faces (probably Gainsbourg under make up) and naked bodies during sex.

Indeed, the logic behind Von Trier's symbolism and metaphors is impeccable: for instance, after being frustrated once again by his wife's resistance, the Man goes to the attic of the cabin just to investigate something - and what we have here is a perfect representation of his decision to go deep into his own psyche in a painful process of self-analysis. What he finds is a big and dark room, full of secrets and symbolic images of repression - something which, once again, establishes an elegant connection with the shot in which he notices something, under the bushes, moving from afar, like a distant echo of his unconscious and repressed fears, which occasionally tries to call his attention. Nevertheless, Lars Von Trier's intelligence only reveals itself completely when the Man investigates what is under the bushes and encounter a fox eating itself.



Why, moments before he had seen a deer running through the forest with a dead puppy hanging over its body -- exactly the same as the Man is seen by the world as an individual who carries around the pain of losing his son. In other words: the deer would be the representation of the external image of the protagonist, incorporating his ego, while the autophagic fox would, of course, be the self-repressing instance of his psyche - the super-ego, therefore. What would be missing in this picture, then? Id, of course: the primal impulses of an individual who, unlike his wife, let himself be completely led by reason, by the self-containing hungry fox. But how could the Man re-establish the connection with his instinct? According to Trier, only through his survival instinct and by recognizing that, without setting himself free from the society and its morally imposed strings, we are basically dead. Therefore, once the Woman keeps him from freely moving by getting a huge weight through his leg, the Man finds that he does not have the tools (both physical and psychological) which are necessary to set him free, and, without a choice, he decides to hide - and, in this sense, he finds exactly the place his wife had shown him before as evidence of her "cure" - a small hole under a huge root.

An obvious return to the womb. (It's not a coincidence that the Woman shows him that hole when she spoke about her healing process, about being back to her natural state). That way, in the darkness, and back to the very beginning of his development as a being, the Man finally finds, buried by his side, a raven - which immediately tries to gaggle and fly away while resisting the several blows that seek its ultimate destruction. Victorious, the bird escapes, completing von Trier's metaphor for the Id, the basic instinct that, after being suppressed by the fox (which is, after all, an animal that devours birds), finally finds place to manifest itself. The result is the reborn of Dafoe's character, who, seconds after, is pulled off from the earth in the same way a baby abandon the body of its mother in the process of birth - and so, now in possession of the psychological tools he needed, he finally is able to take off the weight which was immobilizing him, and walk once again, departing from that infernal place.


Obviously, as an individual who is (maybe) excessively rational, I searched for an equally logical interpretation for Von Trier's pregnant narrative - and it's quite possible that someone with a more religious character would see the deer, the fox and the raven as a representation of the Holy Trinity or something like that. And I admit I'd be curious to read an analysis that tackled the film in that manner, considering that what really matters is not if I'm right or wrong, but that Von Trier offered, through his work, a vast base not only for different views of his film, but so his audience could do a revealing self-analysis.

And that's why interpreting "Antichrist" in a literal way as a movie immersed in gore and sadism is not only a sad lack of imagination, but also a terribly wasted opportunity.

Pablo Villaça is a Brazilian film critic and the director of Brazil's oldest movie website, Cinema em Cena. He was so frustrated by Cannes' decision to ban von Trier that he decided to send this piece to Roger Ebert with urgency -- but, anticipating how long it would take to translate it to English, he asked for help on his twitter account. No less than 27 of his readers offered to help him, and he divided that task between the following people (and thanks them dearly): Samantha Ovídio, Patrícia Miguez, Marco Carneiro, Eduardo Furllan, Juliana Ciccarini, Vinícius Camargo, Marina Pinheiro, Leonardo Kitsune, Denis Araújo and Fernanda Breder.

Roger Ebert thanks them too.

Pablo Villaça

A writer, filmmaker and a film critic since 1994, Pablo Villaça wrote for many Brazilian movie magazines. In 2002, he became the first Latin-American critic to be part of the Online Film Critics Society, being elected its first non-English speaking Governing Committee member in 2011.

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