Lars Von Trier, maker of calculating horror comedies, is a shrewd showman -- if not exactly in the classic Hollywood tradition then at least in the Barnum & Bailey one. He pleases his audiences by teasing, taunting and testing them, keeping his tongue in his cheek. I picture him as a dancing, grinning little prankster on the fringes of world cinema, alternately flaunting a streak of astringent sadism and hiding for safety behind a shield of facetiousness.
He's also, in "Antichrist" particularly, a thudding literalist whose mock-academic ideas and images are so over-rationalized and in-your-face that (like the mysterious cry of a baby placed too far forward in the sound mix to be haunting or ambiguous) they don't have much room to resonate. When they ought to be harrowing, they're obvious and over-explained, which cuts them off from genuine emotion or experience. Nevertheless, "Antichrist" is a serviceable, sometimes atmospheric horror movie, until the last chapter-and-a-half when it just goes flat. By then it's already gotten a little too much of a charge out of commenting on its own giddy morbidity, and whether the audience is laughing at it or with it doesn't matter. Either way, the laughter is dismissive.
It's overtly patterned after a masterpiece ("Don't Look Now"), and the child who dies while his parents, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), are making love is named Nic, same as the director of that film, Nicolas Roeg. (The picture itself is dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky for reasons I do not pretend to understand.) The comparison to Roeg's film is illuminating: Both begin with a prologue in which the child dies; both involve the bereaved parents, in hopes of healing, traveling to a getaway location (Venice in the former; an "Evil Dead" cabin in some uncommonly oak-y Pacific Northwest woods in the latter) while still in a haze of grief. But the precipitating child-death in "DLN" is both heart-pounding and heart-wrenching; in "Antichrist" it's a black-and-white pornographic Thomas Kinkade fantasy. The famously explicit sex scene in "DLN" is an expression of loss and grief, emotionally raw; in "Antichrist" the sex includes a close-up of penetration in the shower, but is devoid of emotion -- just a mechanical set-up that expresses nothing about the relationship between the generic He and She.
If "Antichrist" is an exceptionally disappointing horror picture (like so many, it goes flaccid in the final act, when the nature of the threat becomes specific and concrete), it's only because, at first, it actually seems to have a few ideas rolling around in its horned little head. There's tension between He and She (I can't help thinking of Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss when using those designations): He, a psychiatrist, ostensibly tries to help Her (re, She) deal with her "atypical grief pattern" by taking her back to Eden, the woodland retreat where she and their son had gone one summer so that She could work on her thesis on genocide, a history of violent persecution of women. His goal: to get her to face, and overcome, her worst fears. Or is it? The passage after the child's death and before they leave for Eden is the darkest and most intriguing part of the picture -- and the most horrific because it is so fraught with inchoate emotions of loss, love and hostility.
You would think that a couple who had just lost their only son would have already had to face their worst fear, but no. Soon we've nearly forgotten all about Nic and are dealing with bigger stuff, like whether nature is satan's church and all women are evil. Apparently She's grief has fused with her fear and she has displaced it onto something else. Nature? Satan? The Evil That Women Do? Herself? She resents and resists what she feels is He's smug authority over her. He goads her toward a kind of healing, which proves to be somewhat effective, but denies her the curative comfort and closeness of sex at a most crucial time in their marriage. Why? Because you aren't supposed to screw your therapist. Yes, and as a therapist you aren't supposed to treat your wife? The dynamics between He and She simply become irrelevant as the movie goes horrorshow in the forest, laboriously setting the stage for the entrances of its omens, the Three Beggars (of Doom): Grief, Pain and Despair, which are presented like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse except that there's no horse and one is a deer, one's a fox and one's a crow.
Nature is anthropomorphized (animals symbolize human emotions) and human evil (humans are the only creatures capable of evil) are projected into it, so that "human nature" can be conflated with nature-nature (aka "satan's church"). All of this fails to be realized in movie terms (ticks and acorns don't do it), and is soon abandoned altogether. "Antichrist" plays with evil, but displays no conception of it, or why She (or He, for that matter) would become an embodiment of it. The movie's dreaded third sign is called "Despair," symbolized by a buried crow. But Von Trier can't approach the void that is Despair, because he's too hung up on Meaning to apprehend the lack of it. The void is not evil. The void is not personal. The void is indifferent. That's why they call it the void.
It soon becomes abundantly clear that "Antichrist" is not content to imply or suggest anything that it can't nail down right in front of you. I'm not going to reveal any of the movie's grotesque special effects (if you've read anything about the Cannes reception you probably already know too much) except to say that, when it comes to gruesome images of torture and sexual mutilation "Antichrist"'s got nothing on the so-called Asian Extreme films that we've seen in the past few decades. In its desperation to deliver something Shocking and Artistic (or, at least, commercially exploitable), the movie toys with depictions of genital mutilation in the manner of Nagisa Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses" that were scandalous back in 1976. But here the whacking off is gratuitous in all the wrong ways, inserted to provide hollow, artificial climaxes in a movie that has nowhere to go. Provocateur/schoolmarm Von Trier, switching tones between the disingenuous and the seriously engaged, will risk making a bad movie, but even the good ones have the whiff of the science lab about them. As the man in the lab coat, he won't risk putting himself "out there," and as a consequences his film has no soul, nothing in danger of being lost.
I mentioned the cry of the child in the forest that seems to embody the kinds of decisions that cause the film to fail. She runs about, trying to figure out where it's coming from, but it never sounds like it's coming from anywhere. It's not something that might be mistaken for the cry of an animal (a fox, for instance?) -- something She may have misinterpreted in her imagination. And it's not coming from one place in the forest, or perhaps another, due to shifting winds or echoes. It's just right up front in the mix, flat and obvious, playing over the whole scene. OK, we know it's coming from inside her own head (particularly when she finds Nic and we can see he's not the source), but such an audible hallucination -- in broad daylight, as it were -- isn't very creepy or imaginative. (A few horror movies, in addition to Roeg's "Don't Look Now," that take parents deeper into the abyss: Roman Polanski's "Rosemary’s Baby," Philip Noyce's "Dead Calm," Neil Marshall's "The Descent," and/or Steven Spielberg's scary 1972 TV movie, "Something Evil," with Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin.)
I don't understand the haters or the hailers of "Antichrist." Because I've never been inclined to take Von Trier seriously as a "major" director (though I've appreciated some of his work, he strikes me as more of a gremlin¹ than an artist), it's hard for me to see this film as a catastrophe. And it's not ambitious or accomplished enough to be anything more than a mediocre genre movie. That in itself is disappointing. I wish I could find more to get worked up about.
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¹ Dictionary definition #2: "A maker of mischief."
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UPDATE (10/6/09): Ebert blog post on "Antichrist" from Cannes that I had not read until just now:
Von Trier's film goes beyond malevolence into the monstrous. Never before have a man and woman inflicted more pain upon each other in a movie. We looked in disbelief. There were piteous groans. Sometimes a voice would cry out, "No!" At certain moments there was nervous laughter. When it was all over, we staggered up the aisles. Manohla Dargis, the merry film critic of The New York Times, confided that she left softly singing "That's Entertainment!"
Whether this is a bad, good or great film is entirely beside the point. It is an audacious spit in the eye of society. It says we harbor an undreamed-of capacity for evil. It transforms a psychological treatment into torture undreamed of in the dungeons of history. Torturers might have been capable of such actions, but they would have lacked the imagination. Von Trier is not so much making a film about violence as making a film to inflict violence upon us, perhaps as a salutary experience. It's been reported that he suffered from depression during and after the film. You can tell. This is the most despairing film I've ever have seen.