Saturday, August 07, 2010

Antichrist: The angst of the believer and wanting to not believe.

Someone in a screenwriter's forum asked what we think when we hear or see the word "antichrist." I replied I think of a talking animatronic fox who delivers the line "Chaos reigns." That's true. I even bought this T-shirt with the now iconic line:

In Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (Stig Bj√∂rkman, 1997), Lars von Trier launches the documentary by proclaiming with a malicious grin, “I'll gladly assert that everything said or written about me is a lie.”  This statement could be true of Tranceformer, this and other reviews and anything von Trier may say about himself. Nonetheless, it is a significant condition for any approach to von Trier and perhaps the only true thing that can be said about him. Later in Tranceformer, he describes his own life as a fabrication, yet his long-time producer, Peter Jensen, says that he never lies. This contradiction can be resolved, however, once we accept that von Trier's life and work are given to us as a seamless fictional whole and that all fiction is concoction and subject to multiple interpretations. The main gripe against von Trier is that his films' art house pretensions refuse to speak to any specific audience - aesthetic issues that expose the old fissures between art house and U.S.-centric commercial filmmaking. Even so, with Antichrist, von Trier has gone beyond seeing ugly; he may be a troll himself, planting shards in our eyes at a time when foreign cinema is trying to compete with Hollywood's lucrative sentimentality. 

This harrowing tale of a married couple whose son accidentally plunges to his death from an open window while they are making love, is von Trier's grimmest and most transgressive work to date. It stars Charlotte Gainsbourg as She, a guilt-stricken mother, and Willem Dafoe, as He, her cold, rational therapist husband who tries to bring her back to life in the densely wooded seclusion of their rustic cabin. During the course of their retreat, events take a devastating turn as threatening omens of death and doom emerge from the mysterious forest and the hidden folds of their minds. What threatened to be a trite melodrama becomes an ambiguous psychological shadow play drawing on elements of mythology, history and ingrained marital issues. Von Trier eschews the conventions of any identifiable genre and mixes chilly realism with horror movie stylizations while an otherwise barren soundtrack is scattered with moments of classical and experimental music to intensify the schizophrenic nature of the experience.

Antichrist is a horror but not a horror film; it's deadly serious but also an absurd joke. Despite scenes of brutal realism, it's not to be taken literally, and yet while it has dream-like sequences, it is not a dream either.  The film's ambiguous nature leads one to assign to it the qualities of an experimental film, which might perplex and in some cases infuriate; simply because a mainstream film literal state of mind rarely sees films that demand a very different kind of engagement. Yet an experimental film, in its most successful forms, offers viewers individual paths to greater realizations or emotional catharsis, the specific routes varying according to a number of subjective and unquantifiable factors. In its holiest and most rarefied of incarnations, this kind of cinema is a substantiation of uninhibited ego, and with Antichrist, we are only allowed to go where this obsessively disciplined director feels like taking us. Von Trier's universe is governed by his rules of logic and at times they can seem fickle. For instance, at one point in the film, he even exercises the godlike power of creating a fake astrological constellation and the now famous guffaw-inducing, animatronic talking fox who warns that "chaos reigns." Von Trier's total lack of inhibition or modesty in imagining, constructing and exploring these various worlds has always been his greatest strength. However, the soul of this extraordinary film is expressed in moments which persist in the subconscious and insinuate a more profound story. 

In one of the most startling scenes, a naked and entranced She wanders outside and lays in the mud at the base of a large tree where she begins to masturbate furiously. These are the actions of a possessed or crazy woman. The sequence is as genuine and sustained as it is disturbing and un-erotic. It is the connection between sex and death that resonates with an almost gothic sexual morbidity. The sex in Antichrist, apart from the shower scene penetration insert, ranges from obsessive to pathological but is never rejuvenating or arousing - the biggest taboo to censors. Although frequently nude, Gainsbourg seems pale, gaunt and sapped of any erotic glow, despite the exploitative fetching poster and key ad art images. The sex she engages in with Dafoe is never exciting. There are clinically pornographic moments, but there is no overall explicit sensuality to them, and this is due not just to the demands of censorship but to von Trier's own view of sexuality as a menacing force.

Feminists look at von Trier's films with an incredibly angry and narrow mindset, their ire dismissing them as one big pile of woman-hating celluloid. That von Trier is a misogynist is pure nonsense. It's hardly a secret that he's more interested in female characters; he has admitted that his heroines are infused with his own experiences and that the characters are not female at all. They are self-portraits and he uses women as his stand-ins because in society, women are allowed to express more emotionally and verbally. It is rare for a male in a movie to say and do all the things women say and do in a von Trier film. Furthermore, anyone in their right mind would realize that Antichrist is not about men or women at all but about the fallout of depression, which von Trier suffered while he wrote the script. She's physical abuse of her husband is as much a symptom of her derangement as is her sudden fondness for quoting misogynistic excerpts from her abandoned master's thesis research. Rather than being a negative depiction of women, She is simply a realistic representation of the way in which our minds become deranged as a result of depression.

Like Breaking the Waves, Antichrist will violate everyone's sensibilities in one way or another, but that it is a masterful work of high artistic achievement is undeniable. If we try to interpret Antichrist, we find ourselves in the realm of undecidability, and that is a good thing. A scan of reviews and deeply divided reactions towards the film reveal just how complex and subtle Antichrist actually is. Urmberto Eco defined "poetic effect" as the capacity that a text displays for continuing to generate different readings, without ever being completely consumed. In Dogvillevon Trier went out of his way to ask for a non-literal reading of his film, with its artificial set, British-style narration and ritualistically formal acting and dialogue, and he does so again here. Von Trier has brought back cinematic allegory and reminded us that cinema can be (and should be) complex, subtle, dialectical, real and open to multiple readings. 

In Antichrist von Trier is caught in a perturbing position; half-naked in front of us, struggling with himself at a time when everyone is supposed to "have it together." In a careerist-ridden industry, he has never consciously tried to make a profitable movie, and he is even mortified by his own creations. He is an idealist and a believer who suffers the pains of true belief and who constantly bends for his ideals. In contrast to Ingmar Bergman, whose films are about the angst of the unbeliever and the yearning to believe, von Trier's films are all about the angst of the believer and wanting to not believe. Have we all become so pedestrian in our absolutes that we are now incapable of understanding the figurative? Simply dismissing it as "pretentious claptrap"? Incapable of considering multiple points of view? Von Trier is a modern-day Dostoevsky; he may be reactionary, neurotic and anti-modern, but he bestows us with an artistic canvas of dialectic complexity capable of resonating in thought-provoking ways with mature and educated minds.


Liz said...

A superbly lucid journey in the darkness of the mind and its many facets.

"What is essential is invisible to the eye" says The Little Prince.

This is not merely a review, but an essay proper. Brava, forse troppo brava....

Roger Andreas said...

While I appreciate your thoughts, I thought it was a dreadfully boring and contrived film. The characters were poorly developed and used like markers on a game board, just shuffled around to set up whatever shock visuals the director had in mind. I felt the entire film was terribly condescending and came away from it feeling vaguely insulted.