Monday, May 03, 2010

I admire anyone who attempts to do something different with the horror genre. Say what you will about The Blair Witch Project, I think it’s an excellent film. With a very limited budget, they made a creepy campfire yarn. Then you have The Shining, which is almost an arthouse flick. Anything that gets away from the cheap shocks and familiar beats that hobble the majority of horror films is incredibly welcome.

Which brings me to Antichrist; Lars von Trier’s latest film. Coming from the crazy genius who made Breaking the Waves, The Idiots and Dogville, you’d expect something a little off the beaten track. And he doesn’t disappoint.

The opening sequence is the complete opposite of his Dogma work. Filmed in black and white and in slow motion and with Handel on the soundtrack, it resembles a commercial for a fragrance. It’s achingly beautiful. But then to snap you back to reality and to remind you that you’re watching a von Trier film, you see a couple making love. And then to further ram this point home (literally) you see an erect penis thrusting in and out of a vagina. Filmed in extreme close-up, it’s a rather jarring image, but of course this is what von Trier wants to do – he wants to shock you and to piss you off a little. But this explicit image also helps the scene to get away from clean, sanitised Hollywood sex where there are no cocks, no oral sex and couples have simultaneous orgasms after 90 seconds of intercourse. It reminds you that this is an animalistic act.

The scene also shows that sex is a selfish, self-absorbed act – caught up in its fire, everything else gets relegated to the background. And so as the couple make love, their young child manages to climb to a window and falls out. The mother even climaxes as the child is dying. The way it’s juxtaposed, it kind of suggests that sex equals death – that something dies when you make love. I’m sure this is true for some poor bastards but it certainly doesn’t apply to the majority of the population.

Apparently von Trier was heavily depressed when making this film and when the child accidentally (or maybe not accidentally – the way its filmed it looks like a suicide, even though the child here is a toddler) kills himself, he inadvertently knocks three figures to the floor. One has ‘Pain’ written on it, the other one has ‘Grief’ and the final one says ‘Despair’. This is what the child is freeing himself from at such an early age. It’s also what he’s inflicting upon his parents. Maybe the depressed von Trier also wishes he could be liberated from these feelings.

What follows is a war between the sexes. The man, played by Willem Dafoe, is a therapist and wants to understand his wife’s feelings (the wife is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg). They almost immediately begin clashing, the wife saying that only now does she interest him. Before this horrible tragedy occurred he’d been a distant figure in her life – he paid little to no attention to her or their son. But whether this is the case or not, both of them express their grief in different ways. Dafoe throws himself into understanding his wife and the woman, quite understandably, becomes a nervous wreck. But although the ranting and raving would suggest that Gainsbourg’s character is more deeply affected by the child’s death, this isn’t true. Dafoe does the typically male thing of throwing himself into his work in order to suppress his feelings.

This ‘work’ involves Dafoe taking his wife to Eden, their log cabin in the woods – he discovers that she’s terrified of the forest and decides to treat her with exposure therapy. The scenes where we see how the wife feels about Eden are magnificently filmed. They’re hyper real and almost painterly – the woods look terrifying, but beautifully so. Contrast this with the scene where the characters actually travel to Eden. Here the woods look dull and uninteresting. It’s a very imaginative and successful way of showing how we build things up in our mind.

Once the film gets to the cabin itself it enters Strindberg territory, with the couple continually jousting. Unfortunately, though, von Trier is no Strindberg and some of the exchanges are clumsy or just plain bad. A line that had me wincing was when Gainsbourg says the following: ‘You shouldn’t have come here. You’re just so damn arrogant.’ With Gainsbourg’s weedy, lifeless voice (I haven’t heard her sing, so I hope her singing voice has more conviction) the line lands with a conspicuous thud. And things like ‘Nature is Satan’s church’ sound sub-Herzog.

The film is more successful when it expresses itself visually. There’s a graphic shot of a deer giving birth and a jarring image of a bird being consumed. And then later there’s a bit where a fox talks to Dafoe. On paper it sounds ridiculous, but the CGI is easily some of the best I’ve seen for a long time.

Whether Antichrist has anything meaningful to say about male/female relationships is hard to say. There’s so much symbolism and the characters behave so irrationally that you have to wonder whether this is just von Trier screaming wildly into the abyss or he’s simply having a laugh. Either way, the film, for me, is a success because of the insanity of the piece, not because it spoke personally to me.

One of Antichrist’s themes is the nature of women. In the film, Gainsbourg’s character writes a thesis to denounce the treatment of women across the ages but eventually proves that women are evil. And Gainsbourg’s character, in the final act, degenerates into psychopathic hysteria. At one point she decides that Dafoe is leaving her and so she then gets him excited, begins fucking him and dismounts so that she can smash him in the groin with a huge piece of wood. He passes out but he’s still aroused, and so in graphic detail we get to see her wank him off and make him come while he’s unconscious – the cherry on the cake is that he ejaculates blood.

Following this, the wife attaches a grindstone to Dafoe’s leg by bolting it to his ankle. You see what these sneaky women do; they hobble us and weigh us down! And then in a hilarious scene Dafoe crawls into a foxhole as his wife tries to dig her way into it with a spade while screaming, ‘How dare you leave me!’ Damn possessive women. If they can’t have us, they’ll destroy us. Oh, and she storms about bottomless. Fear the cunt.

Worse follows. We find out that Gainsbourg’s character was fully aware that their child was roaming about while they were making love. And we even find out that she made the child wear his shoes back to front, thus beginning to deform him. As a result of all of this, we get a close-up of Gainsbourg cutting her clitoris off with some scissors. Enjoyment of sex has apparently brought her nothing but misery and she no longer wants any part of it.

Dafoe manages to remove the grindstone from his leg and strangles her to death before burning her body like the witch she is. Again, I have no idea if von Trier is having a laugh or if he’s seriously suggesting that men would be better off burning their women.

The final image of the film is of loads of faceless women streaming past Dafoe and entering the woods. Oh no, there are more of them! And they’re all the same! This faceless evil is neverending! Mothers and wives just keep on coming!

Despite this, it would be a mistake to interpret Antichrist as a misogynistic film. Defoe’s character initiates the scenario that creates this meltdown. Rather than let his wife manage her grief and provide quiet understanding, he bullies her into accepting his therapy. He dominates her at every turn until she finally snaps. Consequently the film is more misanthropic than misogynistic.

But if you want to cling onto the interpretation that Antichrist is anti-women, there’s a Charlotte Gainsbourg quote you should remember: ‘A crying woman is a scheming woman.'

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  1. Honestly, I thought this film was terrible.

    However, it is was breathlessly funny (which probably says more about me than the film). After the beginning which I did enjoy, it went swiftly downhill. But then it blossomed into a bizarre arthouse Evil Dead 2, providing one of the more unique cinema visits of my life. Still thought it was a load of shit, but god you can't truly hate a film where some dozy cunt cuts her own cunt off, that's inspired.

    I'll never watch it again, but man has it provided some hilarious imagery. Actually, I kinda think I like it, in a masochistic way.

  2. Yeah, it's really out there. And the craziness of the piece that makes it so damn watchable. I mean, I'd find it difficult to defend it as a legitimately great piece of cinema, but as a guilty pleasure it's hard to beat.