August 11, 2009
Beware: Spoilers Abound
I’m not sure how useful it is to try to determine the ‘point’ of every film, assuming films have a point at all. The purpose of most films is, on the most basic level at least, to entertain. It does not follow that every film’s purpose is to entertain, of course, but one would hope those films have a point to make by not being entertaining. For a certain type of filmgoer, attempting to decipher said ‘point’ can often be as entertaining as the film isn’t, even if the process ends in tears and confusion. Lars von Trier is a director whose name is well known amongst those types of filmgoers, and with good reason. His films almost always garner controversy, whether it is due to the perceived politics on show or the acts he’s chosen to depict on screen. As a teenager I was a fan of Breaking the Waves, and the Dogme 95 movement he started in the years after was a rich and exciting concept (filming techniques designed to bring out authenticity). By Dancer in the Dark, however, I was beginning to question not only the man but also the reverence I held for his previous work. His two films about America, Dogville and Manderlay solidified my dislike for Von Trier. Lifting the set design (or lack thereof) of the play Our Town to create savage fables about the country’s attitude towards foreigners and minorities respectively, he made two horribly indulgent polemics that shed absolutely no light on the issues he chose to explore, instead electing to shock us into his way of thinking with gang-rapes and slavery. There were complexities there, and interesting ideas, but they were always undone by both his heavy-handed approach and his overridingly simplistic viewpoint.
Antichrist retreats from the overt political simplicity of those works, and instead moves inwards, giving us a tale of a husband and wife in grieving for their dead toddler. I should say up front that this is certainly one of the more technically accomplished films in the director’s oeuvre. From the stunning black and white prologue, which plays like a tragic, pornographic perfume advert, to the manic, violent final passages, there’s an assuredness I’ve not noticed in his work in quite some time. As a director who very quickly eschewed his Dogme aesthetic in favour of musical numbers and overblown artifice, the craftsmanship on display is a welcome change. Even in the latter stages, where ‘chaos reigns’ to quote the talking fox, he demonstrates a keen eye for horror shocks and tension building. He apparently has a really intense slasher in him.
Likewise the performances are excellent, something von Trier seems to have a knack for getting from his poor, abused actors. Charlotte Gainsbourg deserved her acting nod from Cannes, and not just because she’s game for the nudity and violence. Her performance is more nuanced than that, and we’re left questioning her motives and intentions throughout. Defoe does well as the rational male therapist – care and concern turns to arrogance and condescension at a moment’s notice.
These good points, strangely enough, seem to work against the film as a whole. It is less than the sum of its parts, and the main problem can be traced to Von Trier, and what he decides to turn the film into. I’m not a big fan of recapping plots, but it might be necessary here. The two leads play a couple who, in the prologue, are so deep in throes of passion that they don’t notice their young son wandering up to a window and falling out. He’s a therapist, she’s a PhD student in feminist studies, and they’re both deep in grief. He deals with it ‘rationally’; she completely shuts down and then blames herself. He decides to try his particular method of therapy on her to get her to confront her fears and get past the grief, which leads them to a cabin in the woods called Eden, the nature and forest around which she believes to be the place where she feels the most anxiety. She continues to go berserk on occasion, meanwhile he sets up a series of exercises to help her confront her fears, all the while running into bizarre phenomena including a deer with a fetus hanging out and a fox that is busy eating its own entrails. Halfway through the film, she suddenly decides she is past her problem, and he’s flummoxed. Up until now, it really is an excellent picture. The sense of dread and tension that is built is brilliantly done, and the characters themselves feel rich with layers, and for a brief moment we feel that the man will be uncovered as the condescending, arrogant bastard he’s shown hints of being. And then the second half starts.
It isn’t really a shock, of course. The first half ends with the aforementioned self-eating fox looking up at Defoe and exclaiming ‘chaos reigns’ (to the film’s credit, this is creepier and less ridiculous than Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam Satan-Dog). The man finds his wife’s PhD research, all of which deals with medieval examples of misogyny, especially in regards to witchcraft. What she subsequently reveals is that she has come to believe this to be true. He slowly uncovers evidence that she had subtly been abusing their son, and then things get really nasty. The horror film takes over, and all manner of beatings and mutilations take place. It is completely and utterly absurd, and while some of the images are shocking, the entire premise is so laughable it leaves the viewer with only one option: this is not to be taken as a film, but as an academic exercise. This in and of itself is not a problem; as I said, if a film has a point to make, then it can do what it feels necessary to make it. So then the issue becomes: what is the point?
Von Trier has been accused, rightly in my opinion, of misogyny throughout his career. Look no further than Breaking the Waves and you might dismiss the charge as an improper reading, but throw in Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and Manderlay, and a pattern develops. The latter three are all making some point about the U.S., and to demonstrate his point he puts his female leads through the ringer. They are weak or foolish and always gullible, and they pay dearly at the hands of the savage local population for their innocence or their good intentions. I don’t believe he sees women as inherently evil, but I do believe he sees them as weak. It seems clear that Antichrist is designed to answer/provoke the critics who have charged him with misogyny, but here the purpose is very different from the point. He isn’t out to defend himself, aside from (at best) showing a bit of self-awareness. He isn’t setting out to shock us by creating a powerful female character, because just because she displays power doesn’t make her powerful. The violence committed against her husband is accompanied by shrieking, paranoid pleas that he is going to leave her and that he can’t do that to her. She attempts to fight the evil nature of her womanhood and loses. A film that had set up the male as the antagonist doesn’t go through with that premise, instead affirming that his arrogance was correct.
Okay, so perhaps that was the ‘point’: to shock us with confirmation of our perception of the director. But what does this achieve? The performances tease us with a depth that the script doesn’t deliver. It’s as though there were some great ideas building, but Von Trier was too scared to follow through. It seems it is better to be seen as a cinematic prankster than as an earnest artist. Even with the ridiculous nature of the final scenes, they might have worked in another film as one of the best expressions of uncontrollable grief ever put to celluloid, all shrieking insanity and explosive aggression. It doesn’t, however, and we’re left with a film that will be debated endlessly but, in the end, doesn’t mean much of anything. Von Trier wants a reaction, and mine was neither shock nor disgust, but frustration. There’s a talented man in their somewhere, and he teases us with half a good film, only to let us down in the end. The imagery on display is extreme enough that some people might believe it to be gutsy picture, but if you ask me, it’s the work of a coward and a very frustrating waste of time.