Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 23, 2009 2:16 pm 
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Authentic horror? Stunner from Lars

It's been said (and he confirms) that the Danish cinematic provocateur and master always makes essentially the same film, but Von Trier's Antichrist differs from the others in various ways. It has only two characters, a husband (Willem Dafoe) and wife (Carlotte Gainsbourg). As he tells it, Antichrist was his way of finding out, in the wake of the first severe depression of his life, whether he even had the strength to make another film. If he had less control than usual, he counted himself lucky to be able to work. And he was pleased with the result, which he declares to be more instinctive and less calculated than previous efforts. Another new thing is that the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle has a glossy, non-Dogme look. And the whole film reads, partly anyway, as coming from a new genre he hasn't played with before: it's a very arty -- psychological and philosophical -- horror movie.

The title "came early," but what it means other than to allude to the fact that von Trier does not believe in God, is uncertain; he insists that Nietzsche's Antichrist has been on his bedside table for 40 years but he has never read it. He points rather to his debt to Strindberg, whose combative couples fascinated him early on. And this is a combative couple, that's for sure.

Also unusual is a Prologue in black and white and slow motion accompanied by a baroque aria, Handel's "Lascio ch'io pianga" ("Let me weep"), during which the couple has sex. Their little boy, Nic, escapes from his crib, opens the door and sees them making love, then walks over to a window and falls out and is killed. Four chapters follow, Grief, Pain (Chaos Reigns), Despair (Gynocide), and The Three Beggars; then an Epilogue. The action takes place in the Pacific Northwest (though it was shot in Europe).

Much of the story is about dominance and submission. The man is a psychotherapist. His wife collapses at the funeral and is hospitalized and sleeps for a long time. The man can't accept the doctor's methods, his use of medications, and insists, against professional principles, on treating his own wife. He takes her through a series of "treatments" that von Trier may think of as forms of "cognitive therapy," but the methodology is fanciful and erratic. At her urging they resort to sex to ease her suffering, which he thinks a bad idea.

Her grief continues, but turns to fear. He persuades her to pinpoint her fear, and its locus seems to be the outdoor, grassy part of a summer cottage in the woods that they call "Eden" where in the year before she was with Nic working alone on a thesis about gynocide, a history of the oppression and killing of women.

In a discussion of this, she tells him she had started to see that women, while wronged by men, contain evil themselves, because they contain nature, and nature embodies evil. The Pain, Despair, and Three Beggars chapters take place out in the woods, where the husband takes his wife, ostensibly to work out her fear and overcome it, in a highly symbolic, beautiful, and terrifying nature in which birthing deer, ravens, a fox, hail, and falling acorns menace and signify. "Nature is Satan's church" is a line the wife speaks, and in some sense the Pacific woods become von Triers' sexual Purgatory and Inferno. Early in the approach to the woods there is a particularly haunting and scary distant shot in extreme slow motion in which the woman is seen crossing a little bridge onto the property where the cabin is, a place that terrifies her.

Despite his persistent voice of reason, it's clear that the husband is something of a sadist and a fool; she says at one point that he was never really interested in her till now, as a patient, an object to toy with. Again they resort to sex as a grim palliative. Eventually she rebels, and takes extreme measures against both her husband and herself. This is where the film swerves toward horror and gore and the masturbation and mutilation that led to boos and walkouts at Cannes. But there were no boos at all and scant walkouts at the Lincoln Center NYFF press and industry screening I watched.

This isn't a film I'm eager to watch again right now but it is perhaps his most beautiful, and one of his strongest, provocations. Obviously there are themes of sexuality, gender roles, dominance and submission, and nature. The apparent (and largely convincing) narrative sequence is partly a ruse. The slo-mo prologue introduces the Primal Scene, but the guilt is the couple's. And the guilt extends to unease about sex itself. The wife assumes it as hers, but may eventually shift the blame to her husband. The child's death may be a pretext for introducing the theme of melancholy, the emotion the director himself was working out of. The action in the woods may seem to result from the husband-therapist's efforts to "cure" his wife of her grief and fear, but turns into an enactment of more primal and inexplicable fears and horrors. In a Q&A conducted long distance via Skype (Lars hates flying; anyway avoids coming to the US) the director seemed extremely candid; but can one really believe him? and also sometimes wicked and playful. He is justifiably grateful to Gainsbourg and Dafoe, who do excellent work. Interestingly, he said the slickness of the images wasn't quite what he had wanted -- the dialogue scenes in particular he'd wanted to have more a "documentary" look to distinguish them from the more symbolic animal and nature scenes -- and he's somewhat apologetic about taking the old device of slow motion photography from the "toy box," but he typically pretested that he was just glad he'd been able to make a film. And so should we be.

Typically, a viewing of a Trier film immediately leads one into lively speculations about what he's up to and how the themes dovetail or conflict. But this time they're particularly well embodied in a host of lush visuals and intense scenes with the actors that are as aesthetically satisfying as they are disturbing, like a panorama by Hieronymus Bosch. Von Trier's problem is that he's so manipulative and intellectual that even his most emotional moments feel too detached and premeditated to be convincing, but to some extent the look and feel of Antichrist allow it to escape that pitfall. In any case according to his own account his mental state made this film less calculating than previous ones and more instinctive and drawn from dreams.

Shown at Cannes, Toronto, and other festivals, seen as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center 2009. IFC will distribute it. Gainsbourg got the Best Actress prize at Cannes, and von Trier was nominated for Best Director there.

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