Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Antichrist Will Definitely Stick With You

Only two actors, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Defoe, inhabit the space of this supernatural thriller directed by Lars Von Trier. The stars play a couple who attempt to grieve for their dead child by living in seclusion in the middle of a forest. But their story does not end there: in the forest, they encounter pure evil in Satan. With Von Trier at the helm, Antichrist promises to be a challenging, intelligent film that doesn’t adhere to the conventions of cinema or religion.

Lars Von Trier's Antichrist is a rarity: a great film that I will never, ever subject myself to again. The physical and emotional anguish on display here has not been exaggerated. Von Trier has used a story of grief — Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as parents devastated by the loss of their toddler son — as a jumping-off point for what I can only call gender horror. On a surface level, Antichrist is Don't Look Now for the torture-porn era. Many will be content to leave it at that, and I do not blame them, for to apply a close reading to such a painful and disagreeable work is to grant it longer passage in one's head than one really wants to allow. This movie hurts to watch and to think about. The film, has been theorized, unfolds in an alternate universe where Satan, not God, created the world. Therefore, the suffering the husband and wife (they are identified in the credits only as He and She) inflict on each other is par for the course in the movie's reality. There will doubtless be other readings. Anything can be made palatable if you abstract it enough. The wife is practically insane with grief and guilt — the couple, you see, had been making passionate love when their little son climbed up onto a window and fell to his death. The husband is a therapist, and at first, encouraged by Dafoe's soft-spoken and tender performance, we think that surely he will understand her; surely he will help her through her torment. But she accuses him of arrogance — he dismisses her psychiatrist as unseasoned and too quick to dump meds onto her pain. He may be right, or he may be jealous. She falls into anxious hysterics, and he deduces that her problem is fear. But fear of what? It would seem that the worst thing she could've imagined has already happened.Without getting into spoilers, Antichrist appears to be a dread-ridden meditation on misogyny and its deranging effects on male and female alike. The key here may be the subject of the wife's aborted thesis paper: "gynocide," or the systematic oppression, demonization and destruction of women over the centuries. The husband approaches the wife's pain with the poor hegemonic tools of "rationality," reducing her to a child by way of "games" and "role-playing" to break her out of her "fear." But what she fears can't be talked out in therapy. (Therapist = the rapist.)

Von Trier throws in many uncanny and bizarre touches, like "the three beggars" (pain, grief, despair) in the form of mutilated or self-mutilating forest animals. The husband takes the wife to "Eden," a cottage in the woods where she had gone the previous summer with their child, hoping to finish her paper. The cottage seems constantly attacked by nature: there's a steady hail of acorns thundering down onto the roof. The wind, in the wife's mind, becomes the breath of Satan. She is in hell, for reasons we will slowly gather. The rumbling, ominous soundtrack and occasional camera fixations (a slow zoom into a flower vase in a hospital room, for instance) recall Lynch, but elsewhere Von Trier uses his trademark handheld style and jump-cuts. The effect, as always with this provocateur, is to keep us unbalanced. What does Von Trier feel about women? I don't know. He probably doesn't either, which is why he keeps making films about them. By showing them in extremis, he may hope to get at some sort of female truth. His women are insane because they exist in an insane system, and by lashing out violently, like an R.D. Laing construct, they become purified in their madness. Von Trier makes deadly serious psychodramas with complex heroines who alienate us because we're part of the system they're rejecting. In Antichrist, the gender conflict reaches a particularly excruciating pitch. It is true philosophical horror, hard to shake off and harder, I suspect, for many to justify. But here we are retreating into interpretation. Is the film, past a certain point, meant to be taken literally? I doubt it. Are the things we're seeing actually happening? There comes a point in the narrative when we seem to be witnessing ancient hatreds and grievances acted out; the quotation marks around some of the events are almost visible. I've seen appalled lists of the various offenses to the flesh in Antichrist, but such a litany misses the point. It's a film of ideas, not shocks. It's also a nightmare movie, not subject to waking logic or the usual immediate, derisive response to challenging art. The film may have a maximalist meaning — He and She are all men, all women — or it may simply be a heightened emotional portrait of the aftermath of grief. Only Von Trier knows for sure, except I'm not sure he does. The movie is a workout, definitely. It will be condemned, praised, argued about. It feels like Von Trier getting down to the distilled basics of what he's always been driving at — it feels like a summing-up. It is also more frightening, of course, than most of the "horror movies" you snicker at in the multiplex. Those movies really just want to horse around, give you a good time, make you jump and laugh. Antichrist  is the real deal and will be one of those that will have everyone talking about it long after they leave the theatre. A Powerful 4 on my "Go See" scale. 

No comments: