Archive for December 9th, 2009

Antichrist is a film which surrounds itself with an intangible, yet undeniable, aura of Olympian, or perhaps Styxian, grandeur. First there is the title with its connotations of the apocalyptic and the blasphemous. Then there’s the reputation of the director himself – though already an accomplished filmmaker in the 1990s, Lars von Trier has made himself the cinematic bete noir of this young century, a veritable lightning rod for controversy. His psychologically brutal methods with actors have earned criticism (it’s said that Bjork vowed never to appear in a film again after enduring Dancer in the Dark), while his storylines garner accusations of misogyny and anti-Americanism. With his devilishly grinning visage and intellectually refined sadism, he himself strikes a cutting figure in public appearances and even in his own movies: the 2003 documentary The Five Obstructions saw him torture one of his idols, the older director Jorgen Leth. Von Trier forced Lethe to remake a classic short film over and over under various conditions, all of them set, with perverse pleasure, by von Trier himself (on one occasion, he rather obscenely forced Lethe to hold a banquet in front of starving Calcuttans; on another, von Trier himself takes over directorial duties, violating his own rules and holding Lethe responsible for the violation).

Yet undergirding – perhaps even motivating – all this diabolical cruelty, nastiness, and alienating misanthropy is the suggestion of a moral vision. Is this morality merely a front, a charade, as von Trier’s most vociferous critics seem to suggest? Or does von Trier, engaging in the very evil he claims to condemn, only strengthen his moral outrage by including himself in its aim? All these questions are liable to spin around in a viewer’s head while watching one of the Dane’s films, but to be fair, such questions are usually overtly suggested onscreen as well. Not so much this time. While Dogville, The Five Obstructions, and Dancer in the Dark (I’ve seen neither Manderlay nor The Boss of It All) are all evasive and tricky, their purposes are not as obscure as that of Antichrist. This new film, starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, is narratively straightforward and stylistically far more conventional than much of von Trier’s recent work. By the ending its themes are clear enough: violence towards women, masochism masked as sadism, the collapse of smug rationalism. The story is always rather easy to follow, with some scenes consisting of nearly undisguised exposition, and the remarkably uncluttered cast certainly make the characters easy to keep track of (there are no speaking parts except for Dafoe’s and Gainsbourg’s; and all the extras have their faces blurred out). Even much of the initially obscure symbolism – the deformed animals who haunt the film, the wife’s obsessive thesis paper, the strange chapter headings (“Grief,” “Despair,” “Pain”) – is clarified by the climax. Yes, the “what” is not so hard to ascertain. What’s more elusive is the “why.” (more…)

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