Ok. I finally saw this. Lars Von Trier is totally fucking with me. I can’t decide if this is my favorite movie of the year so far, or if I completely hated it. I should probably note that Von Trier is a filmmaker that I would probably list among my contemporary favorites, though I would have a hard time being able to articulate a decent reason why. I like that he is both revered and reviled in extreme fashions; that many think he is either a master filmmaker worthy of the greatest careers in his comparatively young one, or he is a completely disingenuous hack mocking cinema with his command of emotional fakery.
Von Trier always has an interesting way of telling his stories. And most of his stories, to the offense of many a critic, are borderline misogynistic or at least actress-bashing in the depths to which he “directs” his female protagonists into emotional turmoil (apparently both on and off-stage; re: Bjork, Nicole Kidman, etc.).
I normally try to write these little reponses before having had any kind of outside critical influence, but the piece in Film Comment by Larry Gross is just too ‘right-on’ in my opinion (like in his insistence that this film helps to illustrate that Von Trier is not ‘against-woman’ in his depictions of his female characters, but rather more in sympathy with them in his outside status as a man who cannot really ever understand what he’s trying to get at from an outside perspective); I would guess that the progression of audience identification for the two characters in this film specifically (“He” and “She”; Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) is interestingly genderized and crying out for some academic treatment involving the cinematic ‘gaze’.
Antichrist, as the critic says, is a transitional film for Von Trier, who is, objectively, one of the most well-known, obviously auteur-driven filmmakers in the world.
Here his obsession seems to be melding genre horror movie cliche into some sort of larger mythology of psychosis/man’s natural state of being. It’s a great idea that has been tried numerous times before (making the horror movie capital-s Serious), but perhaps not quite ever in the way Von Trier seems to have in mind.
Von Trier is, no doubt because of his self-confessed clinical depression while making this film, also having serious doubts about psychology as a science.
This was supposed to be a film made as a break before finishing his so-called “America” trilogy of Dogville, Manderlay, and the forthcoming Wasington. Though the Washington-state setting of this film (which is shared also with Dancer in the Dark) begs whether he intends to finish it.
This is a man, after all, who has said that he has no intention of ever setting foot in the United States. Ever.
To go too far into the “plot” of the film would only ruin the generic suspense and horror aspect of the film. I hesitate to sound pretentious when I state that the ‘horror’ in this film is much more grounded in realistic emotion than the usual cinematic exercise, because most people will see this film’s emotional core as both ridiculously artificial and extremely confusing.
While this is by no means a perfect film, it is, as a post-genre exercise (if I can coin an academic term that has surely been used elsewhere unbeknowst to me), more than satisfying on a interpretative level. Gainsbourg puts in a performance worthy of the accolades she received at Cannes (the same film festival that awarded Best Actress to Isabella Adjani for her work in Zulawski’s Possession, a slightly more crazed, but surely knowledgable antecedent to this film). Dafoe is similarly absorbing in his rather underlyingly cliched ‘male-in-denial of his lack of control’ in his attempts to control what happens around him (It also doesn’t hurt that his having played Jesus, like all other actors who have, defines him in that part for the rest of his roles afterwards). These are simply two actors who raise the film up beyond any intended over-artificiality (which can be seen elsewhere in the direction of actors in Von Trier’s work by comparing the difference in quality between, say, the ultimately exploitative Manderlay and the nearly trancedent Dogville; or the awkward darkness of Dancer in the Dark and the build-up to a truly transcendent ending, comprobale to the best of Dreyer, in Breaking the Waves).
This is the kind of film I would show to a group of people to gauge their individual threshold for cinematic innovation (and to test my own limits of comfort of viewing in a room of people that are not neccessarily complete strangers). Some people don’t like to be prodded into unexplored territory; some are perfectly happy with a steady diet of rom-coms, cartoons, or conventional post-Saw horror franchises. Even though this has a talking animal and a scene of what could literally be described as torture-porn, this is not one of those kinds of films. I look forward to watching it again, whenever I can work up to mood to do so. Maybe then I can delve into giving it a worthy interpretive spin.