Monday, September 14, 2009

Lars von Trier, Extremism, and "Antichrist"

Lars von Trier is an interesting case. If I wanted, I could probably make the argument that he's one of the ten most important directors working in the world right now. Not necessarily due to the quality of his films, but his entire attitude towards cinema, the rare moments of raw intensity he HAS created, and his anti-Hollywood, anti-narrative, anti-aesthetic strategies that usually get thrown aside because of his bizarre and controversial world views.

I've seen two of his movies: Dancer in the Dark, which I more or less hated (great ideas, TERRIBLY contrived and manipulative execution), and Dogville, which I loved (even at three hours, its life-as-film-as-play-as-nothing strategy was rewarding). So when I heard about "Antichrist" at Cannes Film Festival - about people booing, walking out, screaming at von Trier, vomiting outside the theater (and recent reports of a guy possibly going into hysterics at the Toronto premiere) - I knew I had to see it. And with an ad campaign that stresses the "extreme content," I was already there.

I saw Antichrist last night. I loved it. It takes you to a place so dark, so violent, so disturbing you can barely believe someone would ENVISION it, let alone FILM it. It's about a couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose son falls from their apartment's window while they make love in the shower. She harbors immense repressive guilt about this, and he's a therapist, so he naturally decides to cure her. She says the woods scare her, so they head to their cabin, named Eden, to work out the psychological trauma. Chaos ensues.
Von Trier has called this film "therapy" for him, an intense working out of the problems in his head. I dare to compare it to Vertigo (not in quality, but in thematics), because it represents a very distinctive auteurist voice working out his object issues with women. Hitchcock was sorting through his own obsessions with a certain "type" of woman, much as von Trier is doing his best to figure out the misogyny he's always been accused of. Antichrist is essentially a retelling of the Garden of Eden, sprinkled with lots of biblical and mythological references that's also heavily based in 13th century texts about mass torturings of women for being "pure evil."

Are women evil? Are they witches? What are they in relation to men? These are age-old topics, and some would say they're outdated, archaic in an age of "equality." In many ways, I was reminded of Bergman while I watched this film - it's claustrophobic and almost experimentally psychological, while it retains von Trier's dogmatic style - handheld camera, natural lighting, natural acting. The "Dogma 95" contract is met with amazing conceptual shots, mostly in extreme slow motion, that signify dreams, alternative presences, etc.

It's a nightmarish film, and deeply disturbing. The last half hour is breathless. There's been a lot of talk about sexual mutilation in this film. Yes, it exists. Yes, they show it. Yes, it's in detail. It's terrifying. It will make you want to vomit. BUT it exists for a higher dramatic purpose, at least I feel. This isn't just throwing things at the audience for shock value; there are things going on beneath the surface. This is about the nature of man, of woman of NATURE even! It's a nightmare therapy.

If this is soulless extremism, if it is debased pornography, if it tears at the cloud of decency: SO BE IT! Von Trier is pushing our buttons, and we push back. He has made a film that gives us the space to debate with him about his most serious issues, a film that feels like a major event and will be decried by critics internationally as an ugly and perverse film. That would be true if we were meant to take an iota of pleasure from it. Its perversions are viewed as perversions. Its horror is viewed as horror, as abomination.

In the end, I think it decries misogyny. Everyone's free to disagree, but the blame the Gainsbourg character harvests seems to come from her inability to deal with her reality as a result of a pre-existing condition. If that's contrived, so be it. But maybe the lesson is that men and women are of opposing and equally irrational nature. Maybe they are driven by the greater evil of nature to perform in this way. And if it's impossible to overcome, isn't that a greater horror?

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