Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Antichrist Movie Review: I Have Seen the Antichrist and It is Woman

First published at American Madness on 4 October 2009.
Reposted here with the addition of a single sentence.

Lars von Trier has been known since his breakthrough film Breaking the Waves for putting not only his protagonists, but also his audience, through a series of torturous steps until reaching a climax surpassing all the pain that had come before it. Thus we are treated to the hanging death of the blind Selma in Dancer in the Dark and the gang rape of Grace in Dogville.

As such we don’t enter a von Trier film with the same expectations of being entertained as we would from most other films. His films are not designed with entertainment in mind, but as studies in the human condition with a particular focus on grief and torment as the principle emotions. In a certain respect, his films are highbrow torture porn.

His newest film, Antichrist, is certainly no exception and may even take his art to new levels of emotional torment. It begins with an idyllic prologue, shot in a beautiful slow-motion black and white to the tune of the aria ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Händel’s “Rinaldo.” We see a couple passionately making love as their son of about two years old climbs down from his crib, wanders up onto an open window ledge to observe the falling snow and then falls to his death.

The emotional arc is spelled out on screen in those opening moments as the child wanders past a set of figurines labeled ‘pain’, ‘grief’ and ‘despair’. We know where this film is headed and sure enough the following three chapters are titled accordingly.

The grieving couple, never named, credited only as ‘He’ and ‘She’ and played by Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, are the film’s only on screen cast. After She collapses at the funeral the couple spend a short amount of time in a hospital room and then at home trying to work through the pain of loss. He is a therapist and decides to treat his own wife as she works through the tremendous fear she is experiencing. Tracing the possible source of her fear to Eden, their cabin deep in the woods, they make the journey there to be away from the world.

The cabin is where She had come with their son so she could work on her thesis, which dealt with historical misogynistic treatments of women and the belief that women are the root of evil in the world. The symbolism could not be less subtle unless von Trier named his couple Adam and Eve. But by not naming them, they are free to be universal and stand in for all humanity (or at least all Christian humanity).

Von Trier’s films have always borne a strong misogynistic streak, but this one soars into the stratosphere. There may be a tendency among many viewers to view Defoe’s character as far from innocent. After all, his therapeutic treatment of her comes across immediately as patronizing. My first instinct was that I would smack him if I were her. Then I realized that his therapy seemed genuinely objective with an honest attempt to help. This is perhaps the reason why therapists are ethically barred from treating their own family members. How can He possibly have an objective perspective on his wife’s problems if they are related to the death of their son and if He is perhaps one root cause of them?

There is a final suggestion toward the end of the film that it was a woman’s passion that caused the fall and, by implication, The Fall. Obviously, common interpretations of The Creation story are that it was woman who got them expelled from paradise. Von Trier seems to take that interpretation and run with it.

I will not divulge any more of the revelations and events that occur in the final two thirds of the film. Suffice it to say there will be no easy moments and certainly no fill-in-the-blanks answers. It should be noted that Charlotte Gainsbourg, who won the Best Actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, gives what may be the boldest and most shattering performance I’ve seen in a long time. She had to mine the depths of the three emotions on which this film precariously sits. In a way, the film depends on that performance. One misstep and it could have all come crashing down. But she maintains an honest portrayal of a grief-stricken mother and wife, even while the material ventures into some very questionable and dark territory.

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