Perspectives on Pop Culture and the Arts

Saturday, December 19, 2009

TIFF: Antichrist

PREFACE: I had the weighty responsibility to represent Boast at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. I like to think it’s because I’m the only Boast writer whose opinion actually matters, but the reality is: I'm the only one frivolous enough and void of real responsibility to throw down the money to attend. As a disclaimer, spoilers are likely to happen, which isn’t really a big deal since it’s film studies’ duty to rid film-watching of any surprises or entertainment. (Watching movies should never be just for fun, right?) I'm also aware that the festival is now some months in the past and these films may not exactly be breaking news, but sometimes it's good to wait a while, let things process, read some other people's thoughts, and then write about the film.
In the case of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, watching this film is not fun. If fun ever crossed your mind while watching this film I'd recommend you order yourself a personal exorcism. Von Trier is no stranger to painful stories, putting his characters (and actors) through the most horrible experiences, and/or pushing you far outside your comfort zone. But Antichrist goes beyond anything I’ve seen von Trier do before, and honestly beyond anything I’ve ever seen in a film, which I guess says something about my viewing habits. So this was new territory for me and I tend to think I, or anyone, shouldn't be there, at least not for very long and not very often.

In the post-screening Q&A, lead actor Willem Dafoe
explained that von Trier wrote the screenplay while in a severe depression. It became quite a personal film for von Trier, who was – according to Dafoe – in a delicate state during the whole filmmaking process, his core crew members there to help keep him stabilized. I’m not sure how good a job they did since the personal fracture and depressive anxiety assaulting von Trier’s psyche seems to have spawned a brutally violent, perverse, and justifiably objectionable finished film. Then again, Lars von Trier enjoys making offensive films; he means to provoke, upset and unsettle the viewer. He succeeds here better than he ever has before.

So what is Antichrist doing? Aside from being ridiculously graphic and explicit, and rather misogynistic? Hopefully a lot of things, otherwise I really wasted my time and the well-being of my everlasting soul. I’ll try expressing what I took away from Antichrist while saying I don’t claim to have ‘gotten’ all aspects of the film, nor do I agree with a lot of the message. Antichrist contains many standard von Trier subjects and themes: A central female character, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and only named She in the credits; children also still interest him, like in his adaptation of Medea, though to different effect this time; nature, both human and environmental, is investigated; issues of control and domination, which von Trier has always struggled with and you see quite nicely studied in The Five Obstructions; then there’s psychology and religion, with primary attention on the female sex and the story of Adam & Eve. All this (and more) comprises a film less interested in telling a story, preferring to wax hyper-metaphorical/symbolic/philosophical/existential/psychological; all while slowly destroying both his characters and his audience.

It's rather obvious after the first
minute of the film that sex is a central issue. More specifically, this is about carnal, aggressive, violent sex. In the story of Adam & Eve, the partaking of the fruit has often been interpreted as symbolic of the first sexual act; Eve tempts Adam into having sex, which brings about their fall from innocence and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Mankind's nature is then corrupt, since, after being tempted by the Devil masquerading as a serpent, Eve tempted Adam, and Adam gave in to temptation. He and She - besides the child, the film's only characters - represent Adam and Eve, and the bulk of the film unfolds after they return to their cabin in the woods they call Eden. That they return to Eden to try dealing with their grief bears its own significance: are we sometimes trying to get back to the Garden? What do we think that will accomplish? For Lars von Trier, it accomplishes nothing good.

The opening scene shows He and She in severe carnal embrace, to such intensity that they fail to notice their kid has woken up and climbed out of his crib. The child then comes to their bedroom door and sees his parents having sex. He then climbs onto the table, opens the window and falls out to his death. All this makes me wonder if this is how von Trier sees sex and the Fall: simply a cruel, carnal and corrupting act that destroys as much as it creates. If mankind began with such a violent act, what does that say of our nature? Are we indeed evil, controlled by the Devil? And what does that say about Eve who was the first tempted and, unfortunately, has taken a severe beating throughout history, labeled at the primary cause of the fall of man. We seem to forget Adam's own roll in the whole thing. But von Trier hasn't. The husband's cold, sterile psychological approach to the death of their child is troubling and keeps us distanced from and annoyed at him. That He then succumbs to the violent sexual tendencies his wife is exhibiting shows his own capacity for cruel, vile behavior. And He is ultimately the one committing murder (considered by most to be the greater, if not greatest sin), not She. In the end I think Antichrist finds mankind rather evil, and that the sexes will eventually destroy each other.

I saw the movie and am thinking it might have been better if I hadn't. It's not worst film ever made, as some will annoyingly cry, but it certainly isn't the best film, as some will also annoyingly proclaim. The visuals are captivating. It looks gorgeous and sometimes crosses into some great surreal, symbolic territory. The pacing is good as things spiral down further and further. Dafoe and Gainsbourg are good, not brilliant, but good for what they're working with. The explicit content is rather terrible. An argument can be made that the content fits the story and is therefore necessary. Maybe. But was the film necessary to make in the first place? Von Trier might have needed it to cope with his own demons, but did he have to put it out there for us to see? A viewer has to take responsibility for their viewing practices and not condemn a filmmaker for having made an offensive film - the director didn't force anyone to watch it. But von Trier is a popular name and how many people are going to stumble into this thing who really shouldn't? Von Trier pushed too far here, and even people who have stomached and/or liked his other films have been really bothered by this one. Cannes was all upset at him for the film, but they put the film on the festival program, not von Trier.

A controversial film like Antichrist raises accountability questions for both the viewer and creator that are good to think about. Maybe thinking about those questions is where Antichrist succeeds best with me, which is outside the film itself perhaps (I doubt von Trier was thinking about such things as he made the film), but I do think that films should have some impact on our lives, how we see the world and are involved in it. If Antichrist thinks that the world and mankind are rotten, with the film itself as an example of that corruption, fine. But please excuse me if I disagree with that opinion and want to devote my time to other films.

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